Monday, February 25, 2019


Despite mixed to negative critical reviews, Species became a box office smash in the summer of 1995, grossing $113 million worldwide and ultimately leading to a theatrical sequel (Species II) as well as two direct-to-video sequels. Dennis Feldman wrote the script on spec after his initial treatment, "The Message," which approached the concept as a police procedural, attracted no attention from the studios. The extraterrestrial design was eventually assigned to H. R. Giger, responsible for the distinctive look of the Alien franchise, and his vision was brought to cinematic life through practical models designed by collaborator Steve Johnson and computer-generated imagery by Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios. But it was the high concept of “sexy, oft-naked female alien” that propelled the movie and its sequels, proving exploitation-film fundamentals just as reliable as ever.

Species (1995) d. Roger Donaldson (USA) (108 min)

Working from an email-from-space DNA recipe, erstwhile scientists create a femalien (dubbed SIL) with fashion-model curves bent on finding an appropriate mate in Los Angeles (no small feat). Hot on her hot tail is a hand-picked crew of “experts in their fields” (Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina, Forrest Whitaker) trading quips and theories as they pursue their quarry hither and yon. Unfortunately, all the flaws of second-tier genre pics (inane banter, flat characters, face-palm plot devices) are on hand without much to balance the scales. (Natasha Henstridge, making her film debut, looks great in the buff and Steve Johnson’s makeup effects are enjoyable indeed, even if H.R. Giger’s creature design ends up looking disappointingly like an early draft of his Alien xenophobe and is even less impressive when realized in 1990s CGI.)

Screenwriter Dennis Feldman shoulders most of the blame here, since his characters are all given a limited number of notes to play – “types” rather than people. Whitaker’s unbearably melodramatic “empath” comes off worst, a combo psychic/expository device there to tell the group, “She went that way,” “She’s angry,” “She’s looking to breed,” or my personal favorite, “Something bad happened here.” (It works great as a drinking game, less so as a narrative device.) But Madsen draws an equal amount of unintentional laughs, his bizarre fondling of pistol grips trading time with a penchant for crouching awkwardly on car hoods. The early scenes, featuring Michelle Williams as the young SIL, succeed best, before the unrepentantly stupid dialogue and poorly thought-out plotlines require a brain-spraining degree of suspension of disbelief.

What should have been an entertainingly trashy big-budget B-movie slam-dunk ends up feeling equal parts bloated, insulting, and self-important, but audiences flocked to it anyway.

Species II (1998) d. Peter Medak (USA) (93 min)

Returning from NASA’s first mission to Mars, Commander Patrick Ross (Justin Lazard) is contaminated by an alien virus that transforms him into a sex-crazed, half-E.T. killing machine. Meanwhile, a government think tank led by Dr. Laura Baker (Marg Helegenberger) has created a clone of SIL called “Eve” (Natasha Henstridge) for the high-minded purpose of… um, well, we’ll get back to you on that one. After Ross racks up an impressive streak of sex murders (literally, since his female victims meet their demise after being impregnated with alien spawn), the military brass (George Dzundza, sporting a distracting bright blue contact lens) recruits contract killer Press Lennox (Michael Madsen, looking even less interested this time around, which is saying something) to team up with Baker and her scientific team. Only one problem: Eve senses her own DNA in Ross, kicking her desire to mate and kill into overdrive, culminating in an incredible monster-sex-slamdown climax.

A marked improvement over its lugubrious predecessor, mostly because it knows what it is (cheesy sci-fi monster movie) and makes no pretentions to the contrary. Henstridge keeps her clothes on this time around (although how she earned such a diverse wardrobe while still a lab rat is a puzzle), with Lazard’s myriad sexual partners (Nancy La Scala, Raquel Gardner, and Tracy Metro among them) tasked with taking up the slack. Richard Belzer, James Cromwell, and Mykelti Williams co-star, and Steve Johnson’s makeup and creature designs are pleasingly inventive. Yes, the Peter Medak at the helm is the same Peter Medak who directed The Changeling, The Ruling Class, Zorro the Gay Blade, and The Krays.

Species III (2004) d. Brad Turner (USA) (112 min)

Despite the six-year lag in production, SIII picks up immediately from where the previous installment left off with Eve’s offspring being plucked up by genetic scientist Dr. Abbott (Robert Knepper) and raised to adulthood, which, for anyone paying attention, is usually a matter of days and weeks. Under his secretive care, she blossoms into Sara (Sunny Mabrey), named after a boxed cheesecake with the last name Lee, another blonde, beautiful, and clothing-shy alien with a growing lust for breeding. Abbott decides he needs an assistant, recruiting brainiac student Dean (Robin Dunne) just about the time that the Patrick Ross/Random Chicks offspring (from Species II) start showing up at his doorstep looking for their purebred sibling. It seems that the half-breed versions of Species are susceptible to disease and are looking to incorporate Sara’s purer DNA into the mix.

Overlong and wildly convoluted, the only things that this chapter has going for it are – hate to say it, because I know how it sounds – the naked physical attributes of Mabrey and Amelia Cooke, playing her half-breed ally/nemesis. When the ladies doff their duds (which is not uncommon), it’s at least a distraction from the fact that screenwriter Ben Ripley and director Turner have no idea what they are doing other than marking time. Natasha Henstridge graciously appears in an opening reel cameo and I hope she bought something nice for her troubles.

Species: The Awakening (2007) d. Nick Lyon (USA) (103 min)

After the disappointment that was Species III, it’s surprising anyone asked that installment’s screenwriter, Ben Ripley, to give it another shot. But ask they did. Ripley goes back to the lab to concoct a reason to keep this franchise afloat, rejiggering the original concept of an alien/human hybrid by making her a stable organism that grows to adulthood like any normal human being. Brilliant college professor Miranda Hollander (Helena Mattsson) remains unaware of her synthetic origins… until she suffers a mysterious blackout and awakens amid the bloody aftermath of a mass slaughter. After “uncle” Tom (Ben Cross) reveals the truth, the pair heads for Mexico to locate Forbes (Dominic Keating), the scientist who created Miranda, who reveals that she is at the end of her life cycle and needs a stem cell transfusion to continue her existence.

While a slight step up from the mushy padding and plotting of the previous installment, the absence of proper funding and the challenge of incorporating new ideas while staying within the franchise’s guidelines prove problematic. Mattson is an attractive and oft-unclothed presence, to be sure, and she is matched by sexy and exotic Mexican telenovela star Marlena Favela as Forbes’ similarly conceived alien partner/lover Azura. But outside of dropping their dresses when the occasions call for it, they are given little to do except stare blankly as the “learned men” spout exposition. Favela does have some bizarre action sequences (dressed as a nun) where she springs from rooftop to rooftop with her killer tongue awag, but they are more silly than thrilly.


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