Wednesday 23 December 2015

Movie review: Species (1995)

A science fiction horror film inspired by Alien, Species competently transforms the premise to a murderous hybrid alien on the loose in Los Angeles, but suffers from plastic characters and routine execution.

A secret government space exploration lab has made contact with a seemingly friendly superior alien race. The aliens transmit an ingenious DNA sequence, and scientists under the direction of Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) mix the code with human genes to create a girl they call Sil (Michelle Williams). When she starts experiencing painful nightmares, Fitch decides to exterminate Sil with cyanide. She breaks out, escapes the facility and makes her way to Los Angeles. Killing when cornered, Sil quickly grows into a woman (Natasha Henstridge), and starts seeking men to procreate with.

Fitch assembles a team of experts to hunt down Sil. Press (Michael Madsen) is a specialist in exterminating inconvenient fugitives on behalf of the government, and he is joined by Dan (Forest Whitaker), who has special empathetic powers, while Stephen (Alfred Molina) and Laura (Marg Helgenberger) are scientists. With Fitch they track Sil to Los Angeles, where she is leaving a trail of corpses in her pursuit of the perfect man to mate with.

With the monster effects created by H.R. Giger, the similarities with the Alien universe are numerous. Here again the alien is close to indestructible, seeks to breed, and uses humans to grow. When the Species alien beneath the skin is revealed, it may as well be the close cousin of the critters battled repeatedly by Ripley and company. Even the black-green tone and spaced title font on the film poster is derivative.

Species is never less than moderately exciting as an action movie with good, yucky special effects, and the occasional gory scare. But director Roger Donaldson, working from a Dennis Feldman script, is unable to do much with the premise. A fundamental problem resides with the characters of Fitch and his team members, who are underdeveloped, quite simplistic and generally unsympathetic. With no human protagonists worth investing in, Sil herself emerges as the most compelling character. And as a half-alien in a strange world, there is plenty for her to learn and then manipulate to gain the advantage over humans, LA style. Most appropriately, she picks up most of what she needs to know by watching television.

Sil's journey from frightened child to irresistible schemer is helped by newcomer Natasha Henstridge saying little and happily trading on her looks and sex appeal. She may be an alien in heat, but she is also in frequently naked human form, and the combination of seductive vulnerability and killer instinct becomes the driving force of the film.

But too often, the film defaults to stock humans-chasing-alien. A routine, prolonged, seemingly interminable climax in cave-like sewers below Los Angeles, trying hard to simulate a distant planet environment, sucks the remaining energy out of the film. Ironically, Species is at its most compelling when the alien is above the surface, disguised as just another California blonde.

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