(Roger Donaldson, USA, 1995)


While Six Degrees of Separation (Fred Schepisi, 1993) flirts with placing ideas of otherness and abjection and transgression into a light comedy-of-manners setting, Species (1995) deals with such ideas in a far more familiar and cosy setting the horror movie. Species is directed by New Zealander Roger Donaldson, who has been based in America for some time, making films such as Cadillac Man (1990) and the fine No Way Out (1987). Who would have guessed, watching his New Zealand hit Smash Palace (a gritty family melodrama) back in 1981, that Donaldson would have proved himself such a proficient craftsman of genres like the horror movie, the thriller, and comedy? Donaldson is more of a craftsman than an auteur, but all his skill with pacing and staging serve him very well here. It's an exciting, intelligent, captivating piece of horror entertainment.


Like Schepisi's film, this one splices together elements from a set of fairly diverse genres and story-models, but here the gesture is not iconoclastic. Species is one of those streamlined entertainments that tries to find the smooth joining points between horror story and thriller and comic satire and interpersonal drama. It starts with a Dr. Frankenstein figure Ben Kingsley who keeps a sad young girl named Sil as an experimental subject in a fortified glass bubble. When the bad doctor tries to gas Sil we're not sure why at this stage she summons up an almighty rage and breaks out, leaping and bounding like Supergirl. Pretty soon, she's sneaking onto a train all the while exhibiting tell-tale signs of her super-human strength. She's also starting to mutate in a rather ghastly way. She suddenly becomes a gruesome monster, one of those womb-vagina-monstrous-feminine creatures we know so well from contemporary horror movies. And then, just as suddenly, is reborn as an adult supermodel blonde, often striding around with few or no clothes on, like Arnie Schwarzenegger at the start of The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). 


Already we are faced with a film which is a mixture of dramatic and trashy elements, mixing social comment with flippant sensationalism and B-movie-style exploitation. Enter a crack team brought together to find Sil. This is a team that comprises a sensitive empath, a hard boiled bounty hunter, a nervy anthropologist and a molecular biologist. Now the film becomes a sort of Silence of the Lambs (Johnathan Demme, 1991) number, all about tracking down a serial killer. In fact Sil is described as your "classic psychopath, with no moral sense or social structure". But the backstory, handily spelt out by Dr. Frankenstein is the most exciting and enlightening element of all. It seems that, years ago, earth sent a message out into space, including vital info like the human DNA pattern. One alien race responded with its own DNA pattern, complete with handy hints about how to combine the two. Sil is the product of this union. And it seems her only mission is to propagate herself, and exterminate the human race. Monstrous others remain simple, monstrous others in this movie.


But there's at least one twist, and here's where the film's welcome line of social satire comes in. The adult Sil heads, instinctively, to L.A. Why L.A.? The anthropologist knows: because L.A. is "the city of the future", a city of anonymity, where anything goes, where there are no taboos. In other words, L.A. is already full of aliens, and the psychopathic Sil fits in just fine. In this regard, Species is like a dramatic variant on those many comedies of the last decade that have played with this joke of aliens being unrecognisable in our modern, kooky world films like Coneheads (Steve Barron, 1983) and Meet the Applegates (Michael Lehman, 1991).


Supermodel Sil is out to mate. I loved these parts of the film, with their breezy pretensions to showing us nature's primal drama of men, women and sex. She goes to a raunchy L.A. bar, spots a cute, hunky guy. Another woman waltzes up and kisses him. Sil follows her to the toilet and does terrible things to her. Why does she bother? Because, we are told, Sil's mating instinct tells her to eliminate any competition. Later, she goes back to a guy's place, but suddenly recoils. This is not timidity, but again, her finely tuned mating instinct: because he's a diabetic, and not fit for purposes of breeding. Eventually, Sil gets a mating fix on our hard boiled bounty hunter that's Michael Madsen from Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992). No male defects there, but when Sil goes to his hotel door, he's already doing the wild thing with the molecular biologist. So Sil grabs the anthropologist instead, and then the plot really revs up.


One thing I really admired in the craft of this movie is its narrative set-ups. Plots particularly American movie plots are full of laboured ways of establishing some important piece of information that will later become a crucial part of the action of the film. That's what the scriptwriting manuals call 'motivation', but I like to think of it in more showbiz terms as a matter of set-ups and pay-offs. Species is full of extremely clever, seemingly off-hand, throw-away set-ups. The way Sil reads lips as a child, the way she can mimic people she casually encounters, the way she eats, the first indications of her primal mating habits: all this prepares the ground for the grand cataclysms to follow. Species ends up in the dank sewers of L.A., where the gore swings between the terror of visibility and the terror of invisibility, and the proliferating mutations mingle humans, aliens and even a few passer-by rats. In all, the film is like a superior episode of The X-Files and there is almost no higher compliment that I could possibly give to a mystery-horror-thriller in 1995.

sequel: Species II

MORE Donaldson: Dante's Peak, The Getaway

© Adrian Martin September 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search