Monday 9 December 2019

The Question in Bodies #28: S for Species

Species (1995); Species II (1998)

So I'll be talking about the Species franchise today. There are spoilers, but more importantly, because HR Giger is involved, there is an example of his art, which exists in a strange place where it shouldn't be NSFW for what it is, but which is nonetheless very NSFW. You have been warned. 

Species is a weird one. It feels like it's part of something much larger, like it's a spin off of another franchise. I had weirdly always assumed Species was connected to the interlinked Alien and Predator franchises (twelve movies and counting! Twelve!) but in fact no, they're not even the same studio: Alien/Predator is owned by Fox (and hence now owned by Disney) and Species is a production of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (which is not yet owned by the Mouse). Which means that not only are they unconnected, but you're not going to see the woman-monster from Species and the Xenomorph rock up together in a movie any time soon. So why did I think they had something to do with each other? There is of course a simple answer: the creature design, which was the work of the late HR Giger, same as the designer of the Alien. 

The Species creatures – named variously Sil, Eve, Sara, Miranda and Azura as they appear in Species and its three (three!) sequels – arguably are more typically representative of Giger's trademark style than the Xenomorph. Both have the glossy biomechanical textures that litter Giger's work, alternating iridescent, translucent plates with ridgy sinews and tubes, the intersection of flesh and cable duct, but while the Alien is obliquely sexualised, the Species creature, which I'm just going to call Sil, since I'm mainly talking about the first movie, is much more explicitly feminine. Much of Giger's art builds itself from eroticised feminine anatomy: his oil-dripping, glistening horrors are often designed in the shape of women, or in the shape of women's parts. Objectified lips, breasts and vulvas feature prominently in his work, often penetrated by odd things in odd ways; sexualised cyborg women melt into backgrounds of plastic and bone, deepthroating cables and bolted into place. The Alien is a sort of walking, clawed vagina dentata, but Sil is exactly one of Giger's eroticised industrial biomechs, placed whole on the screen. And this is really important, because the creature's portrayal is made that much interesting than it might otherwise have been thanks to the polymorphous perversity of Giger's art.
Because Species, by far more interesting than its (uniformly terrible) sequels, is a film that works very hard not to be interesting, like almost consciously, but in spite of that, somehow manages to slip interesting stuff past its makers.

It is not a good film. Its dialogue is stilted. Its plot – well, let's be honest, it's whole premise – is just silly. Its actors, some of whom are accomplished and talented, do not appear to be having a good time, nor are they really giving what you'd call especially committed performances. Ironically, the big exception is Sil herself, played for most of the film by Natasha Henstridge, whose stiff, affectless readings sell "instinct-driven, amoral alien in a woman's skin" far more effectively than if, you know, she'd been deliberately trying to.

So at the start of Species, we see a government facility which has a teenaged girl (a young Michelle Williams) in a big glass box. At the order of lead scientist Dr Fitch (Ben Kingsley, not giving it his all), the science people are trying to kill her with cyanide gas, only she has super strength and busts out, going on the run.
The girl, Sil, uses her seeming innocence to steal money and gain sympathy from people. On a train, she exploits the kindness of a train guard to get away without paying and eat vast amounts of high energy snacks. She enters a cocoon, and comes out as Natasha Henstridge. The kindly train guard she ruthlessly dispatches.

We will learn that Fitch worked for SETI. After the human race literally sent nudes and a mixtape to outer space, outer space apparently sent back some science stuff, and a DNA sequence. Being the sort of people who send nudes and a mixtape as an opening gambit, Fitch and company didn't think this through and decided to inject the DNA into a human ovum (so maybe you could argue that it's basically the plot of A for Andromeda, only you know, sexy). A baby came out that turned into a teenager in a few weeks, and when she displayed oddly moving lumps under her skin, Fitch lost his nerve and tried to kill her.

