The Species Expanded Universe. Yeah you heard me right. Who knew there was such a thing? And why did I actually sit through all of them? Perhaps the urge was coded into my DNA by aliens from another galaxy.
In his commentary, the director of Species III asserts that woman in particular relate to this franchise. They love the first one, in fact. A movie that features a human-alien hybrid who turns into an uncontrollable sex monster the moment she becomes fertile, with the single-minded, irrepressible urge to breed being her only purpose? I’ll have to take his word on that one.
As I attempted to survive the otherworldly onslaught of this franchise, I was reminded of an old Bill Hicks bit; how did he get his television show green-lit in Hollywood? He said “Yes” when the executives asked him, “Will there be titty?”
When it comes to Species, that executive was one Frank Mancuso Junior, producer of the Friday The 13th sequels, who was involved in every instalment here, in some way or another. In 1995 “Femme Fatale” was all you really needed to include in your elevator pitch to hit paydirt (Disclosure came out on 1994 for example, and The Babysitter was released the same year as Species. Hundreds of medium-to-large “erotic thrillers” were released to cinemas during the decade). So what could be more lucrative than a sexy ALIEN Femme Fatale? Clearly not much, considering the phrase is included in the official synopses of each film.
Okay, let’s get ready receive some signals from outer space!
Scientists use the world’s largest radio telescope to send messages into outer space. Twenty years later they receive a message giving instructions on how to mix human and alien DNA to form ‘Sil’, a new species. Sil – in the shape of a beautiful young woman – escapes from the observation facility and must be stopped before she mates with a human male and creates a new species which could overwhelm mankind!
Director Dennis Feldman had been shopping around his “DNA from space” script since 1987 before he struck upon the idea of adding nudity as the secret ingredient. That, and creature designs from the inimitable HR Giger, are really what made the media pay attention to Species on release. The poster featuring star Natasha Henstridge was ubiquitous in film magazines that year.
The film opens with a tear-shedding Ben Kingsley gassing a young Michelle Williams with cyanide only for her smash through her glass prison and break loose. Hiding from her tormentors on a train, with popping buboes and tentacles bursting from her face, she builds a cocoon and transforms into her adult form: former model Henstridge, making her cinematic debut. Her fun performance the highlight of the whole film. Basically, the rest of the plot revolves around her trying to find a man to have sex with. This gobbles up about ninety minutes of screen time.
The film bizarrely loads up with character actor heavyweights saddled with idiotically hilarious names like ‘Preston Lennox’ and ‘Xavier Fitch’. There’s Kingsley of course, as well as Alfred Molina, Michael Madsen, and Marg Helgenberger as the token science lady. Forest Whitaker plays an “empath”, which seems at first to suggest that he is a John Douglas-inspired psychological profiler, but it’s more he simply has psychic superpowers like being able to sense mechanical dangers and which direction to go in to find Sil.
The plot is astonishingly stupid at turns; when Sil escapes from a nightclub into the night after killing some horny partiers to do untold damage – after all, she could have a dozen babies! She could lay a thousand eggs! – Kingsley decides his team should all get a good nights’ sleep.
Sure, it’s not like humanity itself is in danger of extinction or anything.
Finally, after Sil decides Alfred Molina is the perfect candidate to breed with, the surviving members of the team hunt Sil with flamethrowers through sewers beneath their hotel which are flooded with oil after an earthquake, and burn her up in an enormously derivative climax.
Apart from the absurd plot turns, Species is mostly notable for how extensively it wasted HR Giger’s talents. The behind-the-scenes footage shot in his Swiss studio reveal just how much effort he poured into the concept designs, with almost none of it surviving into the finished film. It was all too “weird” for the executives, which forces the question of why they would hire him in the first place. Instead, practical designs are replaced with computer effects shoddy even for the 90’s.
A sad echo of Giger’s original vision.
Giger spent his own money to create a remote control model locomotive train with nightmarish skulls and bone carriages, and articulated jaws revealing blood-spurting tongues, engineered from horse teeth and the rib cages of cattle. It’s on screen for three seconds.
SPECIES – THREE NIPPLE TENTACLES OUT OF FIVE
That’s it. That’s all you get!
SPECIES II (1998)
After the first film made $113 million worldwide, a sequel rushed to the screen just three years later.
When astronaut Patrick Ross returns from Mars infected with an alien virus and now obsessed with spreading his alien seed (ugh) across the planet Earth, scientists must use a pseudo-alien clone to hunt him down. Despite being a different character, Henstridge was contracted for a trilogy, so she returns to play Eve, whilst only Madsen and Helgenberger join her from the original cast, presumably for the paychecks more than anything else. Henstridge is in all of two scenes in the first hour. Apart from James Cromwell, the rest of the cast is filled out by complete unknowns, with Justin Lazard starring as Patrick. He had a really big future, surmised the director. It appears he quit acting by the turn of the century.
