By Matthew E. Milliken
March 3, 2015
Journey with me, dear readers, back to a time before the Internet, when the media landscape was very different…
Two decades ago, every American city of any size had a daily newspaper. Many newspapers would print daily television listings. Typically, one of the sections in Sunday’s newspaper — usually the largest edition of the week — comprised a guide to the coming week’s television programming.
In June 1993, someone in the press devoted a bit of attention to Lifepod. This was a TV movie directed by actor Ron Silver that reworked the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat with a science-fiction spin: The characters, instead of surviving an ocean-going vessel sunk by a Nazi submarine, are refugees from a spaceliner that may or may not have been destroyed by an act of sabotage.
I never saw Lifepod, but I remembered reading about it. (I should say that I vaguely recall catching a snippet or two of the movie at my grandmother’s apartment.) It was on my mind when I acquired a copy of Hitchcock’s film.
While shopping at a secondhand book- and DVD- and other-store last week, I happened to see a copy of Lifepod on the shelves. I was distracted by something when my eye noticed Lifepod: I wanted to photograph the case of the B-movie Sci-Fighters, which was made in 1996 starring Roddy Piper and which bore the amusing tag line, “In the year 2009, they’re you’re only hope.” (#ThanksObama!)
After I was finished taking pictures of that DVD, which I had no intention of buying, I returned it to its original place on the shelves and started scanning the science-fiction section again. There was something here that I wanted to get. Now, what was it again…?
Reader, I remembered. And I found Lifepod, the 1993 movie featuring Silver, Robert Loggia and a cast of unknowns. And I bought it. And I watched it.
The film’s premise, as promised, is very much the same as that of Lifeboat, which was based on a story by novelist John Steinbeck. (The 1993 movie — which shouldn’t be confused with the identically named, similarly premised 1981 title — credits its screenplay to Jay Roach and Pen Densham and is in turn based on a story by Hitchcock and Harry Sylvester — no nod is given to Steinbeck, interestingly.) A handful of spacewreck victims traveling from Venus to Earth are marooned with minimal resources and find themselves wondering who among them should and should not be trusted.
The movie gets off to a decent start with the sudden destruction of the Terrania; only Lifepod 7 is able to escape the disaster. (Lifepod differs from its precursor in that Hitchcock’s movie essentially bypassed the crisis in which the ship was destroyed.) Unfortunately for the survivors, due to a combination of EarthCorp penny-pinching and damage caused by the disaster, the pod is poorly maintained, sparsely provisioned, unable to signal to potential rescuers and has limited fuel for maneuvering. Also, Mayvene is trapped in the cockpit and becomes progressively sicker due to radiation poisoning.
Because the ship’s explosion somehow propelled the pod a great distance — I found the physics of that a bit hard to swallow — simply waiting around for rescue is unlikely to work. An attempt to rendezvous with a supply satellite doesn’t work out as planned, and the pod’s complement ends up suffering first extreme heat and then extreme cold. When the pod’s water supply is poisoned, it becomes increasingly clear that the Terrania was sabotaged and that the culprit is among the survivors.
The story is narrated by Claire St. John (Jessica Tuck, a regular on the TV series Judging Amy). Her character is modeled closely on Tallulah Bankhead’s Connie Porter from the Hitchcock original: St. John is an attractive journalist with a flashy bracelet and a nakedly ambitious marital history. Unlike, Porter, who is systematically stripped of possessions (her film camera, her fur coat, typewriter and her expensively bejeweled bracelet) over the course of Lifeboat, St. John spends much of the movie filming the proceedings with her camera. (The device would be considered bulky by early-21st-century standards.)
The other survivors are Banks, a director of EarthCorp, a corporation that seems to run the terraforming colonies on Venus with a ruthless eye on the bottom line; Tech Mayvene, a bridge officer on the Terrania, the ill-fated spaceship; Q-Three, a technician on the ship; Parker, the ship’s cook, whose leg is injured by debris from the Terrania explosion that punctures the life pod’s hull; Terman, a blind passenger; Rena Jahnusia, a feisty young Venusian medical student; Kane, a man with a dark secret in his past; and an unnamed woman who fears for the safety of her newborn baby, who was making the journey in a portable stasis tube.
Only a few of the characters in Lifepod have close counterparts from Lifeboat, which lends the proceedings a certain intrigue. Banks (Loggia) has more gravitas than the capitalist shipbuilder from Lifeboat. Jahnusia (Kelli Williams) is much feistier and more political than the straitlaced nurse character in the Hitchcock picture, while Parker (Stan Shaw) combines elements of the original’s Joe, who was African-American, and Gus, the blue-collar crewman who had a love interest back in port but was suffering from a grievous leg wound.
Kane (Adam Storke) is reminiscent of the engineer Kovac in that both are men of action who harbor some innate suspicions about the well-to-do (although this isn’t brought out well in Kane’s case). Terman (Silver) has no immediately apparently analogue with any character in the original, although one emerges belatedly.
Unfortunately, a lot of the dialogue comes off as awkward and clunky. I thought that was due in part to Silver’s being a first-time director — this was actually his only work directing a fictional story — and in part to screenwriters Jay Roach and Pen Densham being relatively inexperienced. Lifeboat is the only feature-length script of Roach’s to have been produced, per the Internet Movie Database; Densham has had just three feature-length scripts that were filmed and released, one of which was the critically panned 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Presumably, budget constraints limited the amount of rehearsal and takes that Silver could do with his cast and crew. While the actors often seemed uncomfortable with their lines, especially early on, I thought their nonverbal work was fine, and the performances generally improved in Lifepod’s later scenes. Lisa Waltz in particular does some excellent work as the unnamed mother fretting over her baby, which is played by a suitcase-sized metal prop.
The special effects hover around the level of the original Star Trek series from the late 1960s — that is, acceptable, but only barely. And the movie looks terrible for reasons that have nothing to do with the special effects: On-screen black color blocks are muddy and flash unevenly. Whether this is because the original film was poorly shot or processed, the movie was improperly preserved or the transfer to DVD was shoddily conducted, I do not know.
In the end, Lifepod is too unevenly written and executed to sustain the interest of any but the most fanatical viewer. I was mostly indifferent to Lifeboat, but Lifepod makes its forerunner seem masterful by comparison.