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Species – film review

September 6, 2013

SPECIES

Giger’s other ‘sexy’ alien.

species sil - h.r. giger

Directed by Roger Donaldson. Written by Dennis Feldman. Starring: Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina and introducing Natasha Henstridge. Year of release: 1995. Running time: 108 mins.

Species scribe Dennis Feldman was initially inspired to pen the screenplay for this sci-fi thriller after hearing of Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that alien visitation of Earth would be highly unlikely due to the vast distances between planetary systems. Feldman’s solution is to have scientists decode a message from outer space in response to signals we sent out as part of Project SETI in 1974. The message contains instructions to synthesize alien DNA and mix it with human DNA – which     the scientists dutifully follow. When a genetically engineered alien-human hybrid (in the form of a beautiful but deadly young woman) escapes from a scientific research facility – a crack team of experts descends on LA in order to locate her before she mates and spawns thousands like her.

natasha henstridge - species

A fourteen-year-old pre-Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams plays the young alien-human hybrid (christened Sil by the scientists) who breaks out of the Utah research facility and makes her way to LA – where she rapidly grows to become Natasha Henstridge – a nineteen-year-old Canadian model in her movie debut. Henstridge effectively conveys just the right mix of naivete and menace – as her character navigates a world completely new to her, while unflinchingly killing those unlucky enough to stand between her and her desire to mate. From the first moment we see her step off the train at LA station wearing a conductor’s hat and blazer – Henstridge demands our attention. And judging by her head-turning stroll along LA streets – we’re not alone. And for someone who had never acted before, although she did have a successful modelling career in New York and Paris (hence her indifference to the amount of nudity her role entails), Henstridge gives a performance which is understated, controlled and convincingly natural. Of the rest of the cast – Alfred Molina fares best as the likeable, if socially inept, anthropologist (who inadvertantly ends up bedding Sil). Forest Whitaker shamlessly overplays the sensitive empath – so that he becomes almost impossible to take seriously. There is absolutely zero chemistry between Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger – despite the fact their characters are meant to convey the awkward rush of sexual tension. And Ben Kingsley – as the group’s leader – has little to do beyond staring gormlessly from the sidelines, like someone who isn’t supposed to be there. And judging from a behind-the-scenes exchange between director Roger Donaldson and Kingsley – it is quite apparent the two men didn’t get along – which may explain why Kingsley was indeed given nothing to do, aside from being a somewhat creepy stalker.

Despite his lack of experience in dealing with complex special effects, Australian director Roger Donaldson, who had just come off a remake of The Getaway, was approached by producer Frank Mancuso to helm Species – as it was hoped he could imbue the character of Sil with sympathetic qualities which weren’t overtly present in the original draft screenplay. Upon reading this draft, Donaldson immediately signed on as director, as he had been looking for just such a complex project to offer up a challenge and provide him with the opportunity to gain new skills in telling stories via the use of special effects. The screenplay, as it was, wasn’t nearly as effects-heavy as the movie ended up being – featuring a single transformation set piece at the end, with Sil pretty much maintaining human form during her various kills. As originally written – Sil’s transformation owed more to Rob Bottin’s monstrous grotesqueries in John Carpenter’s The Thing – differing enormously from what was ultimately achieved on-screen. It was Donaldson who recognized, in the work of H.R. Giger, the eerie sensuality which would be a perfect match for the depiction of Sil’s true incarnation and it was he who was instrumental in seeking the direct participation of the celebrated Swiss surrealist. Unfortunately, as his mother was gravely ill at the time, Giger was unable to leave Zurich and travel to the US and enjoy the hands-on input he had experienced on the original Alien. But this didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the assignment – as was evidenced by the flood of faxed designs he would send to LA daily.

natasha henstridge as sil in species

Once Donaldson was hired, Dennis Feldman’s screenplay went through eight different drafts in as many months (including an uncredited draft by 48 hrs scribe Larry Gross) before it met with the director’s approval. Adhering to Donaldson’s mandate to make Sil more sympathetic, Young Sil’s concerned response to seeing a TV news report on the aftermath of a devastating earthquake immediately endears her to the audience – indicating to us the depth of her humanity. Sure, prior to this we have already seen her gruesomely dispatch a vagabond who attempts to molest her – but the important thing to remember with Sil is that her violent actions are never motivated by any malicious intent. In other words: the alien aspect of Sil’s character is more about survival – than planetary conquest. This is despite the fact Marg Helgenberger’s character speculates at one point that the instructions to create Sil were perhaps     sent so that humanity would wipe itself out before we have the chance to spread out like a noxious weed across the universe. Interestingly this rather bleak and cynical take on the situation is very similar in concept to the premise of future MGM boss Frank Mancuso’s other big summer sci-fi movie, Supernova – which would appear five years later.

