Liquid Sky is a bizarre little science fiction film that originally came out in 1983. Initially it was a massive success. It played almost continuously for a year, spending 28 weeks on Variety’s top-grossing box office charts to eventually become the most successful independent film of the year. But then the film fell out of circulation for a variety of reasons. It had been funded with Russian money—the director, Slava Tsukerman (also the co-writer and co-producer), had worked previously in Russia and Israel, then decided that he wanted to make an American independent film, so he moved to New York in the 1970s. He had a deal for a science fiction film called Sweet Sixteen that would have starred Klaus Kinski and Andy Warhol—now that would have been a pretty crazy movie—bur it fell through, so Tsukerman had to do what he could with the ideas he had developed. The result was Liquid Sky.
Anne Carlisle, the star of the piece as well as the co-writer, seems to have had as much to do with the final product as the director, who appears to not have really understood what exactly he was working on and, it seems, still doesn’t… Carlisle played two roles, male and female but with blurred gender. Carlisle was a model/actress who had previous appeared in Downtown ’81, but didn’t go on to do much beyond a part in Desperately Seeking Susan, another film that mines the same New Wave club scene.
The basic plot is that a tiny flying saucer comes to earth to score drugs in early 80s New York, but the plot isn’t that important. It could even be seen as a sort of bizarre quasi-documentary, because almost everyone is playing themselves to some extent—Carlisle included elements of her own life in the story along with fabricated scenes, and most of the supporting cast are playing versions of themselves. Most of the cast, including the lead, were from the same acting school, where they worked under the tutelage of Bob Brady. Since there wasn’t much of a budget, Tsukerman used Brady and his students, plus people from the downtown New York club scene, to fill the screen.
What is important is that the film is visually astonishing. It’s awash with crazy neon colours, reflecting the fashion of the time and the world filled with bisexual coke-addled models in which it was created. It remains one of the great New York New Wave movies—and would make a fantastic double bill with Stranger Than Paradise, its polar opposite in look and feel. The film looks like it comes from another dimension, and the way the story is told also gives it a futuristic feel. Along with the neon colours, a lot of solarisation is used, an old trick used in science fiction films to create feelings of otherworldliness, Alphaville and 2001: A Space Odyssey being the obvious examples. The filmmaker used what were at the time state of the art effects, and it’s obvious that what little money there was (half a million to make a feature!) was spent on the visuals. It ended up being quite influential on other films, for better or worse – the recent film Spaceship (one of the worst films I have ever seen), for example, definitely took cues from Liquid Sky, as does The Neon Demon.
The director also co-wrote the music, which takes a lot of random classical pieces and translates them into an almost toylike, dissonant and quite creepy synth score. It’s one of the most off-kilter pieces of film music, and actually a bit of a gem.
Like Stranger Than Paradise, Liquid Sky is proof that if you have the will, you can make something great with next to no money. It really was one of the most important films of the 80s, but has been slightly forgotten due to its long time out of print. Vinegar Syndrome has released a special edition with a day-glo slipcover—now out of print—but its standard retail release includes a commentary track with Tsukerman, new video interviews with him and Carslile, a 50-minute documentary, a Q&A from a 2017 screening of the film, plus outtakes, an alternate opening sequence, behind-the-scenes footage, a stills gallery and various trailers.
The new transfer was scanned and restored in 4K from the 35mm original negative. It was a film that always looked great anyway, even on crappy VHS tapes, but this is real advance. Liquid Sky was a film that really deserved a new release, and this one includes both DVD and Blu-Ray versions.