"Species" is a pretty good Boo! movie. It's not the kind of sci-fi film that's going to give Stanley Kubrick any sleepless nights, and it may not give the rest of us much sleeplessness either. Its primary purpose in life is to unleash a lot of gloppy morphing and mutating and make us go--all together now --eeeuuuh .
Which is not to say that "Species," directed by Roger Donaldson and scripted by Dennis Feldman, doesn't go in for the usual spate of "cautionary" warnings and thou- shall- not- play- God stuff. High-toned schlock is a standard ingredient in low-grade schlock, and "Species," despite an A-cast including Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker and Alfred Molina, is basically the same B-movie species as "Tarantula," "Them!" and "Attack of the Crab Monsters."
Or the "Alien" movies. The monster designer of "Species," as with those films, is H.R. Giger, and he does similar creepy-crawly work here. But the horror effects, by Richard Edlund and Steve Johnson, are quicker and blobbier. Donaldson goes in for quick surgical strikes where we see just enough of the creature to both repel us and make us want to see more.
Periodically, and less successfully, he works in a weirdo special effect where we apparently are supposed to be looking through the morph's eyes. It's hard to make out what is going on in these moments: It's as if we were peering into the lobster tank of a seafood restaurant through a pair of Blu-Blockers.
The high/low-toned gimmick in "Species" is that a creature--code-named Sil--has been secretly engineered in Utah by U.S. scientists after broadcasting our DNA code to the galaxies and receiving back a code from outer space. The resulting mutant, an intergalactic DNA cocktail, initially takes the form of an angelic-looking blond girl, but a girl with lethal powers who bursts out of a top-secret lab as she's about to be terminated. By the time she slips onto an Amtrak train, Sil has morphed into a leggy goddess (Natasha Henstridge). She's Species as Super-model.
At least those aliens have a sense of humor.
In pursuit of her destruction are project leader Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley); Press (Michael Madsen), a Marine-trained hit man; Dan (Forest Whitaker), an "empath" who can read feelings; Laura (Marg Helgenberger), a molecular biologist with a yen for Press; and Arden (Alfred Molina), a nebbishy Harvard anthropology professor. It's the kind of dream team you want in your corner when you're out hunting morphs.
Most of the hunt takes place in Los Angeles, where Sil disembarks in search of a hunk to mate with. The idea that a super-model mutant morph could sashay undetected in L.A. is a good joke. So is the way she learns the sex act from studying an adult channel in her hotel. Sil's predatory instinct and mating instinct are twinned. She hooks up with a smoothie who has the kind of gleaming condo that comes equipped with clap-on lights; showing unexpected taste, she moves on to a more giving guy with a back-yard jacuzzi.
The attempt to turn the pursuers into a slapstick wild bunch doesn't really come off. (Tonal shifts are not Donaldson's forte.) The cast can't seem to stay in the same movie together: Kingsley, complete with bald pate and sliced syllables, seems to be trying to morph into the late Donald Pleasence; Madsen affects a Mitchum-like sleepiness; Whitaker seems clueless about his role, maybe because the role itself is clueless. Dan's vaunted empathy--when, for instance, he walks in on a bloody murder scene--takes the form of saying things like "something horrible happened in here."
"Species" is on equally specious grounds when it tries to work up radical feminist points, especially since the filmmakers specialize in gobs of appropriately gratuitous nudity. But it's fun to find in-your-face feminism rearing its Medusa head in this glop-a-thon. Sil, for example, was engineered as a female because women are supposedly "more docile." That gets a big laugh. So does the scene where Sil gets carried away and pokes her tongue clear through the skull of a paramour. Now that's deep kissing.
The filmmakers try to tantalize us with cosmic thoughts about which half of Sil--the human or the intergalactic--is truly the predatory half. It may not matter. It's not as if we're watching the Discovery Channel here. "Species" doesn't take you anywhere you haven't already visited in the sci-fi realm. But it's an amusingly scary recap of where we've been.
* MPAA rating: R, for sci-fi violence, strong sexuality and some language . Times guidelines: It includes nudity and gruesome squashy horror effects.
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'Species' Ben Kingsley: Fitch Michael Madsen: Press Alfred Molina: Arden Forest Whitaker: Dan An MGM-UA release of a Frank Mancuso Jr. production. Director Roger Donaldson. Producers Frank Mancuso, Dennis Feldman. Executive producer David Streit. Screenplay by Dennis Feldman. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Conrad Buff. Costumes Joe I. Tompkins. Music Christopher Young. Production design John Muto. Set decorator Jackie Carr. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.