As a genre borrower and reworker, Ron Silver's sci-fi telemovie Lifepod activates a particular modern mini-tradition. A group of people, of diverse ideologies and stations, trapped together in an enclosed space, playing out a drama of shifting allegiances, suspicion and betrayal ... How could a modern filmmaker not take stock of Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), Carpenter's The Thing (1982) or indeed Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) in any attempt to remake Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944)?
Remakes always put into startling relief not only changes in film style and narrative mode, but also broad political, historical and cultural changes. Lifeboat is a World War II story from the American side, virtually a propaganda film; it is at the very least a highly didactic one, whose final question, as another pitiful German soldier washes up into the boat, is "what are you gonna do with people like that?"
Lifepod belongs to another era, or perhaps two, postdating Lifeboat. Firstly, it has the mechanics not of a World War, but a Cold War intrigue: there is a saboteur in the midst, and (as the dialogue makes relentlessly clear) every single character has a reason to be this saboteur – a reason to either blow up the State, or to surreptitiously reinforce it by attacking it.
Secondly, it is (like so many action films these days) vaguely an allegory of the Vietnam war, or perhaps of any big bad national power brutishly intervening in the affairs of smaller territories – like a typical Star Trek episode or movie, its backstory pits the struggling colonists of Venus against the fascist imperialists of EarthCorp.
Many of Lifepod's transformations of Lifeboat's original elements are ingenious as well as telling. In Hitchcock's film the character-type of the oppressed – slightly ennobled but mainly patronised and marginalised – is a black man. This won't do in 1993; today's black actor takes roughly the part played by William Bendix in the original (the guy who has his gangrenous leg removed); while the oppressed character becomes a "little person" whose disability has rendered him a kind of worker-ant slave-labourer of the future (who has replaced one of his arms with a power tool in order to be more effective at his job).
The women's roles have been altered, too. There's an eager journalist with a video camera, matching Tullulah Bankhead with her movie camera in the original, and she develops a relationship with a man from the lower classes (here he is a State-persecuted rebel). But this modern character does not have to suffer the same necessary moral degradation (she gets to keep her camera), and nor is her determination to 'get a good story' in the midst of catastrophe made into much of an ethical issue.
It is curious to note, in passing, the way in which contemporary cinema hives off into separate genres the elements that Hitchcock, in his time, was adept at mixing into the one film. As many recent commentators have noted, there are strong and highly significant aspects of both romance and romantic comedy in Hitchcock's art. This is true, in a low-key way, of Lifeboat: Bankhead's entire trajectory (the gradual stripping of her material possessions, her eventual avowal of her lowly class origins) is very like what Claudette Colbert went through beside Clark Gable in Capra's It Happened One Night (1934).
But today it is only the likes of Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone (1984) who undergoes such a sentimental education; and it is only in the recent tradition begun by the television series Moonlighting that the love-hate male-female relations evident in The 39 Steps (1935) or North by Northwest (1959) get anywhere near the thrills and spills of an action plot.
The remake is not as adventurous in its formal principles as the original. The setting, while still claustrophobic, is spread out over several chambers of a spaceship. Narrational voice-over from the journalist character lends a certain reflective distance to events. Where every visual and narrative detail in Hitchcock's film is crystal clear, Silver (an accomplished actor here making his directorial debut) adopts the modern style once described so well by J. Hoberman apropos James Cameron's Aliens (1986): the atmosphere resembles a chaotic light show in an otherwise blacked-out auditorium, where bloodcurdling cries and barely legible movements of frantic bodies add to the general sensation of rampant confusion.
And although the script of Lifepod also has its "ham-handed" passages (this was the word Pauline Kael used to describe the original) – particularly those which laboriously spell out the whodunit intrigue and its ramifications – the film as a whole is as captivating and enjoyable as a superior episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (and, coming from me, this is a high compliment).
A final note for Hitchcockian detectives. The screenwriting credits for both Lifeboat and Lifepod are rather mysterious. The opening credit of Lifeboat tells us it is "by John Steinbeck", while the actual screenplay is credited to Jo Swerling. We can assume that Steinbeck here supplied the basic story line, perhaps in the form of a "treatment" commissioned by Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. The script credits for Lifepod – which essentially go to Pen Densham, director of the excellent horror movie The Kiss (1988) – mention neither Steinbeck nor Swerling, but instead claim inspiration in "a short story by Alfred Hitchcock and Harry Sylvester"! As they say in the USA: go figure.
© Adrian Martin November 1994