LIFEPOD (1981) – Previously Balladeer’s Blog examined the worst movies from the Robert Emenegger/ Allan Sandler collaboration, most of them with Steven Spielberg’s sister Anne … plus half the Cameron Mitchell family. With Lifepod, we return to E-Space (Emenegger Space. Sorry, Doctor Who fans.). This time, however, it’s with an underrated movie that makes you root for it despite its budgetary limitations.
The year is 2191. The moons of Jupiter have been colonized and are called the Jupiter States. A company nostalgically called the White Star Line has begun providing a spaceship cruise line to and from the Jupiter States. The flagship in this new line is called the Arcturus, with a state-of-the-art propulsion system and a revolutionary AI called a Cerebral running the ship.
As the Arcturus, on its maiden run, approached Callisto, the Cerebral announced massive system failures and began shutting down life support systems while ordering the crew and passengers to evacuate in lifepods and await rescue from Callisto’s authorities. In their Mayday broadcasts the crew make it clear they no longer trusted Captain Montaine (Christopher Cary), who insisted the Arcturus was fine and the Cerebral was just malfunctioning.
The picture becomes further confused when the Arcturus‘ engines restart and it flies off now that the passengers are gone.
The mobile service androids continue roaming the various levels of the ship, shooing away any stragglers with increasing levels of hostility as the supposedly failing life support systems continue to shut down. Lieutenant G.W. Simmons, the ship’s Astrogator (futuristic navigator), played by Joe Penny, fakes out the service robots by playing possum.
Simmons shared Captain Montaine’s suspicions about the ship’s Cerebral and heroically stayed behind to investigate further. He winds up having to come to the rescue of some stranded passengers who were accidentally prevented from evacuating. Those passengers:
Fiona Harrington (Kristine DeBell), who was on her way to visit her father, a scientist on Callisto. She lingered on board to try saving her bird Dewayne but got trapped. Fiona becomes Lieutenant Simmons’ love interest.
Rod Keshah (Carl Lumbly), a reporter who was covering the maiden voyage of the Arcturus.
Lord Dematte (Sandy Kenyon), the owner and mastermind of the Demmate technology corporations. He also runs the White Star Line and is credited with designing the Cerebral AI system that runs the Arcturus.
Lady Lima (Jordan Michaels), Dematte’s executive assistant and deputy director of his empire.
After Simmons rescues that handful of passengers he leads them to the Bridge in order to consult with Captain Montaine. It becomes obvious that – though a heavy drinker – Montaine is not the cause of the ship’s problems. The AI called the Cerebral (voiced by Neil Ross) is clearly malfunctioning or even worse – deliberately mutinying.
The Cerebral bears some sort of grudge toward Lord Dematte but that is left a mystery at this point. Montaine makes it clear to his subordinate officer Simmons that he plans to “go down with the ship” no matter what happens.
Cary’s performance is the best in the film, and, without overdoing it, he makes it clear he once had ambitions to explore the universe but has wound up a cruise line captain. It’s not exclusively courage or honor that’s making him stay behind. He also feels that his career and dreams have petered out into nothing but disappointment and he’s prepared to die.
Montaine orders Simmons to find safety for the passengers with him and directs them to one of the few remaining lifepods on the Arcturus. The quintet evacuate on the lifepod but are so far from where all the other lifepods jettisoned that rescue begins to look increasingly unlikely. Especially when the lifepod’s systems start to fail.
When the Arcturus’ Cerebral comes to realize that Lord Dematte has slipped through its grasp it doubles back to try to intercept his lifepod before rescuers from Callisto can reach it. Captain Montaine and the Cerebral, in a sort of “two-man play” tableau, begin to bond despite their conflict, a bond which grows stronger when Montaine learns why the Cerebral is targeting Dematte.
Lord Dematte used the brain of a willing colleague as the basis of the Arcturus‘ “revolutionary” AI. This has resulted in a situation similar to I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.
Moreover, on the lifepod, Dematte proves willing to sacrifice the lives of the others to save himself AND to prevent a scandal that would destroy his business empire. Lady Lima begins to realize what a conscienceless man she works for and becomes attracted to the reporter, Rod Keshah.
Some reviewers complain about the trope of the “evil” executive but I have no problem with it. I don’t know how you could live here in the year 2021 and NOT notice that techno-fascist plutocrats like Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and others seem to regard the rest of us as their serfs or peasants, to be treated as they please.
At any rate, Dematte gets his, Captain Montaine and the Cerebral work out a mutually satisfactory future exploring the universe by themselves and the four lovebirds left in the lifepod reach safety.
Out of the many, many movies that Emenegger and Sandler (and Anne Spielberg) crammed into a 2-year period, Lifepod strikes me as the one to be remembered. Yes, we get some of the same recycled special effects from their other flicks but for once the half-decent ideas they had – no matter how derivative – are handled with a certain competence this time.
And how can you NOT love Captain Montaine’s final line in the movie?
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