Fitch explains all this to a team of experts assembled to track her down before she fulfils her biological imperative to breed: anthropologist Dr Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina, not giving it his all), molecular biologist Dr Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger), freelance spook Press Lennox (Michael "Mr Blonde" Madsen) and an average, softly spoken bloke called Dan Smithson (Forest Whitaker, really, really not giving it his all) who is, apparently, an "empath", that is, he has the psychic power to read feelings.
The character of Dan is the most obvious example of Species's most blatant flaw, which is a sort of peripheral manifestation of what I call the Dan Brown Effect (named after its most egregious culprit). To wit: that moment in a work of fiction in whatever medium where you get a character who is supposed to be of incandescent intellect who demonstrates their prodigious brains in an extravagant and laborious way by working out something that is ridiculously, obviously basic, like "a five year old could work this out" basic and then says to theirself, or to someone else, "look how clever I am for I have laboriously and extravagantly worked out this obvious thing", and if there's someone else in the room, they're in awe of the supposedly clever person. And partly this is infuriating because it demonstrates that the writer doesn't really understand how clever people actually think, but mainly because it accidentally portrays the character as being really quite thick. It shows a character victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Because thick people, right? Thick people think they're clever for achieving the most basic feats of deduction.

And the thing is, in Species what we get is a sort of emotional intelligence version of this effect, where the bloke with superhuman powers of empathy (and it's the token black guy, lest we forget) says "something bad happened here" in a scene literally drenched in blood and draped with bits of mangled flesh, or "she's walking" because they find an abandoned car, as if those are observant and sensitive things to say.Thanks, Dan. Good work.

That ties into a deeper problem: the film is basically psychopathic. It tries to make you feel sympathy for a creature who is more or less an alien fuck-monster in a woman-suit, who murders without conscience three people whose only sin was treating her with compassion and respect. It raises the question of whether she is so psychopathic because she was raised in a lab, because she's an alien or because she's a human woman. While it doesn't settle that, one that is repeated the most, is, to slightly misquote a roughly contemporary successful popular hit from the cultural wasteland that was Britpop, "the female of the species is more deadlier than the male." Fitch explains that they designed her to be female because she'd be more "docile" and everyone, even Dr Baker, mocks this as a terrible idea. This is not a film that respects women. But then, nineties pop culture is not known for that.

The mid nineties, in retrospect, was an era where women's rights, which had been advancing slowly and painfully for decades, faced significant cultural pushback. You can see that in the old school boozy straightness of Britpop culture and the clear gender lines in its music; the rise of the "lad mag" – your FHMs and Loadeds – where the presentation of bikini babes as just another post-ironic toy for boys began to normalise; the way in which the gender segregation of academic subjects intensified (or seemed to from where I was standing). We talk about the sixties and seventies as sexist decades, but in the nineties we knew better and still decided to be sexist, only more so.
And Species is part of this. Natasha Henstridge's perfect figure is displayed at every possibility, ogled by the camera, whether artfully sprinkled with gore (and not enough to hide her assets, mind) or not. Sil's only real purpose in Species is to get laid, with a genetically healthy man, and make alien babies, and if anyone gets in her way, murder them (and also, murder them if it's convenient and useful to do so, even if they've selflessly helped her or shown her respect).

Sil's difficulties here are almost comical. She finds one guy and she's about to do the thing, only she smells his type one diabetes on his sweat or something (go with it, it's one of her powers) and turns him down and he's a creep and tries to rape her and that's it for him. Or another man finds her naked and lost and pays her hospital bill and takes her home, and she comes onto him, only he's a baseline human and he doesn't screw vulnerable women he found on the street, so that's it for him, too.
Finally, having thought of the impregnable, genius disguise of dying her hair, she seduces Dr Arden, one of her pursuers, which is ridiculous. Arden, a sadsack with no luck in the romantic department (read: actually a bit of a creep), has been pining after Dr Baker, but she at this point has achieved her main goal of the movie, an epic no-strings bang with Mr Blonde, so I don't know, Arden is vulnerable or something? (Note: one of the vanishingly few good things about Species II is that when we see Baker and Lennox again, the fact they banged is not a thing. They did the thing and then went on with their lives, and that's pretty good). Anyway, he figures out he's just impregnated Sil when she starts telling him that she's going to have a monster baby at which point it's a swift stabby death for him too.

