Liquid Sky captures the decadence, nihilism, and sexual anxieties of the early 1980s as well as it does the art, fashion, and early synth-music scenes of the times. It is to science fiction films of that decade what The Hunger (1983) is to 1980s horror films, but whereas that latter vampire outing starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon possesses gorgeous cinematography and renowned actors, Liquid Sky offers up an estimated $500,000 project with a cast of relative then-unknowns and low-fi psychedelic visuals.
Nihilistic genre films were plentiful in the years leading up to 1984, a time when people nervously joked about George Orwell’s famous novel possibly coming true to life that year, while also worrying about the world being on the brink of nuclear warfare and the spread of AIDS. Cat People (1982), Scanners (1981), and Class of 1984 (1982) were just a few of the films that shone a dark light on the present and the near future. Liquid Sky, however, made all challengers look weak in its relentlessly bleak take on sex in the age of AIDS, drugs, Day-Glo makeup, and new wave fashion in New York City.
Co-written by director Slava Tsukerman, star Anne Carlisle, and Nina V. Kerova, Liquid Sky concerns prawn-sized extraterrestrial visitors — whose spacecraft is roughly the size of a dinner plate — who come to Earth seeking heroin. The aliens soon learn that pheromones created in the human brain during orgasm offer a preferable high, which comes into play when bisexual fashion model Margaret (Carlisle) is coerced and forced into sex, sometimes outright raped, by a series of people. The sex in this film is never erotic nor symbolic of closeness or love; rather, it is usually a form of power and control. The exception that could have been made to this rule is an unconsummated flirtation between a woman who happens to have a good view of the spacecraft from her apartment window (Susan Doukas as Sylvia) and a German scientist who covets the window for research purposes (Otto von Wernherr as Johann).
After reluctantly giving in to sexual advances from her former college professor and fighting against a heroin-addicted rapist, Margaret turns the tables and takes the power of sexual advances on herself — for a while, at least. She uses her newfound power to kill during orgasm for revenge, and makes a connection with the aliens, though she receives no answers for what is happening.
Margaret’s main rival in the modeling scene is pretty boy Jimmy (also played by Carlisle), an androgynous drug addict who hates her, often referring to her as an ugly chicken woman. With so many people out to use and abuse her, Margaret can’t even catch a break from her necrophiliac drug dealer girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard, who disappeared from show business after this, her second iconic cult movie outing, the first being Alice, Sweet Alice [AKA Holy Terror, 1976]), who promises a bright future in Berlin but more often argues with her or tries to publicly embarrass her — and ultimately worse.
So Liquid Sky offers up a tragic heroine surrounded by unlikeable, unsavory hangers-on, amorous interests, and rivals. Almost everyone in this part of the plot heaps on the nihilism and loathing, but Tsukerman and his cast and crew keep things crazy enough not to make the film a depressing slog. There is humor throughout, though it is decidedly dark for the most part. The comic attempts of Sylvia repeatedly trying to seduce single-minded scientist Johann provide the lighter moments of the film.
Carlisle gives two outstanding performances in this film. She endows Margaret with a world-weariness, along with a toughness that initially seems to be something with which she is sometimes uncomfortable showing others. Her character arc here is a solid one, though, and Carlisle shines in scenes where Margaret lets others know just how in on the cynical joke of life she truly is. Her Jimmy is more of a one-note character, a leering, insult-spewing, constantly drugged-up jerk who has the good fortune to have a pretty face and a lean model’s body. Carlisle gives Jimmy her all, though.
Another tour de force performance here is Sheppard as the venomous, pessimistic Adrian. She gives two spoken word performances — one in a club to an early style of beatbox, the other over a man’s corpse as her fist smacks her leg in rhythm — that are unforgettable, and manages to embody a character full of disgust and vileness uncomfortably realistically, without crossing the line into scenery-chewing.
Liquid Sky boasts low-fi and low-budget visual sequences and a simplistic, repetitive, arguably hypnotic synthesizer score, all of which may have been cutting edge at the time, but that might now seem corny to some modern viewers. I can’t help but see this movie through the lens of how I first watched it, though: as an arts-loving university student seeing it several times on the big screen during its initial run at Sacramento, California’s Tower Theater arthouse cinema, a National Historic Landmark that opened in 1938 and is still going strong today. Artsy new wavers, jaded punk rockers, and unsuspecting curiosity-seekers flocked to screenings, mostly thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations from friends. Liquid Sky showed those of us northern Californians in our teens and twenties the seedy underbelly of the glittery, neon-colored new wave art scene that flourished around us, especially in nearby San Francisco, without having to wallow through those ugly depths ourselves.
That leads me to what I feel is the reason behind Liquid Sky’s staying power: It captures an era marvelously. The rough, sometimes brutal heyday of punk was giving way to the artistic, fashion-minded movement of new wave, which sought out avant-garde forms of beauty. Art-school kids were finding their collective voice, all manner of sexual preferences and tastes were becoming more openly celebrated, and societal outcasts were finding commonality and kinship. Tsukerman, Carlisle, and company fashioned a time capsule that captures the pulse of new wave weirdness circa the early 1980s, and it is a testament to the movie that it has lost little, if any, of its oddball feeling through the decades.