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Species Print E-mail
Friday, 01 September 2006

Image Even though “Species” is such an “Alien” knockoff that the creatures were designed by “Alien”’s H.R. Giger, it’s one of the better such imitations that followed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s scary movie. This time, the alien menace is on Earth, a human-alien hybrid with an ingrained compulsion to mate as soon as possible. When she looks human, she looks sensational—no wonder, she’s played by striking, statuesque Nastasha Henstridge, making her movie debut—but when she’s not, she’s a sleek, pinkish-gray, elegant but monstrous-looking predator with fangs, claws, and extendable nipples.

“Species” was one of the first movies in the wake of precedent-setting “Jurassic Park” to make extensive use of computer graphic special effects, and evidently the first to use performance-capture technology. That’s the steadily-improving technique of attaching highlights to the bodies and limbs of actors—often little red dots—which are registered by a computer and used to drive figures otherwise created in the digital realm. I covered this film for a magazine, and the technology sounded literally like magic—and now it’s relatively commonplace. Things happen so fast around here.

“Species” is, unfortunately, based on an idea that requires dedicated scientists to behave like brain-dead morons. SETI has received a transmission from space that brought an invention of great benefit to mankind. So the scientists decided that the aliens could only be benign. When they sent the information allowing the creation of a DNA strand, the scientists immediately combined it with a human egg cell. As the movie opens, none of this is explained; instead we see scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) weeping as technicians prepare to gas an attractive blonde girl about 13. (Michelle Williams, who’s still a busy actor; she was one of the female leads in last year’s “Brokeback Mountain.”) But the girl escapes into the night and onto a passing train. Instantly a search is launched.

Fitch enlists the aid of several experts, tough guy Preston Lennox, empathy Dan Smithson, and scientists Dr. Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina) and Dr. Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger), all experts in their fields. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else on the search team, which limits what they can do. But director Roger Donaldson keeps things moving so fast that you rarely have time to worry about mere logic—which the moving keeps cheerfully defying.

There’s plenty of time for gruesome violence—Sil (Henstridge), the now-adult alien, rips the spine out of a rival’s back—some sex and romance (Sil’s always after a mate, and Dr. Baker and Lennox hook up)—and lots of running around through tunnels and streets. The climax takes place in a geologically improbable cave underneath the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

In fact, the movie makes expert use of many Los Angeles-area locations: the beach at Santa Monica, Venice, the Pantages Theater and Elysian Park. It’s photographed in crisp wide screen by Andrzej Bartkowiak; unusually for this kind of movie, it takes place almost entirely in daylight. It’s too fanciful to seem real, but it’s fun to watch; there are glowing swimming pools, jammed dance halls and the damnedest train made of skulls and bones (Sil’s nightmare, another Giger creation).

This exciting, engrossing movie shows that it's possible to reinvent the wheel over and over in Hollywood, as long as skilled people are at the drawing table. There's hardly a new idea in "Species," but a very talented cast and strong direction by Roger Donaldson—and one unusual element—make this a far better picture than the vast majority of "Alien" wannabes. For one thing, Sil is driven by impulses she doesn’t understand but which are so compelling she never questions them. She’s not really a sympathetic figure—particularly when she goes all monster on us—but there remains enough residual sympathy that she never quite crosses over to Mere Monster.

Sil is initially a very appealing character, both as a child and as an adult; on the train, the child Sil is delighted to find that a bag she stole contains a miniature TV set, and her bright, happy smile makes us grin, too. The adult Sil buys a dress she thinks is pretty, and parades proudly down Hollywood Boulevard, unaware (and uncaring) that she's a little absurd. Her dreams trouble her; she's not especially violent by nature—in fact, one of her murder scenes feels like (and is) left over from an earlier, more conventional script; it's now out of character.

Sil is a strange, but weirdly appealing combination of specific drive (to reproduce), confusion (she doesn't know why she's here), naivete (she's only two years old, really), power and innocence. She's also brutally efficient when she needs to be. She captures a woman with a plan in mind; when they woman, tied to a bed, pleads to be set free, telling Sil she wouldn't harm her, the now-wiser Sil says, rather sadly, "Yes you would; you just don't
know it yet."

Dennis Feldman's script (which various other writers contributed to) cuts to the chase in the first scene and never cuts away. There are no side issues, no sudden developments, no unexpected complications: this is a tale of pursuit and evasion. Other such movies have tried to increase interest by tossing in complications, which almost always end up playing like that's exactly why they were added. Although they are very different in terms of style, "Species" wisely follows the example of "Alien:" here is the menace, here is what it can do, and here's why it's hard to stop it.

We never know for certain if Sil's malignant nature is a result of the way Fitch and his colleagues raised her, or if it is built into her alien DNA. The aliens who sent the information may have really been benign; Sil might have been an ambassador of good will, and the human race might just have screwed up once again. This ambiguity remains even at the end; it's not confusion, it's a deliberate decision, and one of the wisest that someone made along the way from production to screen. However, “Species” was successful enough to generate two sequels which wiped out the ambiguity: the aliens are here to take over.

The cast is respectable and good. Madsen hasn’t been seen very much recently, but of course Helgenberger is now a star of one of the most popular TV series, “C.S.I.” Alfred Molina keeps turning up in unexpected places, as Diego Rivera in “Frida” (2002) and, most famously, as Doctor Octopus in “Spider-Man 2.” Forest Whitaker is good in a very badly-written character; the writers don’t seem to understand what the term “empathy” means; Whitaker shifts from being telepathic to precognitive to just a good guesser, and covers the terrain between.

"Species" is one of those SF-horror movies that was probably enjoyed most by those least familiar with SF-horror movies, and who are under 40. Those who won't like it will chafe at the familiarity of the plot, pointing out similarities to "Eve of Destruction," "Village of the Damned" and the British TV production "A for Andromeda," which is especially similar to "Species." (I'm not suggesting plagiarism; it's highly unlikely Dennis Feldman ever saw that show, telecast over 40 years ago.)

But in so doing, they'll miss the real virtues of "Species:" Donaldson's unrelenting, tense direction; the sense of camaraderie generated by the actors; Henstridge's surprisingly sensitive and appealing debut performance; and the clarity of the straight-line narrative. No, "Species" is not an original film -- but it is a very well-done variation on a familiar theme.

It’s also one of the rare films for which being shown in Blu-Ray’s high definition system is a handicap. This was early in the days of computer graphics, and the resolution of the computer-generated images is inferior to the rest of the film. They’re just as crisp and clear, but they’re also much more obviously special effects. This is a handicap in the climax of the movie, partly set in a sewer with metal walkways over the water beneath, and an especially phony-looking cave. Even the very last few shots of the movie are damaged by too much clarity—and they were a bad idea in the first place.

One of the most telling aspects of “Species” is that ultimately it’s a good movie of its type—but it’s reputation has been damaged by its two far inferior sequels.

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