When "Species" was released in the summer of 1995, no one expected it to perform.
Even its studio, MGM, famously had low expectations. It should have considered that the combo of slick special effects, gore, ample nudity and a cluster of respectable actors would draw a crowd.
Like “Stargate” and “Stigmata,” “Species [Blu-ray]” was one of the surprise MGM genre smashes of the 1990s.
The film opened the same weekend as the rival big studio heavy hitter, Sean Connery’s “First Knight.” After the opening weekend, and for the rest of the year, Natasha Henstridge’s alien tongue mopped the floor with King Arthur’s Excalibur sword.
“Species” stars the beguiling Henstridge (in her film debut) as SIL, an alien born in captivity. SIL is a concoction of spliced alien and human DNA. Her scientist captors (played by Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger and Michael Madsen) struggle to understand and control her, particularly as SIL grows older at a rapid rate.
Initially played by a pre-“Dawson’s Creek” Michelle Williams (who gives a sympathetic, expressive performance), the role is mostly embodied (in every sense of the word) by Henstridge. Her gorgeous looks mask the monster under the skin.
‘Species’ Speaks to a Fearful Era
If the “Friday the 13th” movies were cautionary tales about teen hook-ups in post-sexual revolution America, then “Species” warned about one-night stands in the age of AIDS awareness.
Is “Species” a sci-fi allegory about sexual compatibility? An outer space “Fatal Attraction”? As much as I want to search for subtext, I’ve never been able to find much in “Species.” The appeal of the film has always been surface level:
Henstridge is beautiful but scary as SI and she isn’t shy about nudity. SIL caps her seduction scenes by turning into a space monster (designed by no less than H.R. Giger) and killing her victims in inventively gross ways.
Why ‘Splice’ Couldn’t Top ‘Species’
The original is a great drive-in B-movie, full of thrills both cheap and start of the art. Years later, the far more elegant “Splice” attempted to make a more thoughtful, artier take on the concept but failed to match the unapologetically crass entertainment value of “Species.” It’s a shame that the series immediately fell apart once the decision was made to turn it into a franchise.
ike the follow-ups to “The Howling,” the sequels are awful.
Three years later came “Species II,” in which an astronaut, possessed by an alien virus, stalks around Maryland in search of a mate. Like most horror movie sequels, “Species II [Blu-ray]” is bigger, more explicit in every way and one-ups the original concept. Yes, now there are two attractive sex-crazed aliens running loose! It’s also terrible, an elaborate exploitation movie about a handsome space rapist.
Whereas the original sports a fiendish sense of humor and a classy presentation, the second helping of SIL is vile and disgusting. Michael Madsen is visibly embarrassed to be the film’s star, appearing as though he were waiting for Kingsley or Whitaker to show up and salvage it.
Worthy of note is how the first scene takes place on Mars, the setting of Henstridge’s forthcoming vehicle, “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars,” a far better combo of B-movie cheesiness and sci-fi tropes.
I first encountered “Species III” when it premiered on the Syfy Channel in 2004. Henstridge appears in the first scene, gives birth to an alien spawn, then dies. It’s hardly a fitting sendoff for a genre icon like Henstridge, who became a versatile character actress elsewhere.
The low-budget “Species III” mostly takes place on a college campus, where a professor raises SIL’s offspring, “Sara” (Sunny Mabrey). Her love interest is played by Robin Dunne of “The Skulls II” and “Cruel Intentions 2” fame.
Mabrey had featured roles in “XXX: State of the Union” and “Snakes on a Plane” that never catapulted her career. Mabrey and Dunne have both found success as TV actors and clearly survived the time their onscreen sexual encounter turned into a monster mash.
The 2007 “Species – The Awakening,” another Syfy channel premiere, is a howler. It’s somehow far cheaper looking than its predecessor.
It opens on a college campus, once again setting this franchise in a misplaced location. Who in their right mind thought a T&A killer alien franchise should be set in the same locale as “Scent of a Woman?”
Actually, I know the answer: it’s screenwriter Ben Ripley, who wrote this and “Species III.” He later wrote “Source Code,” so all is forgiven.
The fourth “Species” is very talky, and it goes on for what feels like days. Its sole distinction: it stars Ben Cross, the former “Chariots of Fire” lead who has been stuck in many B-movies since. Cross played the villain in “First Knight,” which got clobbered at the box office by the original “Species.” Poor guy. This series must be for him like the memory of that bully who gave him titty twisters in middle school.
Fans and series completists will be very happy with the Scream Factory releases of “Species II” and the double feature pack of “Species III” and “Species: The Awakening.” These are exceptional releases of, to put it nicely, movies that are less than great. Each offers gobs of entertaining, behind the scenes info for their fan base.
New, Old ‘Species’ Stories
The “Species II” disc is loaded with extras. Some of them are carried over from a previous release (like the more explicit, unrated footage of key scenes). The best of the features are indeed special and worth watching for sci-fi buffs. Even those who checked out after the original “Species” may enjoy them.
Henstridge gives a lively interview, covering her introduction to the “Species” franchise and some of the career missteps that followed.
The interview with screenwriter Chris Brancato amusingly begins with his noting how gross the film he wrote truly is. The best of the featurettes centers on the film’s special effects artists, who remain proud of the under-appreciated work they accomplished.
Noting how the film has very little CGI and features full-sized alien mock-ups, it made me more impressed (if not necessarily a bigger fan) of the movie itself. There are other special features (like a mostly technical but interesting commentary by the film’s director, Peter Medak), making for a packed, enjoyable disc.
Most of the supplements on the “Species III” disc are carried over from a prior release. They still are thorough and cover a lot of ground for franchise fans. There are two new interview segments (one with the film’s star, Helena Mattsson, the other with the director Nick Lyon) on the “Species: The Awakening” disc. They are much more interesting than the film itself.
I am SIL, Here Me Roar
The makers of “Species III” frequently claim these movies offer a commentary on female empowerment. If there’s any message that can be derived from the “Species” films, it’s this: if your night club hook-up resembles Henstridge, it’s probably too good to be true.