“Wanna try my space flakes, baby?”
It’s all shoddy CGI tentacles and thirty-second pregnancies, with some admittedly fun but cheap practical effects: exploding bellies and plastic “liquid nitrogen” guns. Somehow Eve can telepathically see through Patrick’s eyes, allowing Madsen to hunt him down. Soon however, she gets the horn for him and escapes the containment facility to find him herself. Ripping Aliens off shamelessly, the heroes discover the children have all turned into chrysalises which they proceed to destroy. Eve fights Patrick – now transformed into his Giger-form too – to the death.
The special effects … aren’t great.
As well as an actual budget, the producers have also given up on trifling technical concerns like coherence. The script announces its silliness immediately, opening on the surface of Mars with black goo sneaking aboard the astronauts’ ship. Apparently said goo is related to Sil, even though that makes no sense. Unfortunately for Patrick’s lovers, after some vigorous sex they immediately conceive and gruesomely deliver his sons in a very explosive way. He then stashes them away in a barn of all places.
Species II was helmed by Hungarian-born Peter Medak, a director with a vast back catalogue of credits. He seems something of an unusual choice for a genre sequel, but he did begin his career as an assistant director on various Hammer Horror productions. However, he seems to have treated Species II like a vacation from making “good movies”, and only really perks up during his commentary when discussing the twenty dresses he had made for a single scene where Henstridge runs whilst shot in slow motion. He leerily remarks that she’s “one of the dishiest ladies in film” at one point. Otherwise, he freely admits he used the production to cast his Thespian mates.
Henstridge, looking for the set exit.
Apart from the alien menace, each film throws in a little daffy extra science fiction too, just for shits and giggles. It’s mentioned off-handedly in the first film that the aliens actually sent two messages, one for a “superior catalyst for methane” which would provide humanity with an infinite energy source, whilst a plot strand in the third involves a fusion reactor that would provide humanity with … another infinite energy source. We’re treated to a scientist ranting about finding carbon-based elements in fossils, which exist only in the Magellanic galaxy, 100-million light years away from Earth. I don’t believe that makes any sense.
Everyone overacts, from George Dzundza’s bloated, one-eyed colonel, to the horny astronauts who can only think about getting it on when they arrive back on Earth. The monster is defeated by getting stabbed in the back with a pitchfork. Henstridge is again the best thing about the franchise, having enormous fun performing her own stunts, bursting through windows and getting covered in squibs to be “shot”. Giger presumably returned to have a hand in the design of the monsters due to his admiration of the director, but the May 1998 issue of SFX magazine reported that he’d asked MGM to remove his name from the credits.
The film’s original ending was to be a funeral for Patrick, but the studio demanded the shock twist of one of his sons surviving, ready for a sequel. In a few ways this film is markedly more fun than the first, abandoning any sense of realism for silly sci-fi tropes, but in general it’s an uninspired retread, the familiar cash-in sequel.
SPECIES II – ONE MAGELLANIC FOSSIL OUT OF FIVE
SPECIES III (2004)
After the second film grossed less than twenty million dollars at the American box office, it’s a surprise really that a third film was commissioned. I suspect that by 2004, the success of properties such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica had MGM executives searching deep into their vaults for dormant and cheap sci-fi properties to exhume. And for sure, this film is cheap.
Having sunk to a premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel, it clocks in at a painful 147 minutes and is easily the worst of the franchise. It’s also an utterly terrible film when considered on its own merits. There’s no ‘name’ actors and no budget to speak of, and we’re firmly in rubber suit monster territory.
Species III begins moments after the conclusion of the previous film. Despite her unfortunate demise there, Eve gives birth to her own child with grisly-on-a-budget gore before dying again; Patrick’s son is quickly dispatched, too. Henstridge was billed as a “special appearance” and spent one whole day on set. It was reported, though I’m unable to confirm, that she was paid as much for this contract-fulfilling role as she was for the second film.
Her daughter is inexplicably spirited away by a university lecturer of all people. Hidden in his basement, she grows into Sunny Mabrey’s Sara, the “most genetically perfect” Femme Fatale yet, driven by the urge to mate and hunted by a crack military force just like her mom … ‘s clone.
“Show some personality or I’ll kill you!”
So far, so much a retread of the original (like Henstridge, Mabrey was also a former model in her first major role), but that’s not really what happens. Instead we’re trapped and tortured alongside Sara in that basement for days, weeks, months. Time loses meaning as your brain numbs to the sheer lack of plot that doesn’t unfold on screen. On and on it goes, with male hybrids, female hybrids, exploding hybrids, and interminable experiments followed by fight scenes filmed so darkly it’s impossible to even see the now generic monster suits!
