Species: Special Edition Review
There are moments in Species, where you really have to applaud the bravado. I can pretty much imagine the script pitch - “a gorgeous alien woman runs around Los Angeles, looking to mate”. Lets face it, you’d buy that screenplay too. Released in 1995, Roger Donaldson’s cult sci-fi pastiche makes its intentions pretty clear from the off. Designed to titillate and shock, it was embraced by the Star Trek crowd with affection. It’s biggest plus was Natasha Henstridge, a former model who decided (perhaps unwisely) to begin a movie career. Admittedly, she’s quite a sight. But does this successful romp have any substance beneath the layers? As a Hollywood production, it’s delightfully B-movie; having been dubbed “Basic Instinct with slime”.
The story is quintessential science fiction. You’ve seen it before in many permutations, though the filmmakers try to make it fresh. At a secret government laboratory, Dr Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) oversees the killing of a young girl with cyanide gas. However, he doesn’t count on their captive breaking loose, and with superhuman strength, the girl escapes the compound. Soon enough, she’s on a train headed to L.A. To stop this seemingly-unstoppable menace, Fitch calls in a special team - molecular biologist Dr Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger), anthropologist Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina), psychic Dan Smithson (Forest Whitaker) and government trouble-shooter Preston Lennox (Michael Madsen). Fitch goes on to explain that “Sil” (Henstridge) isn’t like other women - she’s part alien, growing into adulthood over night. And then, the chase is on...
Very successful in its day, Species hasn’t quite reached “classic” status, yet it is fondly remembered by male audiences. It’s selling point was the mixture of boobs and blood, and never has anyone taken the rule of sex = death so seriously. Written by Dennis Feldman, the story does have some saving graces. The alien DNA that contributed to Sil’s genetic make-up, was sent to us from a distant planet. It’s a brilliant touch that isn’t explored enough. It’s probably the best world domination tactic since the Body Snatchers - give research-hungry scientists the key to alien life, and let it break out of their grasp, killing them from within. Yet, instead of a Trojan horse, we get a beautiful blonde bombshell. That’s the kind of high concept thinking Hollywood needs.
Like an SF version of The Fugitive, the main plot is split into action-packed chases and close encounters. It’s all very routine, but certainly exciting. Sil learns about the world pretty quickly, making her a resourceful adversary. She prowls clubs and bars looking for her mate, but unless they fit her requirements, she kills them (often with bloody results). As the group get close, she concocts a plan to stage her death. Not too bad for someone born and raised in a week. Naturally, the characters fall for this ploy hook, line and sinker. But after the main chase is established, Species loses a lot of its tension, and soon becomes a predictable mess. 9 years since its first release, there are portions of the picture that have dated poorly. The CGI used to mimic Sil during the climax, is now laughable. Effects have become so advanced, that this primitive effort cannot be taken seriously. It might have helped if the ending was decent, but is a limp affair, leaving the door open for a sequel (which followed with Peter Medak’s Species II).
The most successful element of Species is the cast. I have no idea how Donaldson coaxed these actors to appear, but it gives the affair some class. It may be class coated with pretension, but it makes Species more than just another Alien knock-off. Kingsley, for instance, is an actor of weighty reputation. Having him run around with an assault rifle is an odd sight, but he carries it off. The same can be said about Whitaker and Molina. If there’s a problem to note, it’s that the characters are cardboard cut-outs. There’s no points for guessing who will die - it’s pretty blatant.
The most enjoyable performer of the group is probably Madsen. His hard and gruff persona is nothing new, but he’s more than watchable. Feldman tried to write in a sub-plot of his romance with Helgenberger’s character, but it doesn’t provide much besides more gratuitous nudity. But, the whole cast is beaten by Michelle Williams (pre-Dawson’s Creek), who really does impress as the “Young Sil”. Depicting fear and shock, she convinces the audience of her horror at the world, before letting Henstridge walk off with the picture. And when I say walk-off, I mean disrobe.