Structurally, Feldman’s screenplay is pretty much screenwriting 101 – with plenty of reveals and reversals to maintain our interest. However, when Sil decides she’s had enough with being hunted and resorts to an elaborate Rube Goldbergesque series of machinations in order to fake her own death, the script veers wildly off the path of credibility. During this admitedly well-directed, but ludicrous sequence – Sil abducts a young woman at random, severs the woman’s thumb with pruning shears, severs her own thumb, loads the car with cans of petrol (with the abducted woman tied to the passenger seat), goads Kingsley and his team into pursuing her into the foothills overlooking LA – where she steers the car down a hillside, throws her severed thumb out – and leaps out herself – before the car crashes into a substation power transformer – exploding on impact – as Kingsley and his team arrive to witness the conflagration. As exciting and well-staged as this night-time chase scene is (with an armada of government vehicles and low-flying choppers pursuing Sil along a winding hilltop road) the thinking behind the entire sequence is so outrageously convoluted – that our suspension of disbelief struggles to recover throughout the remainder of     the film.

And just as an aside, if anyone out there who has seen Species has wrestled with     the question of just how exactly Sil knew the power transformer would ignite the petrol cans in the car and set off a fiery explosion – the answer lies in a clip seen earlier during Sil’s TV channel-surfing in the Sahara Hotel room – which foreshadows Sil’s method of demise. As we have seen up to this point, Sil gains her knowledge of the world via things she watches on television. During this particular scene in the hotel room, Sil sees a clip of a 1950 Ford Coupe crashing into an electricity substation which is a scene from the 1958 black and white B-movie Thunder Road – starring Robert Mitchum. But the clip is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it would take mutiple viewings to make the connection – and even then it might not become apparent. Not being familiar with Thunder Road, it is only from listening to the commentary track with Michael Madsen (where he mentions the movie by name – being a huge Robert Mitchum fan) and from further research – that the connection reveals itself. The premise of Thunder Road details the exploits of a daredevil driver who becomes embroiled in his family’s moonshine racket – only to die in a fiery crash, fuelled by the moonshine he is transporting. Once you realize this, it becomes easy to understand from where Sil gained her inspiration – but without prior knowledge of Thunder Road – this reasoning will be lost to the audience and therefore appear as a massive plot hole later on. It may well be a case of the filmmakers being too familiar with the material and assuming the audience are making connections which are clearly visible to the creators – but not necessarily picked up on by the viewer.

hr_giger_li_I

Li – painting by H.R. Giger 1974.

Species marks the fourth time Giger (pronounced ‘Geeger’ with hard g’s) – provided designs for Hollywood movies which were utilized to any great extent. The other examples being the aforementioned Alien (1979), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Alien III (1991). However, after his extensive hands-on contributions to the original Alien; Species holds the distinction of being the next most significant representation of Giger’s visual aesthetic yet put on film.

As a good proportion of biomechanoid human figures featured in Giger’s paintings     are female – it comes as somewhat of a surprise to realize that Sil is in fact the first cinematic incarnation of a female form from Giger’s universe. It is this unique opportunity which initially drew Giger to the project. According to Giger’s manager, Giger himself was very pleased with Steve Johnson’s practical realization of his designs (being particularly enamoured with the copulating aliens – which he praised as being the most faithful on-screen representation of his work yet seen), but he was less than happy with Richard Edlund’s CG version of Sil. And rightly so – as these effects (an early attempt at real-time motion capture – utilizing puppets) are simply awful. They looked cheesy back in the day and appear even worse now. And as Giger observed at the time – there is no reason why these shots during the finale could not have been achieved more convincingly with an actor in a suit, combined with animatronics. Giger, too, was unhappy with Sil’s offspring – feeling it took the focus away from Sil – and thus refused to have any involvement in its design. The resulting CG baby monster is simply appallingly bad in every respect.

hr giger - sil from species

Steve Johnson’s Sil in all her glory.