There’s definitely something happening here.
Even the sexy alien lady takes third billing behind two UTTER DULLARDS: the genius grad student whose personality consists of a leather jacket, and the aforementioned professor, the type of mad scientist who doesn’t bother to lock his front door whilst he performs alien autopsies in that damned infernal basement.
Director Brad Turner was a jobbing hand at every millennial sci-fi property. He does seem genuinely proud of what they created with their budget, but also seem to think they have to honour the previous films, as if there’s a mythology worth preserving. Turner makes sure not to show Eve’s body being destroyed to keep open the possibility for her to return; but I’m afraid their references to “pure-strains” and “half-breeds” isn’t interesting at all.
Half-human, half-alien, all rubber.
And despite all his commentary talk about female empowerment, Turner admits the true selling point of the other movies when they finally, after centuries, make their first appearance in his – boobs, of course. Sadly the sex scenes have decreased markedly in quality too, like everything else. None of the actors seem to know what the act entails, either physically or emotionally. Whilst Henstridge had a natural presence and easy chemistry with seemingly everyone she shared the screen with, this film is littered with much lesser talent, and none of the men are as goofily attractive as Molina. Meanwhile, you might think rubbery monster coitus might at least be hilarious to watch, but like every other scene featuring effects of any kind, the screen turns to infuriating murk.
Seriously, this film is worse than being eaten alive whilst copulating with an alien. I would imagine.
SPECIES III – ZERO BARBED PENIS-TONGUES OUT OF FIVE
SPECIES IV: THE AWAKENING (2007)
We’ve come a long way baby: from Ben Kingsley to Enterprise’s Malcolm Tucker. Meanwhile, our ostensibly sexy alien-human hybrid this time is Swedish actress Helena Mattsson. She’s gone on to carve out a healthy career in bit parts, including Iron Man, Desperate Housewives, and the first season of Fargo. In a shicking twist, her character starts the film as an adult! And a college professor at that. Let’s hope to god for no more basements.
Zeus punished Man with Woman … is a line from the script.
At least this final instalment attempts to do something different than the first three, which is genuinely a pleasure after the relentless drudgery of the third. Mattson’s Miranda suffers a violent seizure after a class and and wakes up in hospital, surrounded by the gore of mutilated doctors and nurses. Terrified and fleeing the carnage, she seeks an explanation from her only living relative, her uncle Tom. She learns the horrifying truth that she is a alien hybrid herself, full of false memories, injected every so often with human DNA to keep her alive and non-murderous, but now reaching the end of her life. They travel to Mexico to find help from an old colleague (that guy from the sci-fi show), only to find he’s set himself up in the dog cloning business, with a slew of his own ravenous mutants hanging around in conveniently bare warehouses (better than basements, I guess).
Easily the most memorable moment of the franchise occurs here, which is impressive. In the full regalia of a nun’s habit, complete with coif and wimple, the primary ravenous mutant Azura (telenovela stalwart Marlene Favela) appears stalking the streets of Mexico City. She flashes her devilishly forked tongue before leaping over buildings and tossing vehicles around like toys, because why not? The abilities of the hybrids have now become so vague by now everything is up for inclusion.
The Awakening is meant to be a standalone film, but that doesn’t mean the tropes of the original trilogy aren’t obligatory.
Miranda’s “alien instincts” urge her to search out the nearest nightclub (the preferred setting of every film for amorous encounters) to find a dude to bone and to roll out some more rote nudity and bland rutting. Whilst the acting and script are severely lacking, the religious imagery that returns again throughout the film is at least interesting, with a climactic fight that destroys an entire church. The producers of the film wanted to return to the designs of HR Giger in this film, after more generic monsters in the third part. The action is marred by being shot once again in near-total gloom.
In the end Miranda dies heroically, taking all the mad science with her in a hellish fireball (budget appropriate, of course) and seemingly ending the franchise for good this time.
SPECIES IV: THE AWAKENING – THREE INJECTIONS OF HUMAN DNA OUT OF FIVE
+ + +
The franchise is a testament to just how far the promise of bare breasts could take a cinematic franchise before the ubiquity of internet pornography we all know and love today. Over the twelve year period this series lasted, each instalment faced ever-decreasing returns in budgets, box office, and critical reviews before it was finally allowed to expire.
The original is worth watching as a bizarre 90’s curio of nonsense, whilst out of the sequels I’d only recommend the final one, because it at least attempts some sort of original thought. Incidentally, its release year was also the year Pornhub was launched. In a way, it’s a final lewd whimper of a genre – the big budget yet mediocre sci-fi schlocker with a hint of flesh – now mostly consigned to history.
That’s not to say that this IP won’t be regurgitated again. What isn’t? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there’s an executive out there somewhere right now, wondering if titties still sell.
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