Species (1995) *½
Remember back when it used to be surprising to see Ben Kingsley turn up in a stupid, terrible movie? I mean Jesus Christ, the man was freaking Gandhi! He did Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, and the younger Alexandre Dumas on television. He won a bunch of industry awards (including both an Oscar and two BAFTA Awards for Gandhi), and was nominated for countless others. In 2002, his accumulated thespian accomplishments even earned him a goddamned knighthood! And it isn’t as though Kingsley ever stopped making critically acclaimed movies, either. It’s just that somewhere along the line, he started making shit like Thunderbirds, too, and unlike some respected actors with a penchant for slumming, Kingsley cannot be counted upon to provide the highlight of an otherwise dismal film. He’s far more likely to sink to the level of tawdry material than to draw it up toward his own, and when he makes a movie that sucks, there’s every chance that he’ll be right at the forefront of the sucking action. Looking back on it, I think Species marks the emergence of this disreputable side to Kingsley’s career. Certainly it’s the movie that I most associate with that now-vanished sense of “Wait a minute— what the hell is he doing in that?!” But while it’s hardly Kingsley’s finest moment as a performer, it’s one that at least allows him to point to several other highly regarded actors who aren’t doing any better.
Kingsley (whose subsequent, comparable embarrassments include Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Bloodrayne) plays Dr. Xavier Fitch, a high-ranking scientist with NASA’s SETI project. SETI, as you may recall, stands for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence;” the whitecoats affiliated with it have been scanning the cosmic rays since the late 1960’s for any trace of radio signals inconsistent with known natural phenomena, and thus potentially attributable to technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe. From time to time, Fitch and his colleagues also beam out messages of their own soliciting contact with whomever might be listening. Their efforts finally bore fruit two years ago, when they picked up a transmission unmistakably from outer space, consisting of three distinct elements. One was the chemical formula for a catalyst capable of producing nearly limitless amounts of methane gas, promising to solve Earth’s energy problems at a stroke; Fitch interpreted it as a token of interstellar friendship. The second piece was a fragmentary DNA sequence unrecognizable from the genomes of anything living on this planet. The third and most interesting was a direct reply to some of the data in one of Fitch’s missives to the stars. Among the information SETI broadcast back in 1974 was the genetic structure of humanity, and the alien reply included instructions for inserting the strings of exogenous codons they sent us into our own chromosomes. A sensible person in receipt of such an invitation would be most reluctant to perform the experiment, but not Fitch. He went right ahead and shot up 100 human ova with genes made to his new alien pen-pals’ specifications, and sat back to see what would happen. Once all the kinks were worked out, he and his staff had three viable female embryos (“We made it female so that it would be more docile and controllable”— ah, the classics…), of which two were immediately frozen in liquid nitrogen pending the results of the initial, single-subject trial. That left Specimen S1L— or “Sil,” as they came to call her. Sil (Michelle Williams, of Halloween: H20 and Timemaster) grew disturbingly fast, reaching the threshold of puberty in mere months, but otherwise seemed to be a normal little girl. However, as she approached maturity, Sil began suffering from chronic nightmares, and while it’s difficult to describe what her body would do in the throes of her dreams, the important point is that her somatic manifestations of dream activity were not normal at all. They were so abnormal, in fact, that the national security types who had been looking over Fitch’s shoulder from the beginning got scared, and ordered the experiment terminated. Obviously that meant terminating Sil, too, and as we join the action, Fitch is shedding a single manly tear as his subordinates make ready to gas the hybrid child to death.
