(By Andres Gallego) - There are few movies that come to you at the right point in life. One of those films for myself was director Roger Donaldson’s SPECIES (1995). While there are many films that upon release are chalked up as schlocky science fiction exploitation films, Species is one of those rare films that not only was unfairly judged upon release, but it was bold and ahead of it’s time in many ways. There are very few films that offer the themes of female sexuality and empowerment wrapped in the guise of a Science fiction Creature feature…
…The basic premise of the film, written by Dennis Feldman, is about a space exploration group, S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) that receives a message from an unknown source from the deep reaches of space. The message contains instructions on how to splice alien DNA with human DNA. A government research team, led by Ben Kingsley’s Xavier Finch, moves forward with the genetic experiment to produce a Human/Alien hybrid female code named “Sil.” The Government deems Sil a threat when things take a turn after Sil rapidly ages to a 12-year-old girl in only 3 months and begins to expose some of her alien nature. Sil manages to escape her termination attempt. Finch puts together an eclectic group consisting of researchers, an empath, and a mercenary to hunt down Sil, who has now matured to a full-grown female adult as she heads to Los Angeles with only one goal: To mate.
The first thing that must be spoken about this film is the cast. From Oscar Winning actors (Ben Kingsley, Forrest Whittaker, Alfred Molina, and briefly Michelle Williams) to character actors (Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger) this cast is great! The script, while not the best written, in the wrong hands could have easily have been portrayed and played as sci-fi exploitation, yet the cast plays it straight. It’s also impossible to talk about this film without talking about Natasha Henstridge. While most at the time of the film’s release would call the role of Sil as nothing more than “A Horny space alien that when she doesn’t get her way, causes trouble”, those criticisms undermine the subtle, predatory, and alien performance she gives in few words. While a lot of moments in the script can be a bit cartoony, it also allows Henstridge to play on smaller character moments. From the small moments of her taking in everything around her such as discovering television, learning to drive, staking out a nightclub for potential victims….err mates, Henstridge is always on point and her performance draws you in.
There’s something fascinating from watching an alien act like us and learning and playing on our weaknesses. On the flipside, it’s also great to see how she turns the tides of power in her attempts to mate. Her first potential mate she picks up at a club and rejects when she discovers he’s a diabetic. He doesn’t take the rejection well and makes it clear that she’s not leaving until he’s finished with her. Watching the subtle changes in Sil’s attraction to the male clubber is fascinating as she goes from a sexual curiosity to predatory, seemingly giving into him, only to have her brutally and easily dispatch him. In today’s post #MeToo atmosphere, watching this type of scene where we cheer for the villain to dispatch that piece of crap and turn the tides so brutally is so satisfying. Henstridge owns her sexuality as Sil and that, combined with her small alien moments and her magnetic grey eyes, adds to the alien quality that turns the performance magnetic.
You also can’t not talk about the great animatronic and creature design work from H.R. Giger. The design work from the one who brought us the Xenomorph is unique to the story and adds to the sexual aspect of this film. Giger’s art itself instills a feeling of sexuality in the biomechanical and that art style for a film about an alien so desperately wanting to mate allows for perfectly matched sensibilities for both the artist and project. The translucent look of the creature revealing its insides on camera for the duration of the third act and in brief nightmare sequences is terrifying imagery.
While there’s so many aspects I absolutely love about this film and how bold it was, the third act falls into what the worst version of this film was supposed to be. It turns into the typical “let’s hunt the creature in its final form” plot, chasing the creature into the sewers before…not saying…spoilers guys. The CGI is absolutely terrible and does a massive disservice to all the work put in by Giger and Henstridge. The third act (and the sequels) don’t live up to the potential and the grandeur of what this story could have been. Can you imagine this film if it decided to go with the 70’s dark and grim ending? That would have been a hell of an ending.
While the third act falls apart, it’s not enough to completely destroy the film and the aspirations Donaldson had. The themes of sexuality and how it connects to female empowerment in the film is just ahead of its time, literally. The film was critically panned for being trash cinema in the 90’s, unfairly in my opinion. The film is ultimately a story about a female fighting against the control that the men in her life try to possess over her. Be it from the government heads that created her, her potential suitors, and even the team sent to hunt her, it’s about a woman owning herself and fighting against control over her body. Again, in a post #MeToo world, this theme hits so much harder now more than ever. While of course this is not the best produced film on the matter, and it’s by far not the best science fiction film on it either, it’s enjoyable and reason enough to give Species a second look now.
Overall, Species is a film that gets better with age and can be enjoyed as a straight creature feature. While it’s not perfect by any means, it’s certainly innovative in it’s portrayal of alien and female sexuality that a lot of science fiction films from the 90’s tried to achieve and failed miserably. The performance by Henstridge and the creature design from Giger take this a step above any sci fi exploitation film. It also paved the way for two unique sexual horror science fiction films in SPLICE (2010) and UNDER THE SKIN (2013), as well as three terrible sequels (SPECIES II, SPECIES III, & SPECIES: THE AWAKENING. I definitely recommend it!
Species is now available as a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream factory. You can also stream it on HULU.com, AMAZON PRIME VIDEO, and SHOWTIME ON DEMAND.
By Andres Gallego
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