Being a huge horror film buff, I suppose I'm biased when it comes to reviewing flicks like 'Species.' So I'll say it right up front -- if you don't like cheesy exploitation movies, regardless of the caliber of their filmmakers, cast and budget, then don't even bother reading this review. There is nothing I can say to convince anyone who hates the genre that 'Species' actually possesses at least a modicum of entertainment value, no matter how derivative it is of other, better killer-alien-run-amok films like the 'ALIEN' series, 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' and 'The Hidden.' No, a film like 'Species' is made solely for diehard B-movie lovers like me, the kind who get perverse pleasure out of watching a former Oscar-winner like Ben 'Gandhi' Kingsley being reduced to hunting down a naked biomechanoid alien with a flamethrower while saying lines like, "We must kill her before she reproduces!!!"
The plot. It is 1993, and the U.S. government's SETI project receives a transmission from space detailing an alien DNA structure, along with instructions on how to splice it with human genetics. Of course, the idiots waste no time in following the instructions (apparently, SETI scientists watched 'Close Encounters' one too many times and think all alien races must be benign) and the result is Sil, a sensual but deadly creature who can change from a beautiful woman to an metallic alien-thing in the blink of an eye. Before you can say, "If it bleeds we can kill it!", SETI puts together its best crack team of scientists to track down Sil and stop her before she can mate -- and spawn -- a new race of human-hungry alien babies.
I wish I knew how to defend a movie like 'Species,' but I can't. I can only say it is nothing less than shamelessly entertaining. There is a ton of (unintentional) fun to be had in this film, largely because it came along in that weird pre-'Scream' early '90s period for horror when no one in the industry knew where the genre was headed yet everyone was still trying to come up with the Next Big Horror Hit. Had 'Species' been anything less a major studio movie, with an accomplished director at the helm (Roger Donaldson, apparently cashing a paycheck) and a well-known cast that wasn't A-list at the time but who still didn't really need to be doing schlock like this (Kingsley, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen, Michelle Williams, a pre-'CSI' Marg Helgenberger), it would have been just another bad B-movie. But the great thing about a big budget is that it can elevate the merely gratuitous to glossy pseudo-profundity, which gives 'Species' the kind of sadistic kick only Hollywood lunch money can buy.
Of course, the real star of this show is Natasha Henstridge, making her motion picture debut as Sil. Now, I think Henstridge is actually a fine actress, and she is acquits herself admirably here in an utterly thankless role. I'm also inclined to believe her when she has said in past interviews that she has no problem being naked in films as the nude human form is nothing to be ashamed of. (God bless her.) However, I don't know if she was just naive about the industry at the time she did 'Species' or her agent just couldn't say no to the starring role in a major studio movie, but I'm cynical enough to think that the main reason she was cast in 'Species' is because she looked beautiful naked -- even under a bunch of silver makeup. Let's face it, Hollywood producers don't care about the "beauty of the human body," they just want to sell tickets, which makes the gratuitous amounts of nudity in 'Species' both cringe-inducing in its exploitativeness (surprise, it doesn't advance the plot!) yet admittedly titillating. So unfortunately for Henstridge, despite some fine work since, she still is primarily known as "That Naked Chick from 'Species.'" And she really is the main reason to see the movie.
Okay, I won't try to justify it any longer. I guess I just like stupid alien thrillers like this, where the team of good guys must chase the bad guy through the glittering streets of L.A. (or New York, or the jungle, or wherever) before the alien hatches/mates/mutates, etc. Plus, 'Species' didn't even have to be this good. It is slick, fast-paced, well-acted and professionally produced. We also get some good deaths, enjoyably dumb characters, great bad dialogue and a pretty cool-looking titular creature courtesy of H.R. Giger. (Yeah, his design for Sil is wholly derivative of 'ALIEN,' but then the guy always knew what side his bread was buttered on.) Sure, the ending sucks and some of the effects are dated, but who cares? Trashy B-movie fare doesn't get any more Hollywood than this. So if you like human-hating aliens, bare breasts and lots of blood -- and not necessarily in that order -- I think you'll dig 'Species.'
Believe it or not, MGM re-issued 'Species' as a special edition DVD a couple of years back, apparently for the legion of twelve fans like me who demanded it. Though I'll get to the extras in a minute, the remastered transfer on that release was no great shakes. It would have looked good in the early days of DVD and especially on laserdisc, but given how far the state-of-the-art has come, it is now merely average. Worse, there is one serious print problem that quite frankly is inexcusable on high-def.