The attempt on Sil’s life is spectacularly unsuccessful. Not that she’s immune to cyanide or anything, but since she can punch through bulletproof plexiglass with her bare fists and run as fast as a Thompson’s gazelle, Sil’s chemical susceptibilities are the least of anyone’s worries just now. By the time the lab security staff have mobilized sufficiently to respond to the breakout, Sil has already dashed to the nearest railway and hopped a passing freight train. Now Fitch and his overseers have a real problem on their hands. The federal agents send out a round of summonses which they’ve apparently been holding in reserve against roughly this eventuality, with the result that four people are gathered up and sent to Fitch for briefing. Dr. Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger, from After Midnight and The Tommyknockers) and Dr. Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina, of Ladyhawke and The Trial) are a biologist and a psychologist respectively. Their job will be to deduce Sil’s physical and emotional needs from the record of her behavior in captivity, and to extrapolate how those might translate into action now that she’s loose. Dan Smithson (Forrest Whitaker, of Battlefield Earth and Body Snatchers) is a psychic empath of the sort that very desperate police departments sometimes consult for help with the investigation of especially appalling murders; evidently the half-alien girl’s escape has made the feds themselves very desperate. Preston Lennox (Michael Madsen, from Croc and Wargames) describes himself as “a freelance solution to some of our government’s problems.” He’s a bounty hunter, in other words, and to quote him once again, no one ever asked him to find anything they didn’t want dead. Naturally, Laura, Stephen, and Dan are initially less than thrilled to be working with him.
They’ll begin to get over those scruples as soon as they see a bit of Sil’s handiwork. At the first major stop on the railroad line, Sil trades up to a high-speed passenger train bound for Los Angeles, leaving a dead hobo twisted into a giant pretzel behind her. A bit of close observation teaches her both the importance of money and some sources from which it may be stolen, and a natural wariness keeps her mostly out of contact with anyone who might interfere with her getaway during the overnight trip. She’s still having her nightmares, though— nightmares about things fucking underwater, we now see— and this time the dreams signify that Xavier Fitch’s little girl is about to become a woman. (Specifically, she’s about to become ex-fashion model Natasha Henstridge, whose other screen appearances include Ghosts of Mars and Adrenalin: Fear the Rush.) This is where those alien genes really come to the fore, because instead of just undergoing a sudden growth spurt and taking on a bunch of new secondary sex characteristics, Sil extrudes herself a big, slimy tentacle chrysalis, bisected down the front by a humongous, syphilitic-looking vagina— ladies and gentlemen, production designer H. R. Giger: making sex nauseating since 1969! A ticket-taker has the foul luck to visit the compartment just as the adult Sil is preparing to emerge from her cocoon, and she winds up in only slightly better shape than that bum on the freight train. (Note, however, that the Extensible Tentacle o’ Doom that shoots out of the cocoon like a chameleon’s tongue is careful not to get any blood on the ticket-taker’s clothes. I like a girl with the sense to plan ahead even while she’s pupating.) The trail of bodies permits Fitch and his task force to follow Sil to Los Angeles, and will help them track her movements around the city as well. Those movements (and the corpses associated with them) suggest a clear pattern to the discerning eyes of Baker and Arden. If they judge rightly from all the good-looking young guys she’s leaving dead in her wake, then Fitch’s psychopathic space babe is trying to find somebody worthy of fathering her offspring, and something tells me that humanity as a whole isn’t going to like it if she succeeds.
It would be hard not to draw comparisons between Species and Alien even if the producers hadn’t sealed the deal by hiring H. R. Giger to design the monster, and those comparisons would be uniformly unfavorable to this movie even if the terrible mid-90’s computer animation hadn’t resulted in Sil’s true form looking like something out of an ill-advised Alien video game. Both movies hit the venereal horror button with all their might, although Species plays it safer by making its sex-mad extraterrestrial half-human, so that its understanding of “sex” has an excuse for being compatible with ours. Remember, it was Kane who wound up pregnant in Alien, not Ripley or Lambert, and to all appearances, copulating with Sil is a thoroughly enjoyable experience— provided, of course, that you’re a gentleman about it beforehand, and don’t freak out afterwards when you discover that her version of orgasm face entails sprouting foot-long spines from her back. Both films also involve cat-and-mouse clashes between space monsters and people armed with flamethrowers, set in networks of tight, damp, dark, mazy passageways, in which the humans are for the most part mere civilians unschooled in the use of such weaponry. Hell, between Alien’s Ash and Species’s Fitch, both movies even feature nearly affectless bald guys of ambiguous loyalties, who are directly implicated in allowing the monster to become a problem in the first place! Indeed, had Aliens not intervened to posit a life cycle for the LV-426 organism based on that of terrestrial eusocial insects, this script could almost have been used for a sequel to Alien: first humans go out into the void to encounter a space incubus, and now a space succubus makes her way to Earth. It would have been a disappointing and cheapening sequel, to be sure, but it’s not like Alien didn’t end up with two of those anyway (or four, to count the Alien vs. Predator movies).
