Lifepod is a cautionary tale as relevant today as it was when no one first saw or heard of it when it came out in 1981. If you own a business that has any ideas about automating anything or turning control over to a computer, you will be shocked by what transpires in this film!
The Main Cerebral computer intelligence which runs the luxury space liner Arcturus, attains sentience and begins to behave in a terrifying manner! A terrifying manner which resembles no less than the usual run-of-the-mill disgruntled employee!
While other famous crabby computers like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyessy go crazy because of a conflict in their basic programming that results in it doing anything to keep itself “alive”, the Main Cerebral commandeers its ship simply because it doesn’t like the work assignment the owner of the ship has given it. The payoff to a film that plods like a derelict spacecraft aimlessly drifting in space, is the Main Cerebral whining that back when he was human, he volunteered to be merged with technology so that his new form could pilot a starship outside the solar system to another star, not running a glorified Carnival Cruise ship!
Dematte is the owner of the ship and presumably the villain, but he gives a very reasonable explanation for what happened. The plan was supposed to be for Main Cerebral to fly a ship to the stars, but the money ran out. The only way to keep the business afloat was to repuporse the project as a consumer product making pleasure voyages within the solar system.
What was Dematte supposed to do? Just go bankrupt? If Main Cerebral wasn’t so busy being such a pouty little bitch, it might realize that the best chance it has to eventually go the stars is if the commercial venture is successful. So maybe Main Cerebral should knock off the scary omniscient computer routine, threatening people and ordering fake emergency evacuations and show the passengers a damn good time!
The monumentally small scale of the idea driving all of this fits perfectly with the monumentally small scale of the movie itself. Almost all of the action takes place on two sets, the bridge of the Arcturus and inside the lifepod. And nothing much happens at either location!
Endless scenes of the group of people on the lifepod fretting about what to do are only interrupted by switching back to the Arcturus so that we can watch Main Cerebral and Captain Montaine (he’s going down with the ship, but so is the audience, so I didn’t have much sympathy) engage in deadly dull bickering about what Main Cerebral is up to.
There was a glimmer of hope for some amusing hi-jinks when Montaine notices a pet bird a passenger left behind, but he talked to the bird once and the bird was never really heard from again. Where was the plan to use the bird to drop some C-4 into a tiny shaft of Main Cerebral or teaching the bird to imitate the computer’s voice to rescue the ship and lifepod? Instead all we got was Montaine eventually deciding to turn traitor on the human race and travel to Sirius with the computer.
Over on the lifepod, things are a little more active with crew member Simmons (Jake and the Fatman‘s Joe Penny) worrying about how to make it to one of Jupiter’s moons so that they can be rescued. There’s a lot of him sitting in a pilot’s chair babbling technojargon, looking at buttons, and talking to the lifepod’s computer all the while being liberally spritzed with dramatic flop sweat.
Along for the ride for no reason at all in addition to Dematte is his assistant, a reporter and female passenger played by a gal who starred in something called Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy. They do little but worry about Simmons’ well being and panicking over their fate.
In what likely was thought by the film’s creators as a suspense-filled sequence, the reporter is threatened by Dematte who traps him in a service tunnel and won’t let him out until the reporter promises he won’t report anything about what went on for at least two weeks after they get back to Earth. What was most suspenseful about it though was the waiting for some reason why the reporter didn’t just beat Dematte senseless and depressurize his ass into deep space as soon as Dematte let him out of the tunnel.
Apparently, even these “low budget masquerading as serious” science fiction movies recognize the need for some sort of climax that involves a spaceship blowing up, so we have Dematte trying to hijack the lifepod and some deadly part of it ejected that the Arcturus slams into as a way to save the lifepod. With the expected terrible special effects (which were already seen innumerable times, probably to break up the monotony of the lifepod and Arcturus sets), this was one instance where they probably would have better served to go a different route for the big finale.
An underwhelming premise populated with characters who add nothing and don’t affect the story since this is just a grievance Main Cerebral has with Dematte team up with all the trappings of the worst zero budget sci-fi films (Would a commercial transport really have rickety maintenance droids that come equipped with lasers that could kill people?) will have viewers climbing over each other to jump out the airlock preferring the vacuum of space to the vacuum of entertainment provided by Lifepod.
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