This first-ever Blu-ray release of 'Species' looks to be minted from the same high-def master as the most recent DVD. The print is in good but not the greatest shape, with some minor dirt and other blemishes present and more grain than even a film of its vintage normally exhibits. But what's worse, the first third of the film is almost constantly covered in white speckles. Though not incredibly severe, they flicker about with enough frequency that they will catch the eye of even the casual observer. What give!? Sure, things get a bit better later on in the film, but still.
Also lacking is color reproduction. Certainly, hues are presented here pretty well, with a good level of saturation and accurate fleshtones. However, I did notice a bit of noise and a lack of definition -- not really smearing but a slight fuzziness. Detail for a high-def presentation is good but not great. The image sometimes has a real pop to it, with a sense of three-dimensionality, but more often than not it is rather flat. I did notice better detail and sharpness on the Blu-ray than the DVD, and fine details are more apparent. But shadow delineation is still not up to snuff for HD, with fall-off to black so steep at times that much of the image just turns to mush. Again, this transfer is far from terrible, but it is never really more than merely adequate.
Like the rest of its Blu-ray releases, Sony/MGM presents 'Species' in uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround (optional English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 options are also provided, though the studio has dropped the DTS mix that appeared on the standard DVD). I remember thinking 'Species' sounded state-of-the-art when it was first released on disc back in 1997, but my how times of changed. I would be surprised if this was anything more than an retooling of a plain old stereo surround mix as it sounds pretty artificial and lifeless.
Overall, dynamic range is decent. Midrange is middling and high end suffers, as it sounds like some artificial processing tricks were applied in an effort to boost the mix. Dialogue and sound effects can have that harsh, clipped feel that doesn't really sound natural. Low bass is present but not nearly as tight and pronounced as I've heard on remasters of films produced during the same period. Surround use is active in spots, namely during a mid-movie car chase and in sporadic bursts during the film's climactic 20 minutes, but otherwise the rear channels fall silent. And imaging is pretty obvious, so while the mix does come alive in spots, it's pretty gimmicky. Still, all in all, I guess for a 1995 movie 'Species' doesn't sound too bad.
I don't know if Sony/MGM have paid heed to the complaints that greeted their first round of Blu-ray releases, but the studio has decided to add at least a few extras to 'Species.' Yet this is not a direct port of the previous standalone DVD special edition, nor does it contain all the goodies that were on the four-disc 'Species Collection' box set MGM released concurrently. Like Sil, it's a spliced-together amalgam of various DNA.
First up are the two audio commentaries that appeared on both the standalone 'Species' DVD and the box set. The first is with director Roger Donaldson and actors Michael Madsen and Natasha Henstridge, and is the most fun of the two. All have a sense of humor about the film without denigrating it, and I particularly admire Henstridge for not disowning a film that I'm sure has become a bit of detriment to her getting more serious roles in Hollywood (I'm sure Holly Hunter won't be showing up for the commentary track recording for 'The Burning' anytime soon). It's fairly witty and breezy and apparently all had a great time making the movie. (Still, where's Ben Kingsley?) The second track is with director Donaldson again, plus producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., visual-effects supervisor Richard Edlund and on-set creature creator Steve Johnson. This one compliments the first very nicely with a lot more in-depth production and technical knowledge, even if it does get a bit dry after awhile. Also, the mechanical and CGI work in the film is pretty dated, so this track seems more like a document of another time than all that relevant to what is going on in today's world of special effects magic.
Next up are two featurettes that only appeared on the fourth disc of the 'Species' DVD box set. "Designing a Hybrid" (15:44) primarily details the on-set production challenges the effects team faced in bringing the mechanical Sil to life. "H.R. Giger at Work" (11:59) takes us right inside the eccentric artist's private studio, and it is pretty cool to witness. I don't know what fuels this guy's imagination, but it makes my worst nightmares seem tame. Both of these featurettes actually compliment each other nicely, though it is a shame that Sony couldn't squeeze on the remaining three featurettes from the box set on this disc, too ("The Original," "The Concept" and "The Discover"), because combined they make a nice, nearly hour-long full-length doc on the making of the movie. Sony, please, perfect those dual-layer BD-50 discs and switch to VCI compression pronto!!!
The only other extras on the disc are the usual Sony/MGM previews, though no actual theatrical trailer for any of the 'Species' films.
I continue to enjoy 'Species' in spite of almost universal repugnance. Yes, it is just a dumb studio B-movie, with a cast that probably should be embarrassed to list it on their resumes. But how can you go wrong with Gandhi battling a naked alien chick? As a Blu-ray release, 'Species' suffers from a dated transfer and soundtrack, though at least we get some extras this time. So if you are one of the few fans of this film, you may want to pick it up in spite of your better judgment.