In 'Species,' it's the blonde leading the bland

July 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Sometimes subtext is much more interesting than text. Take the case of "Species," for example.

On the surface, it's another routine bug-hunt movie, with a team of crack experts heading down into the sewers to do battle with a slimy green monster with mandibles of steel. "Them!" did it better 41 years ago and "Alien" did it authoritatively 14 years ago.

But underneath the stale sci-fi/horror conventions, the movie is saying something quite interesting and it's too bad Hugh Grant didn't see it in time to spare himself such embarrassment. Sex is dangerous; that's the message. Women especially are scary, and blond women the absolute ne plus ultra of terror. It's a fable of misogyny, a reverse on Little Red Riding Hood, where the poor wolf is assaulted by a cute blonde. And my, what big teeth she has!

As "Species" tells it, a top secret crew of government scientists has naughtily combined DNA built from a recipe sent from deep space with human DNA. The result is a beautiful little girl, and the movie opens as the scientists -- led by poor Ben Kingsley, far too distinguished for such claptrap -- are about to gas her to death. What a lovely way to start the film: watching Gandhi murder a child.

It soon turns out she has superhuman capacities, and blasts out of her death chamber and heads to the big city. Since her life cycle is faster than ours, in no time she's turned from superchild to supermodel, in the form of improbably beautiful Natasha Henstridge. Naturally she's a hit in L.A. night-life scene, where her first goal is to mate. The boys in the mousse hairdos get in line, not realizing the doorway leads not to nirvana but to obliteration. When she gets teed off, she turns very nasty, and many of the deaths in the film are elaborate parodies of sexual acts.

Meanwhile, she's being hunted by that crack team, except the team doesn't seem so crack to me. The leader is tough guy Michael Madsen, in his basic Fonz look, as a government assassin of unspecified nature. I wasn't in on the vote when we decided Michael Madsen would be allowed to play good guys, so I can't approve. He seems logy and hip, but hardly the sort of crisp and decisive chap to have been spawned by any branch of the service except the USO.

Then there's the excellent Alfred Molina, one of the world's great actors, slumming as a Harvard anthropologist who does nothing but whine; and Forest Whitaker as an "empath," a professional touchy-feeler, who's very helpful in any story of pursuit. (Uh, go this way, he says, solving all kinds of plot problems.)

The final member is TV star Marg Hilgenberger, another blonde, and she, too, is presented as sexually aggressive to an annoying degree. I have a feeling that "Species" was made by a lot of men who've always hated blondes because they've never had the nerve to ask one out.

"Species" asks more questions than it can answer. For one, what's so special about these four people, as opposed to any four you might run into on a bus? The film never makes the case for them being any sort of elite and it ends with three of them hunting her/it in the always helpful catacombs-under-a-downtown-hotel with high-powered weapons. To me, an empath and a nuclear physics professor armed with 12-gauge shotguns are much more frightening than any big monster.

Then, what's so dangerous about the creature that Henstridge eventually morphs (not very convincingly) into? A kind of grasshopper with a big green face, she's still vulnerable to BTC common gunfire, is too large to hide and leaves tentacles all over the place. She's no more lethal, really, than a drunk with a broken beer bottle. Any Oklahoma state trooper could take care of her in a trice.

As cheesy exploitation (Henstridge spends much of the movie ** topless), "Species" offers a few cheap thrills for the teen-age boys who are too young to see it but will get in anyway. For the rest of us, its untidy mixture of misogyny and gore seems to represent the DNA of sleaze.

"Species"

Starring Ben Kingsley and Michael Madsen

Directed by Roger Donaldson

Released by MGM

Rated R (nudity, violence)

**

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