Jokes aside, Species is an enjoyable two hours. It looks outstanding - the photography is crisp, and the pacing tight. Donaldson milks the idea for all its worth. He also had the common sense to leave the creature designs to H.R. Giger, the man who created the Alien. Giger, never a stranger to odd fiction, has created another despicable force here. Sil’s true face is truly disgusting, and her body is just as deadly, with tentacles that shoot from her nipples, and a tongue that pierces through human flesh. The moment young Sil’s body begins to morph is the films stomach-churning highlight; she has no control over her figure, as it turns into something truly hideous. It’s wise that the filmmakers left this scene in (it was to be cut from the script, when Giger used his own money to pay for the sequence). It introduced an interesting avenue to explore - Sil doesn’t want to be evil, but her alien genes are forcing her to kill. Feldman was clearly trying to raise sympathy for the character, in the same way we felt sorry for Frankenstein's monster - another botched science experiment. But, like so much in this film, the director doesn’t follow this intriguing thread, choosing ridiculous action over substance.
One of the many guilty pleasures lining the shelves, Species is hampered by its derivative nature. No doubt a hit due to Henstridge’s “performance”, it is still worth seeing. Glossy, easy to watch, and full of naked flesh, fans of science fiction and horror should give Species a try.
Given the cult fan base, I’m surprised it has taken MGM this long to produce a “Special Edition”. But here it is - 2 discs worth of Species hoopla. I should state now that my review copy only came with the second disc of extras, so I won’t be able to discuss the commentary tracks.
The Look and Sound
MGM present the film in pleasing anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), and it’s probably the best aspect of the set. The colours are well saturated, and the night footage shines with deep, resonant blacks. You’ll also be pleased to hear that skin tones are accurately transferred (considering the film shows so much of it, this is good news). On the whole, it’s a great looking job, with a high level of detail throughout. Yet, it isn’t perfect. I felt the transfer could have been sharper - the film has a soft look overall. But it’s still a reference quality effort, with no edge enhancement or intrusive grain to spoil the experience.
The audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, and they’re lively tracks. Full of booming music, and weird sound effects, they fit the video like a glove. Donaldson and his crew clearly liked to stir menace with the soundtrack, and it does a good job of raising atmosphere. Naturally, the DTS is better, giving the material an added boost of power.
Well-designed, but light on animation, they feature the same colour scheme as the box art. As you’d expect, they look great.
Various sites have stated that Disc 1 sports a pair of audio commentaries, with Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, and Roger Donaldson on one, and Donaldson, Frank Mancuso Jr., Richard Edlund, and creature effects man Steve Johnson on the other. Disc 2 is composed entirely of video material.
As you’d expect, this featurette delves into the genesis of the project. We learn that screenwriter Dennis Feldman created the script as a spec project, before it landed on the desks of MGM. It contains new and old interviews with cast and crew (some taken from the shoot), and features Donaldson, Madsen, Michelle Williams, Alfred Molina and Ben Kingsley. There is some footage from the filming included, and they comment on everything from the story, to getting the project off the ground. It’s enjoyable, and very well put together.
The same talking heads go into the story in finer detail. Feldman, for instance, is very enthusiastic about his baby (especially since he was given an executive producer credit). Donaldson helps outline the plot and their influences, but there’s a high degree of back-slapping here. It’s also rather humorous, as they seem to believe that the story is something profound.
This is better, since it highlights the introduction of Henstridge to the silver screen. The producers also reveal a good amount of new, and on-set footage. Henstridge is very thankful for Species, and she talks about the career opportunities it provided. Assorted members of cast and crew also chime in, and seemed more than happy to be working with the former model (lucky them). This is followed by “Designing a Hybrid”, which treads similar ground.
“H.R. Giger: Designing Species”
Now, this is the kind of feature I was glad to see. Giger tells us some of the thought processes behind creating this creature, with copious amounts of workshop footage thrown-in for good measure. He’s an odd man, but utterly fascinating at the same time. Budding artists should take note.
As the title states, this is a different ending to the film. But like the one they used, it’s pretty bad. More of a coda than a definitive conclusion, it was supposed to appear right after the sewer sequences; featuring a conversation between Madsen and Helgenberger. It’s fairly well-scripted, but as an ending, I’m glad it got the snip.
“Species 3: Set Invasion”
Yep, you guessed it - a shameless plug for the straight-to-DVD sequel Species 3. Surprisingly, it looks decent, with Henstridge returning to open the film, before a new alien broad takes over. Plenty of behind-the-scenes action might get Species fans salivating, but it’s an extra with limited shelf life.
The set is rounded off by the theatrical trailer. A very generous package indeed.
“Men cannot resist her. Mankind may not survive her.” And with a tag-line like that, you should know what you’re getting with Species. While this rental favourite isn’t ageing well, it’s still an entertaining way to kill two hours. Sleazy sci-fi doesn’t get any better than this...
Last updated: 08/05/2018 22:01:01