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Lifeform
(1996)
 

Director: Mark H. Baker              
Cast:
Cotter Smith, Deidre O'Connell, Robert Wisdom


Every so often, I see a movie that gets unbelievably close to making it, to becoming a great movie, but blows it by making one or a few more crucial mistakes, turning the movie into a "could have been". I actually call these movies "interesting failures". These movies aren't really bad - some are still quite watchable - but it can be a frustrating experience watching them. We see so much good stuff in the movie, but we also see that with just a little more effort, the movie would have been so much better. One such movie is the 1987 Eric Stoltz movie Lionheart (not to be confused with the lame 1990 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of the same name) - the movie has great locations, good actors, action, romance, and an intriguing story. But all of these elements are put together into a movie that moves at a snail's pace, and viewers will become quickly frustrated with it. Another such movie is Lifeform, a low budget sci-fier blessed with intelligent writing, good acting, and likable characters - but ultimately shot down, not really by its sometimes glaring and annoying mistakes, but by its ending.

The movie starts off well, bringing in intrigue from the beginning: The American military tracks the landing of an object that seems to have come from space, and has landed in a remote area of a desert military reservation. Scouts locate the object, which turns out to be a Viking 2 lander - which is supposed to be still on Mars. But...it couldn't have come from space...right? After all, a check of NASA reveals that one of several landers built is unaccounted for. Anyway, the military takes no chances, and takes the lander to a nearby abandoned underground military compound (which somehow is still equipped with computers and other complex equipment), where several military scientists rush to examine the lander before the arriving team of military higher-ups and a military platoon take it away elsewhere.

I'm sure no reader will be surprised to hear that the movie takes a turn into Alien territory , not just because of all those ingredients, but because of that title. An egg attached to the lander hatches, and then just like in Alien, the newborn escapes into the ducts. Though the movie wouldn't have existed without Alien being made, it does make some effort to differentiate itself, and not become a clone. Instead of having one specific group fighting an alien, we have two groups - the military and the scientists - battling not just an alien, but fighting over how to deal with this situation. Though the military, naturally, wants to destroy the alien, they actually come off pretty well in this movie. For example, when the scientists early in the movie argue with the military about the lander, the military tells them that no one knows who sent it, why, and if it's a risk - all true facts. And when they attempt to battle the alien later, much to the scientists' grief, their actions still seem very reasonable under the circumstances they find themselves in. We also see the soldiers, even their commander, are at times scared, which makes them more sympathetic. The scientists are also pretty likable, because not only are their actions also reasonable under the circumstances, they are smart. Before downloading the data on the lander's computer, they make sure that the computer in the lab is not connected to any outside computer. They discuss why an intelligent alien race would send one of our probes, instead of one of their own (the eventual reasoning behind this actually makes sense.) One scientist deduces that since a baby alien is about the size of a human baby, a full grown alien should be human sized. But, reasons another scientist, what about the dinosaurs? Hmmm.... These and other discussions in the movie are intelligently written, and are fun to listen to, because they make us wonder what the answers to these mysteries are.

The alien in this movie is pretty interesting, and not just in its design by the F/X crew. To be sure, the alien, once it's seen, is pretty impressive for a low budget movie. It puts the usual rubber suit method to shame, and it sure looks menacing. But what's really interesting are the actions the alien takes. Yes, it does get into fights with the people in the complex during the course of the movie, but a lot of the movie has it traveling all around the complex doing unexplained activities. Why did it take the gunpowder from one dead soldier's bullets? Why is it taking pieces of electronic equipment? How does this newborn (yet growing) alien know how to do all of this? I'm not telling the answer to these, and other questions concerning the alien. You might have some ideas, as I thought I had when watching this movie. But the script's intelligence also shines here, because when we get the unexpected answers to each question, in our heads we have to start our deductions about the alien all over again. I must admit I was hooked on the questions of the alien's activities, and I was really interested in finding out the explanations to them.

I mentioned earlier that this was a low budget production, but I should have made that ultra low budget program. Though the alien is pretty impressive, it seems that most of the production design budget went there. The movie then has to resort to filming in either generic desert locations, or in what seems to be shabby office rooms with sparse furnishings, and a garage. These indoor locations are darkened and shot in a fashion that do somewhat mask these bland interiors, but the movie is still clearly shot in a place that's nowhere like an underground military base. Technical goofs, like an obvious reflection of the boom on a jeep's windshield, are not that unusual to see throughout. And though the script is generally intelligent, there are also a number of times when the characters act really dumb. For instance, early in the movie there's an obvious clue discovered that, if examined, would provide more information to the characters. Yet the characters somehow forget about this glaring clue until about the last third of the movie.

But up to about near the end of the movie, I was still prepared to forgive the movie and write up a mildly positive review about it. Then, all of a sudden, in about two minutes of screen time, the movie is concluded first with one of the worst special effects sequences of all time, some stock footage, a minor character from elsewhere mumbling some explanation to the few remaining questions at hand (which doesn't really answer the questions at all), plus a few additional frames that suggest a potential sequel. And fade out. My jaw dropped at seeing this rushed and utterly lame ending. It's like the filmmakers suddenly ran out of money, and had to construct something with the little money and time they had. This ending is so bad, it completely deflates every positive thing generated in the 88 previous minutes, so I can't recommend the movie, no matter how good and interesting the movie had become before the rug was pulled from under me. Lifeform is yet another interesting failure to scratch up on my list. Yes, just a few minutes in a movie can make a complete difference.


UPDATE: Joshua Lou Friedman wrote in with this information:

"I was Production Coordinator for the film reviewed in your Sci-Fi section entitled: Lifeform.

"Two questions were posed in your review... one you answered correctly, one incorrectly.

"The incorrect statement you made was that for a movie taking place within an abandon military base, that it looked nothing like one...

"Sorry, we shot the film at an abandon military base (Morton AFB to be exact in San Bernadino, now an airport I believe).

"The correct observation you made was that the ending was way to abrupt and that it seemed like we ran out of money.

"YOU ARE CORRECT... we didn't even have the cash to bring the cast back to shoot the original ending. We therefore decided to NUKE EVERYTHING via stock footage. A regrettable ending to all involved, yet, the only way we could get it finished for distribution.

"What I'm surprised that your review did not point out was the presence of (then budding actor) Ryan Phillipe of Cruel Intentions/ Way of the Gun fame. He was third billed in the film and was seen throughout. Perhaps an addendum to your review would be necessary.

"Anyway, thank you for allowing me to shed light on these facts and please check out another "unknown movie" I worked on called Safe House starring Patrick Stewart and Hector Elizondo (you can rent it at any Blockbuster). I like the way you critique rare films and would be curious to see how you would react to Safe House.

"Anyway, thanks for hearing me out... and thank you for keeping the faith alive because without bad, unseen films... the good ones wouldn't be good now would they?"

I guess I just imagined military bases to have wide and long corridors, and other similar attributes. It didn't occur to me that maybe in certain environments and operations, there would be more practical methods. Thanks for pointing this out, and for filling me in on the explanation for the ending.

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See also: Invader, The Silencers, Solar Force

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