Now, Sil's psychopathy is the psychopathy of a biomachine, for all intents and purposes an emotionless, insectile alien breeder disguised as a human. A fuck-monster in a woman suit, as I said. But the film calls out that she is explicitly a woman, that she has been made from human ancestry. If she had been shown kindness, would she be able to mimic that? Without trying to, it raises the question of what a human is, what an inner life is, what a body needs. And Sil, the woman, is the initiator of every sexual encounter in the film (with the exception of the Baker/Lennox liaison, which the woman also does all the work with). Sil decides when the sex starts, she decides when it ends. And sometimes she is frustrated, but she decides the outcome. And obviously this outcome is invariably fatal for the man, but it is her outcome.
Her fluid alien body is still sexualised, but her sexuality is made a weapon. Her back sprouts razor sharp tendrils, her nipples sprout spines, her tongue is a stabbing spike that violates flesh – especially faces – as she penetrates it. When the creep gets his desserts for attempting rape, Sil does nothing short of brainfucking him. Fatally. I mean, OK, this is all very Freudian, but even though Sil does get impregnated, she does more penetrating than anyone else in the movie. And that's interesting. Sil is entirely, lethally amoral but she's not evil.

And that's interesting. It raises questions, questions about sexuality and how we objectify women, and what would happen if the body parts we objectify and ogle were decisively weaponised. Sil has agency, and controls the plot, and destroys with her sexuality, and yes, we're supposed to assume this is a bad thing, and this is doubled down on with her repeated, ruthless dispatching of innocent people, but the movie is just not very good at making her a figure of horror.
And it's interesting. It's inadvertently, accidentally fascinating, and strange, and perverse, even though they blow it all with crappy CGI at the end. And so, when Species II came along in 1998, it's almost as if the filmmakers saw the potential, accidental subtext of weaponised feminine empowerment and thought, "better fix that."

Species II starts with three astronauts on a Mars mission; they get infected by alien slime and when they come back, the captain, Ross (Justin Lazard) starts turning into a male counterpart to Sil. Every woman he impregnates dies within hours, giving explosive birth to a monstrous child. Ross gets a dozen or so of these, and keeps them in a shed, where they just, I don't know, stand around or something, in neatly assembled rows, because of course they do. Meanwhile, Anne, the one woman member of the crew (Miriam Cyr) dies in the middle of sexual intercourse, as her stomach turns inside out and erupts into a face eating pseudopod (the single most interesting, strange and frightening image of the film, even if it's a lift from Carpenter's The Thing), and the token black member of the crew, Dennis (Mykelti Williamson) turns out to be safe from infection because he has a recessive sickle cell gene and was overlooked by the alien DNA, which is not remotely racist at all.
Anyway, so Baker and Lennox get called on to track down the new alien incursion taking Dennis along as comedy black sidekick (seriously, this buffoon is supposed to be a decorated astronaut), which is also not remotely racist at all. Baker has been hired by the project that made Sil and of course has made a second Natasha Henstridge, who is this time called Eve, because that's not a remotely stupid thing to do at all, and is doing experiments on her to see what will kill her while still making noises about her rights as a human, et cetera. So Eve goes into heat and they use her to track down Ross except Eve also escapes and there's a Sexy But Lethal Boy Sil on Girl Sil Scene with a bit of Patent Giger Biomechanical Deepthroat except the human side of Eve sort of probably maybe wins and Eve sacrifices herself and kills Ross, the end.

Everything about the first film that made it interesting has been excised. Eve is subservient to the scientists, the male alien hybrid, and her biological urges. She is here to be used, tortured, ogled and eventually killed. Ross is for all intents and purposes a non-character. Actors like James Cromwell and Peter Boyle are wasted. And it's a film that's just, well, straight. Straight in all the boring, rubbish ways. Straight like the 90s were straight, hating humans in general and women in particular and somehow celebrating that as a triumph of the human spirit. Straight in that it takes a thing that's so perverse and so full of potential, and applies it in the most unimaginative and cynical way it can.
(Note: Species: The Awakening (2007), the fourth and last film, throws out the carrot of queerness at least, with its pair of Sil aliens, and the declaration of one that she would like to fuck the other (in those exact words) but yanks it away hard, affirming the straightness of both, and they wind up fighting to the death instead, and I don't know if that is better or worse frankly)

I think, in the end, the original Species is sort of a signifier of how scarce and how basic our examples of sex/gender identity horror were in mainstream cinema for most of the 1990s – although, for various cultural reasons, it wasn't a great decade for horror, period – and how those of us who look for its examples, have to find the crumbs of it in films that, like Species, have no more than a lot of hints and unexplored potential of something much more interesting.