Film Reviews

Loving the Alien

There are those who may be bold enough to suggest that Dennis Feldman's Species screenplay is reality-based, simply because there is such a thing as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, a.k.a. SETI. Those people are loons. It is indeed a fact that in 1974 we spent our tax dollars to send, via the biggest radio telescope on earth, a message -- a message no more complex than "we are here, we are here" -- to the dark reaches of space. And it is true that SETI is mentioned in the opening scenes of Species. But the real deal is that Species is a kicky she-devil from another planet movie with a little Michael Madsen thrown in for the ladies.

In the film, SETI gets an answer to its interstellar call. The answer is some sort of useful solution to the energy problem (a solution not dealt with in the movie) that, along with an alien DNA sequence, is sent to show the goodwill of the off-world intelligence. Egghead scientists led by Fitch (Ben Kingsley) stir up some DNA matching this extraterrestrial recipe and squirt it into a human ovum. The spawn is a cute little blond girl named Sil (Michelle Williams) who grows so fast that the scientists decide to gas her. (This is a complete flight of fancy that flies in the face of the truth: no scientists with funding out the wazoo and a topnotch facility would ever cancel their project.) Sil's cute and big-eyed and even weeps a bit at her keepers, but when they start spraying cyanide in her cage, she breaks out and runs.

This setup is all accomplished quickly, clearing the way for the cross-country chase to follow. Fitch summons a crack team of eccentric experts, and we're off.

Kingsley as Fitch is a cold, protocol-driven man of science, and seeing this highly regarded British actor striding around in a space creature movie is a treat -- but wait, there's more! Species is such a generous film that we have five intriguing monster hunters to root for. Dan (Forest Whitaker) introduces himself as an empath, but what he seems to be is a psychic. No matter; he's useful because, when the alien hunters couldn't possibly know what to do next or where the creature is, Dan simply uses his psi power and saves the scene. Dan is paired up with Arden (Alfred Molina), a Harvard anthropologist. (In another of Species' completely impossible, yet suspenseful and intriguing, episodes, this nebbish professor gets laid.)

Laura (Marg Helgenberger) and Press (Michael Madsen) are our other pair on the trail, and these two have a wonderful, witty chemistry. Laura is a molecular biologist who tells the rest of the crew about the horrific possibilities of Sil -- a lone but determined and hormonal female who might hatch hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reptilian children -- and how her mutant children could take over the world. But with Press, a hired killer for the government, she has an earthy, less clinical attitude toward sex. A minor subplot in Species is the romance that blossoms between the hit man and the lady scientist.

Madsen, the Chicago boy who first got America's attention by slicing off a cop's ear in Reservoir Dogs, contorts his role into something that, while not completely comedic, is light and fun. He has, of course, the great joke from the previews: when Fitch explains that the alien creature was designed to be female so she'd be more docile and controllable, Press' arch reply is, "More docile and controllable? I guess you guys don't get out much." He's equally charming throughout the movie, cracking wise in a not-so-tough guy fashion and regularly showing his vulnerable, cuddly side by asking the empath for advice -- personal advice.

Some of the camaraderie between our mismatched adventurers is as fun as a camping trip -- and not just because good actors are making the movie work. Much of the dialogue is, if not riveting, not insultingly overwrought. This high-grade people-stuff moves things along, yet when the interaction between our quintet of good guys becomes dull, Species jumps to a scene of Sil -- by now an adult (Natasha Henstridge) -- disemboweling a minor character. For obvious reasons, most of the movie features Sil as an adult; she's shown metamorphosing into her big girl form almost as soon as she escapes the lab. Sil hops a train, eats a couple of gallons of chocolate pudding and cocoons. Her smooth, preteen flesh splits open, wormlike tentacles emerge, and next thing you know, there's a pulsing, giant larva in the corner of the train compartment.

There's a common misconception that the most important thing to the success of a science fiction film is high quality special effects. This is not true. Other things matter as well. In Species, the special effects aren't great, but the production team had other priorities. Many diverse elements -- scripting, blocking and lighting -- all had to be coordinated so that the grown-up Sil could be as naked as possible as often as possible without incurring the wrath of the ratings board and suffering the dreaded NC-17 stamp. Kudos to the filmmakers -- Sil is perhaps the most topless mall-movie monster of all time, plus you get some butt action. (For his part, Madsen only strips down to black boxers.)

Granted, Henstridge's creature can't match the seething, repressed sexuality of Simone Simon as the feline changeling of Val Lewton's Cat People, and Sil's progeny, who merely slurp rats, will not give you the deep-down Freudian willies inspired by Nola's vengeful offspring in David Cronenberg's The Brood, but Sil is still a blood relative of the Alien alien, albeit a poor relation. Sil in her monster form -- her slimy tubes and prickly spines -- was designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, the man responsible for Alien's look. The Species effects, though, aren't up to the Oscar-winning Alien's standards.

When Sil's inner child, a thing from another planet, comes bursting out through her skin, the whole hydraulic and corn syrup spectacle is pretty cool -- it's at least as ookie a transformation as David Naughton's becoming a werewolf in An American Werewolf in London. Sil's nightmares, the dreams in which she says, "Tell me who I am, inside," are not quite so cool, especially for an audiences jaded by the regular slimings of Family Double Dare. While Sil thrashes in her sleep, dreaming, we see murky drawings of two typical Giger figures thrusting in each others claws, their movements as jerky as those of marionettes. In truth, these dim gray figures aren't as evocative of desire and threat, and certainly not as charming, as the string-haired rag doll William Shatner saw bobbling outside his spaceship window on an ancient episode of Outer Limits.

On the subject of that doll, and that episode, the one where a pre-Star Trek captain goes to Venus, note that the earthman is infected with an alien strain in his blood. They have co-mingled, somehow. Later, of course, Shatner became Captain Kirk and went on a long road trip through space, picking up and snuggling down with every humanoid female he met. Clearly, this frottage with space creatures theme has a deep resonance in our culture. The whole SETI program, in fact, could be seen as a intergalactic chat-line. And didn't we send pictures of naked people outside of our solar system? Yes, we did; even now, line drawings of Adam and Eve, etched on a plaque, are drifting through the galaxy. This art work might not have been designed to appeal to the prurient interests of whoever might be out there, but, still, the faces on the man and woman are sweet and silly, and reminders that despite the accomplishments of our species -- fire, the wheel, Tang -- much of what we do is goofy.

Of the two space flicks now out, Apollo 13 is the thrilling tribute to our most noble aspirations. But Species is a happily sleazy, freewheeling reminder that, even as we learn the secrets of the universe, we'll still be human.

Species. Directed byRoger Donaldson. With Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Forest Whitaker and Marg Helgenberger.

Rated R.
108 minutes.

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Edith Sorenson