Dr. Frankenstein, eat your heart out!
While about the best thing I can say about MGM's 1995 monster movie, "Species," is that it's better than its sequel, "Species II," and that's not saying a lot, it does star the attractive Natasha Henstridge, which is saying a lot. I mean, I should think that for most males, Ms. Henstridge, even in her full monster guise, beats looking at old Boris any day.
Unfortunately, one good-looking monster is not enough to make a good monster movie. Things like plot, characters, characterization, atmosphere, suspense, and, dare I say it, scares, are also helpful. But, alas, "Species" is too mundane, too commonplace, too imitative a monster movie for that. Instead of anything particularly creative, we get the usual monster-on-the-loose gambit, with the usual people-running-after-it business.
Here's the deal: There's a creature from another world trying to multiple and take over the Earth. And you can blame it on S.E.T.I. (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). As you know, they've been sending signals into outer space for quite some time. What you didn't know was that they got a signal back, one telling them how to combine space-alien DNA with human DNA to produce a new species. The government scientists couldn't resist the temptation to conduct the experiment, producing a female (because they thought a female would be more docile than a male, ha!) that develops at an enormous speed, escapes her captivity when they try to terminate her, and runs amuck through the populace of Los Angeles.
It appears the creature, whom they named Sil (Henstridge), wants urgently to mate and reproduce, thus ensuring the propagation of its race. Sil is uncommonly gorgeous most of the time, but on occasion turns into an unsightly monster. No explanation for this instant metamorphosis is given, although it's hinted that she's really a peace-loving being who only turns hideous and homicidal when she feels threatened.
Well, she feels threatened about as often as she feels the need to take her clothes off, so we get quite a few scenes of Ms. Henstridge dressed, undressed, and monstrous in almost equal measure. In other words, she's a beautiful, horny, outer-space babe who just wants to copulate, and when she doesn't get her way, boy, does she get angry! I tell you, it's hard to take this seriously, and, thus, it's hard to be frightened by any of it.
Yet, serious is how we're supposed to accept it. We know this because of the team the government puts together to track Sil down. It's led by the project's chief of operations, Xavier Finch, played by Ben Kingsley. You know the movie's got to be serious if Kingsley is in it. His team consists of Preston Lennox, a professional bounty hunter, well played by Hollywood's leading tough guy, Michael Madsen; Dr. Stephen Arden, an anthropologist and expert in cross-cultural behavior, played by Alfred Molina; Dan Smithson, an empath, a person with heightened feelings, extrasensory perception, played by Forest Whitaker; and Dr. Laura Baker, the requisite beautiful scientist, a molecular biologist, played by Marg Helgenberger.
Lennox sums things up pretty well when he tells Finch: "You created a monster with some kind of formula you got from outer space, the damn thing got away, and now you want us to hunt it down and kill it." Yep, that's about the size of it.
Just how seriously serious is this movie beyond the seriousness of the actors involved? You can also tell by the dialogue. When the team comes across the first of Sil's victims, ripped to shreds, with a giant cocoon in the corner of the room, Smithson the empath proclaims, "Something bad happened here." Whoa, no kidding. Later, when the team finds a trail of dead bodies, Lennox announces, "They must have come through here." I tell you, the government spared no expense on these geniuses.
"Species" was written by Dennis Feldman, who clearly got his inspirations from "Alien," "Aliens," "Predator," and "Splash." "Splash," you ask? You remember the mermaid who came ashore and learned about human behavior by watching TV? Sil does the same thing. The movie was directed by Roger Donaldson, whose work, in fairness to the man, has gotten better over time. Since "Species," he's made "Dante's Peak," "Thirteen Days," and "The Recruit." And like most everything else in the movie, even Christopher Young's music seems derivative, which doesn't make it bad but reminds one how much better the atmospheric musical soundtracks of the "Alien" and "Aliens" movies were.
"Species" gets sillier as it goes along. For instance, the team decides to grow another creature to learn more about the one that got away. But this experiment also goes ridiculously awry, with corny, contrived things happening like a TV camera breaking down at the last second and a lost bolt, for heavens' sake, endangering all their lives. At this point, the movie begins looking a lot like an old Flash Gordon serial. A squirrel and later a rat got the biggest responses from me, unintentional laughs.
I'm convinced the only reasons "Species" fared as well as it did at the box office and on video, plus engendered a sequel, are Ms. Henstridge's stunning body and her elaborately grotesque monster costume, both of which are on ample display. Beyond these two admittedly formidable and persuasive assets, the film offers little in the way of excitement, tension, or frights.
The picture quality is fairly unexceptional for a recent DVD release. The image size measures a ratio approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen HD television, with colors that are good, if slightly light in tone. There is also a very slight veil of grain over the proceedings and a few minor moiré-effect issues, but nothing to be concerned about. Darker areas of the screen are a touch murky, and overall definition is only fair.
The audio is available in DTS 5.1 and in the format I listened to, Dolby Digital 5.1. The DD 5.1 audio appeared to me derived from a two-channel stereo mix, but I could not be certain. There is nothing about it that is either good or bad; it simply does its job. The front-channel spread is neither overly wide nor excessively narrow. The deep bass performs well in some scenes and then disappears in others. Dynamics can be sharp and clear and vibrant at times and almost nonexistent at other times. Ditto with the rear channels, which don't exactly light up the room with their presence, but when they are active, as in a car chase late in the movie, they perform well. Even the several helicopter flyovers vary in their amount of dynamics and surround information. So, while it's not a bad soundtrack, it's not a very consistent one, either.
MGM's first edition of "Species" was a no-frills affair. This new edition takes basically the same audio-video transfer and adds a pair of audio commentaries to it. The first commentary is with director Roger Donaldson and actors Michael Madsen and Natasha Henstridge; and the second one is with director Donaldson, producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., visual-effects supervisor Richard Elund, and creature and special makeup-effects creator Steve Johnson. Beyond these commentaries, there still isn't much that's different. There's a five-minute Sneak Peek at "Species III," again starring Ms. Henstridge, basically a promo for the upcoming picture; there's a widescreen theatrical trailer for "Species"; and there are some trailers and ads for various other MGM products. Including only sixteen scene selections continues to strike me as more than a bit stingy. English, French, and Spanish remain as the spoken language choices, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
In the promo for the upcoming "Species III," Ms. Henstridge says that they're making the third movie because people seem to enjoy them. Of course, she's right. The audience for horror films is made up mostly of males, and when you combine a good-looking monster with a beautiful, often naked woman, the target audience is going to sit up and take notice. That still doesn't make for a good film, though.