There are several dream sequences scattered throughout Species – meant to signify Sil’s emerging ‘alieness’ – which don’t really add anything other than a glimpse into Giger’s mind. Mostly we see indistinct images of the two Sil-like creatures copulating underwater. However, the most infamous dream sequence which Giger himself had     a hand in creating is the so-called Ghost Train sequence. For as long as he can remember, Giger has been fascinated by trains. But specifically, he has been haunted by one train in particular – an image he kept revisiting in his dreams over     and over again. During this dream, he found himself standing on a railway station platform as a segmented train – with locomotives in the shape of eyeless human skulls – moved like a giant caterpiller alongside – hoovering up bystanders on the platform with a huge vacuum cleaner appendage as it passed by. Upon first reading the Species screenplay, Giger recognized an opportunity to incorporate his dream into the movie – during a scene where the young Sil (Michelle Williams) awakens on a train heading for LA. The justification for the dream, Giger reasoned, is that it would be a flashback to a previous life Sil had experienced on her home planet.

Giger presented sketches and a storyboard of the proposed 30 second set-piece to studio execs – but was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm – as the sequence, they reasoned, did nothing to forward the plot or develop character (which as any screenwriting student knows – is a sure sign that a scene is superfluous and must therefore be discarded). Not wishing to lose favour with their star designer, however, the studio did finally acquiesce – so long as Giger was able to maintain the costs of fabrication below one hundred thousand dollars.

Giger's species train

Giger’s Ghost Train.

Assembling a team of craftspeople to help him fabricate the radio-controlled miniature train and its station platform, Giger spent several months and $100,000 of his own money to bring this unique vision to reality. Disappointingly, the expertise needed to remotely articulate the vacuum cleaner appendages didn’t exist in Zurich and the miniature was shipped to LA without its platform setting and photographed by Richard Edlund’s visual effects company – disregarding Giger’s storyboard entirely. The completed scene as it appears in the film amounts to only three shots – lasting eight seconds on screen. Adding insult to injury, the studio refused to fully re-imburse Giger for his financial outlay and only covered half the cost of fabricating the miniature. The only real positive to emerge from this episode is that Giger ultimately owns the train outright and is contractually free – if he so desires – to use it for any future film projects which may arise.

While not being particularly scary, there are some truly tense scenes in Species – the standout being the scene where the team attempt to cultivate a follow-up specimen composed entirely of alien DNA – which, naturally, runs amok – threatening to     engulf them all. It is also perhaps the only movie you will ever see which features     a woman’s nipples extending into tendrils – which then throat-fuck a person to death (yes folks – you heard that right).

Aside from the awful CGI, the movie’s other technical aspects are all top notch.     The anamorphic widescreen photography by Andrzej Bartkowiak (Falling Down, Speed, Dante’s Peak, director of Doom) is truly gorgeous. The editing by Conrad     Buff (The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, True Lies, Oscar winner for Titanic) is razor-sharp. And the eclectic music score by composer Christopher Young (Hellraiser, Drag Me To Hell) is one of his best.

The success of Species spawned three shoddy sequels which became progressively more low-rent and sleazy – the second of which is notoriously misogynistic, ugly and unpleasant – and should be avoided at all cost.

If not for the audacious casting of unknown Natasha Henstridge and her impressive and daring debut performance as Sil and the distinctive designs of H.R. Giger – there would be very little remaining which would elevate Species beyond anything but a cheesy, but still enjoyable big-budget Hollywood B-movie. But then again – there’s nothing wrong with that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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6 Comments
  1. Xenolicker permalink

    It’s been a long time since i saw this movie. I love the Giger designs so if this gets a 3D conversion i might check it out again.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Giger in 3D – now that would be cool. 🙂

      • Xenolicker permalink

        Those Xenomorphs extensible jaws shooting out, snapping just in front of me!

      • gregory moss permalink

        Absolutely.

  2. Excellent write-up as always. My favorite bit: I now know how to pronounce Giger! I always wondered. 🙂 Love his work. Although the Species movie is certainly no Alien! Species is one of those that was fun at the time and then when you watch it years later you go “Yikes! This really isn’t very good…”. But, screw it – it’s still fun!

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks! Yeah, it certainly is a great deal of fun and Giger’s work is certainly more upfront here than it was in Poltergeist II. 🙂

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