Ironically, though, what makes Species disappointing and cheapening, whether as a spiritual successor to Alien or strictly on its own merits, has less to do with Sil (who you’d think should be the hard part) than with the humans pursuing her. In fact, I rather like Sil as a character. To begin with, she represents two qualities which I view very positively— the maternal instinct and the liberated female sex drive— transformed into something monstrous not because they’re dysfunctional (as you’d typically see in a straight psychosexual horror movie), but rather because they’re developed to such perfection that they threaten to enable her and her kind to out-compete Homo sapiens in an ecological struggle for the Earth. Sil also ends up being weirdly sympathetic, because she’s the one who’s all alone in a hostile environment, being hunted down by people who are determined to kill her. No, it’s definitely the humans that are the problem here, primarily because Species is another of those movies set in a parallel universe where absolutely everyone is stupid. Let’s start with the very premise: “I know— we should grow a human-alien hybrid from a recipe sent to us from outer space by beings we know nothing about whatsoever! What could possibly go wrong?” Especially since Dr. Baker’s subsequent suggestion of rerunning the experiment using only the alien DNA (with the aim of learning thereby something about what Sil might be like underneath all the Natasha Henstridge) does in fact produce a living, albeit weirdly incomplete, organism, Fitch’s decision to do it the aliens’ way the first time around, no questions asked, looks like the very pinnacle of irresponsibility. Fitch’s laboratory, meanwhile, seems purpose-designed to produce deadly accidents, and you have to love the part where he somehow neglects to mention, when Baker and Lennox volunteer to fix a malfunctioning video camera inside the quarantine chamber during the aforementioned genetic experiment, that the failsafe protocol in the event of the organism escaping from its petri dish is to flood the chamber with high-intensity flames, regardless of whether anyone’s in there at the time! It just seems like the sort of thing they would have liked to know about beforehand, don’t you think? Then again, what do we expect from a guy who gets handed the key to revolutionizing the energy industry, but then apparently stuffs it into a desk drawer and forgets about it? The one upside I can find here is that screenwriter Dennis Feldman at least has the self-awareness to make a running joke out of Fitch’s absurd assumption that femininity equals docility. Then there’s the romance that inexplicably develops between Laura Baker and Preston Lennox. Preston, let us recall, murders people for a living. Sure he does so with the government’s blessing, but that doesn’t really make it any better. And Baker, for her part, rightly revolts at Lennox’s profession when they first meet. Yet somehow that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him by the end of the second act, which amounts to such a catastrophic malfunction of judgement that nothing short of Feldman forgetting what he’d already written seems adequate to account for it. With Dan Smithson, it’s probably not so much that he’s stupid as that his psychic senses are. At no point does his paranormal empathy tell him anything that an ordinary person couldn’t intuit from closely observing someone’s demeanor or the surrounding circumstances; the one thing stopping Dan from being as completely useless as Deanna Troi on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is that he at least manages to refrain from impregnating Sil. That ignominious duty does indeed fall to a member of the anti-alien posse, but that’s third-act stuff, so you won’t be hearing the details from me. Suffice it to say that they’re just barely defensible, yet still leave the man in question looking like a tremendous twit. I haven’t yet seen any of the sequels to Species, but given the epidemic of impaired cognitive function among these characters, I won’t be a bit surprised to learn that Species II begins with somebody thawing out one of Sil’s two sisters during a drunken game of Truth or Dare at next year’s SETI office holiday party.
The B-Masters Cabal has been rummaging through the closests of award-winning actors, looking for the moldiest skeletons we can find. We’re not after the early embarrassments of struggling, young performers, though— that would be too easy. No, our quarry this time is the disreputable crap made by stars who had already become respectable! Click the banner below to see what my colleagues dug up: