Species (1995) – Directed by Roger Donaldson – Starring Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger, Natasha Henstridge, and Michelle Williams.
When I watch a movie like SPECIES (or The Arrival or Mimic), I always end up wishing that this was the kind of movie SyFy would make instead of churning out those awfully schlocky uber-monster movies starring people who haven’t been famous for over a decade. Buying a quality script from an unknown writer is no more expensive than buying a bad script from an unknown writer, and there’s no reason SPECIES couldn’t be made for roughly the same cash it takes to make Sharktopus given the minimal effects shots in the film.
What does SPECIES have that makes it cost-prohibitive to make? Name actors? H.R. Giger’s creature? You could easily downgrade the production cost by using actors from TV shows not ready to make the cinematic jump, and Giger’s Sil, while neat looking, ultimately just looks like the Maschinenmensch mated with the Lizard. And if they’ve got money to make giant crocodiles, they’ve got money to make an alien lizard woman with tentacles that shoot out of her nipples. Heck, you don’t even need to see the alien Sil all that much because who’s gonna complain about seeing more of 1995 Natasha Henstridge?
SPECIES is just good solid sci-fi storytelling. There’s nothing spectacular here, either in script or performance, but SPECIES works because it keeps the narrative simple, the pacing brisk, the direction basic, and allows the actors to do their thing. That last part is critical because these characters, admittedly, are rather simply drawn. Largely one note, it’s the acting that makes them seem believable, and SPECIES has done a bang-up job assembling a team of professional actors to embody its characters: Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger, and Michael Madsen take what they’re given and deliver consistent, compelling performances.
SPECIES roots its story in classic sci-fi goodness: an alien response to the the SETI program’s broadcast results in a half-human, half-alien creature that looks just like a pre-Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams. Sil is growing up too fast in her lab/prison so Xavier Finch (Kingsley) and his government cronies decide to kill her with cyanide gas. As you can imagine, Sil isn’t willing to go along with this plan, so she busts out of her glass cage and hightails it out of the facility, taking refuge in a train and disappearing for parts unknown.
Knowing they need help, Finch assembles a team of experts to track her down: mercenary Preston Lennox (Madsen), molecular biologist Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger), anthropologist Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina), and empath Dan Smithson (Forest Whitaker). I don’t think we can quite call this an “all-star cast,” unless we’re comparing it to the final innings of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game when the field is littered with many of the non-stars from out of contention teams that only make the game because Bud Selig still insists that every team be represented.
He does this, you know, for the kids.
Because kids in Baltimore will totally stay up past midnight to see Matt Weiters get an at bat.
While it may not qualify as an all-star cast it is a very solid one, full of actors you know earning their paycheck by turning in a good day’s work. The assembled team quickly gets to know one another and the most interesting part of this initial exchange is just how committed Forest Whitaker is to playing the goofiest character in the film to its fullest potential. Dan is an empath, which means he can share the feelings of those around him. Preston allows Madsen to do his squinty-eyes, low growl routing and he wants to know what he’s feeling. So Dan tells him that he wants to pretend like nothing gets to him but-
Is that how empathy works? Isn’t that offering more than feelings?
It really doesn’t matter because you know that Preston wants to act like nothing ever gets to him but secretly does because when we first met him we saw that he owns a cat and gives it to a sitter before leaving on his mission.
They don’t know each other or know why they’re here, but as Preston tells them, “If I’m here, I think the sh*t has definitely hit the fan.” The initial meeting is interesting simply to watch all of these actors play off one another. While they’re all quality actors and all (even back in ’95) have a little bit of cache, they’re not necessarily actors I’d envision working together. Ben Kingsley seems clearly above this material, and that actually works because Finch thinks he’s clearly above the rest of the people in this unit. (Which begs the question, of course, why the facility creating Sil from the alien instructions didn’t have some kind of similar group of assembled scientists already working for them.) The most interesting dynamic in the room is the Madsen/Whitaker relationship. Their performances are nearly the antithesis of each other, Madsen only offering as little evidence that he’s alive as possible while Whitaker constantly emotes and moves. What’s fascinating to watch about them is that both Preston and Dan are always thinking and both Madsen and Whitaker doing great work letting us see that the characters are always thinking, even if it manifests in different ways.
Blessedly, the group doesn’t act too overwhelmed by the fact that Finch was growing an alien/hybrid in his lab because SPECIES is a hunt movie and it’s time to get on to hunt.
Sil is growing rapidly, and so on a passenger train to Los Angeles she enters a chrysalis as Michelle Williams and exits as Natasha Henstridge. The rest of the film involves Sil trying to find a suitable mate to get her pregnant, which always seems to end up with rivals or lovers ending up dead, while the team shows up just in time to assess the damage and figure out what Sil is doing. Sil kills one woman in a bathroom because she caught the attention of the man Sil had her eye on, and then kills a potential lover because she recognizes he has diabetes.
Eventually, Sil successfully mates with Stephen; he’s not her first choice but, as the song goes, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. (I’m pretty sure Stephen Stills had alien mating rituals in mind when he wrote “Love the One You’re With.”) While Sil is riding Stephen, Preston and Laura are taking a post-coital nap next door, which leaves poor, awkward Dan caught in the middle. He recognizes that Sil is with Stephen but he needs Preston’s help to be the action guy. Once pregnant and discovered, Sil escapes down into the sewers for the final action sequence. It’s all competently executed but this isn’t an action movie and so the final battle isn’t some spectacular CGI/special effects blow-out. We get to see the tendrils coming out of Sil’s boobs, which is kinda disturbing in a gross way; more effective is her child shooting an alien tongue out of his mouth to eat a rat, illustrating in part how story can trump effects.
Ultimately, SPECIES is still a surprisingly compelling film. It’s nice to watch an adult sci-fi movie that doesn’t insult your intelligence or try to trick you with pyrotechnics. My published fiction puts me on the fringes, rather than the center, of the New Pulp movement, but SPECIES reminds me of the movement in a really positive way – when I read good New Pulp I’m not seeing writers trying to reinvent the wheel; what I see is people who love a genre of stories working in that tradition to provide good, smart, fun stories.
That’s what I see in SPECIES – a love for good, smart science fiction.