Revisiting Species: an unloved franchise

Why is Species such an unloved franchise? Tom aims to find out, one film at a time...

Species

It’s probably no revelation to anyone reading this that the Species franchise started as something which left fans looking for more, but ended leaving them pleading for no more whatsoever. After all, there are only so many half alien, half human hybrids having sex with innocents in order to give birth to more half alien, half human hybrids stories one person can be expected to sit through.

The first film appeared to be a financial success in 1995, the second one not so much in 1998, and by this point, many fans had lost faith. That faith wasn’t restored by the disastrous Species III in 2003, which had been cursed to live life as a straight-to-DVD release. After the third film it seemed like the franchise was dead in the water, until the surprising release of Species: The Awakening in 2007, which divided opinions amongst what was left of the fan base.

But how did such a promising franchise end up like this? And when did the budget get so low that the series was left dragging itself along the floor like a zombie with no legs? There’s only one way to answer that: one film at a time…

Species

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The first Species film was something of a mystery to me until about two years ago when I finally managed to catch it on television after much persuasion from my mum that it was “really good”.

The film opens with something that, honestly, was fairly mundane. A young girl (who just happens to be a half alien, half human hybrid, natch) manages to escape a group of scientists who are performing numerous tests on her, and makes it out into the big wide world.

One thing I always admired Species for, though, even within minutes of it starting, was that it seemed to know the idea it was presenting was a little over the top, yet carried on anyway. It seemed, for instance, to be trying to provide some gravity to the plot with the group of “experts” who were tracking the alien down. You may wonder why I placed the word ‘experts’ under speech marks; well, the answer is that I found myself questioning the credibility of Forest Whitaker’s character Dan Smithson from pretty much the moment he wandered onto the screen.

Dan claims to be an ‘Empath’ (a fancy word for a psychic). I kept asking myself, “If a creature that dangerous escaped into the world would the first person at the top of your list of people to retrieve it really be a psychic?” I almost felt bad asking this, as Whittaker’s character seemed like such a likeable fellow, however, I quickly returned to my original question after he made some downright daft statements. A particular favourite from this all-seeing psychic? “Something bad happened here,” (after seeing a dead body) and “She just wants to be free,” (after seeing the prison she escaped from). It really doesn’t take a psychic to see these things. Dan Smithson is no Allison Dubois, that’s for sure.

The other characters are, however, a little more credible. Ben Kingsley plays the part of the somewhat delusional scientist responsible for the creation of the creature. Alfred Molina plays the part of a fellow scientist to Kingsley, while Michael Madsen and Marg Helgenberger are given roles which are purely created to bring some sexual tension to the film. Which, quite frankly, isn’t really required when there is a sex crazed alien on the run.

Shortly after her escape, the girl, now referred to as Sil, cocoons herself in what can only be described as something akin to female genitalia, and emerges as the beautiful Natasha Henstridge, who has only one thing on her mind: sex. Sil wastes no time when attempting to find a mate, and as soon as she is cleaned up and dressed she heads straight to a nightclub in order to find that lucky someone.

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Meanwhile, the group of experts are spending their time messing about with some test samples, which results in a creature which appears to be heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s The Thing. Although I’m sure this was supposed to add some action in a space left between the long chats amongst the experts and the murders Sil is committing, quite honestly, it all felt a little boring.

Although the cast managed to convince me they were scared, the timing seemed to be a little off, and there were a couple of moments where I felt a real jump could have been provided if the timing had been tighter. What we were left with was a fairly ugly and clumsy looking set of tentacles trying to attack our heroes, but failing miserably. Ah, well.

This is the point where the action kicked in, though. Sil finally finds a man suitable of fathering her child (I never realised aliens could be so picky), but before she can finish what she started, she is interrupted by the experts, who, after half an hour of talking, have finally managed to track her down.

Finally, as a last attempt at throwing them off her scent, Sil convinces the experts she is dead, and it really seems like things are over. It’s not until the experts check into a hotel for the night that my heart started pumping like mad. The tension had finally been turned up, as Sil crept round the experts, leaving them oblivious to the fact she had survived. It’s amazing how an expert specifically sent to look for you would be thrown off by some dodgy hair dye and a new dress.

What follows is both moronic and brilliant. Alfred Molina’s character is killed by Sil after a particularly violent sex scene which leaves him lying in a pool of blood. This seemed particularly daft, given that he was one of the aforementioned experts, who then had his aforementioned eyes averted by the aforementioned hair dye. Were we really supposed to believe that he couldn’t recognise her, just so he could get his leg over? Still, it was all good, ludicrous fun on the way to the finale.

For the experts manage to chase Sil into the sewers (very original), and what follows is a game of cat and mouse on a massive scale. Ben Kingsley’s character is finally killed after being pulled into the water by Sil, and this was the first moment where I truly jumped out of my seat. There were elements of the influence of Jaws right there.

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Still, there’s no denying that a lot of the CGI elements in this segment are a little ropey, but at the time, I really didn’t care. I appreciate the fact it was only 1995, and we still weren’t on the cutting edge of technology and so I felt this could be excused.

As the film comes to an end, a slightly more successful CGI scene shows its face when Sil gives birth to a child who grows at an accelerated rate. Marg Helgenberger plays the stereotypical damsel in distress as she falls down what seems like a tiny slope into some shallow water screaming, “Help me, I can’t get out!” It’s okay: I didn’t get it either. Why didn’t she just climb back up? And the excuse ‘the rocks were slippery’ really doesn’t cut it on this occasion, she could quite easily have climbed out to safety. The fool. Sil and her newborn are eventually slain by the group and she plunges into the water.

The final scene of the film is one of the highlights, and it just screams sequel. And a sequel was to follow, of course.

So what did I truly think of this as a way to kick off a new franchise? Well surprisingly, I really liked it. There are some massive flaws, and I don’t deny that. There are moments where the CGI is extremely ropey, the characters seem so 2D I wondered if they were just cardboard cut-outs of the actors and the dialogue seems like it was crafted by a six-year-old, but I truly didn’t care.

H.R Giger’s design work was brilliant, the film got my adrenaline pumping, and I felt like cheering when Sil was killed. It’s what guilty pleasures in the DVD collection are all about.

Next time, though, I will revisit Species II; Was Michael Madsen right to describe it as a “crock of shit”? It’s not the most tense cliffhanger to leave you on, granted…

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