In the mood

The phrase 'biological clock' gets a homicidal overhaul in the terrific monster movie Species

The opening credits of the new sci-fi thriller Species are splashed across a panorama of stars while ominous, understated theme music lurks in the background. Veteran monster movie fans might be reminded of Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien by this deliberately hushed but melodramatic beginning.

Audiences will find another link between that classic chiller and this most recent, tongue-in-cheek, fast-paced genre entry. The monster in both movies was designed by sex-obsessed Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Whereas Alien exploited an erotic subtext by featuring all manner of vaguely vaginal imagery, Species dispenses with the visual metaphor to focus more bluntly on a vision of reproduction as a ferocious animal instinct that doesn't cotton to social restraints.

Director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, White Sands) and screenwriter Dennis Feldman are bound to catch some flak because they've chosen to mine a rather tired sexist celluloid cliche--the beautiful, sexually indulgent woman as predator. But folks who dismiss Species as a misogynistic exploitation film are not only missing one of the more entertaining, audience-conscious horror flicks to come along in quite a few years, but deliberately ignoring the sly undercurrent of commentary about gender roles that inspires most of the laughs and the screams.

The filmmakers indicate their eagerness to manipulate us with the very first scene, which features a shattering change of mood that will be repeated, with increasing effect, throughout later sequences. A lovely young woman (Michelle Williams) on the threshold of adolescence awakens from a nightmare to find herself inside a glass cage, surrounded by scientists and military men. Standing above on a catwalk is Dr. Fitch (Ben Kingsley), who can't help but shed a tear even as he watches assistants carry out his grim order--kill this specimen with cyanide gas.

Her eyes meet his from a distance through the glass, and they exchange silent words as the fatal gas fills her transparent prison. Our sympathy has been directed toward this virginal young victim, but we're soon reoriented to the real significance of the situation when she shatters the glass with one punch and escapes on foot at high speed.

This is not just another casualty of the military industry's scientific research agenda, as we're soon to learn--she's a hybrid of human and alien DNA, the latter sent from outer space as part of an ongoing negotiation with an unseen extraterrestrial intelligence. Researchers have learned enough about her physiology to understand she's on a mission to mate, and the lucky guy won't make it till the morning after, much less get to finish a post-coital cigarette.

Species charges out of the gate immediately and rarely stumbles. Most of the action takes place within a 24-hour period, and involves a rag-tag team of investigators assembled by the U.S. government to find and kill this creature before she reproduces. They include bounty hunter Michael Madsen (the ear-slicer from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs), psychic Forest Whitaker (Bird and The Crying Game), behaviorist Alfred Molina (Prick Up Your Ears and The Perez Family), and zoologist Marge Helgenberger (the TV show "China Beach").

Transforming overnight from scared pubescent to statuesque bombshell on the train in which she's stowed away, our heroine escapes into the sexual jungle that is Los Angeles nightlife. She's a woman of few words, equipped with an ability lots of females might envy--she can sniff out inferior genetic material in potential mates. She gets a room in a sleazy little motel and proceeds to cruise a nearby dance club, absorbing hilarious pick-up banter from other nocturnal predators ("I've got a party to go to, and I want you to take me." "Where is it?" "I don't know...where do you want it to be?")

Species succeeds wonderfully as old-fashioned popcorn diversion for adults, and most of the credit belongs to Donaldson, who stages the film's action as a relentless machine-gun stream of harrowing escapes, abrupt reversals of fortune, and one we-almost-got-her moment after another. The five-person team of hunters travels together as one quarrelsome unit in the grand pop tradition of the monster-hunters from Ghostbusters and the wacky vanful of teenagers and their mutt in the "Scooby Doo" cartoons. This provides the film's other chief source of pleasure--the chance to watch a group of accomplished character actors have themselves one hell of a time. Particularly outstanding are bleary-eyed, sardonic Michael Madsen; the ever-eloquent Forest Whitaker as a psychic with low self-esteem; and brainy Marge Helgenberger, whose own designs on Madsen provide a terrific comic parallel to the exploits of the title creature.

In the non-role of the monster's human form, newcomer Natasha Hendridge has obviously been cast for no better reason than that she looks like an Elle cover model. Ironically, though, Hendridge's icy physical allure is the barrel from which the film's kamikaze feminist message is fired. The men who don't bother to know her beyond her looks discover a nasty surprise--a knockout face and figure disguise an unpredictable creature with an agenda no less mercenary than their own. When sex is treated as an animalistic competition in which both parties are only seeking to meet their own needs--the film says--somebody's gonna get hurt.

And guess who that is? At the screening I attended, female patrons hooted and hollered with delight as Hendridge finds herself "trapped" by one of her own conquests, an egotistical stud who's gleefully showered in front of her and then refuses to let her leave once she senses his diabetic condition and wants to end the liaison before it starts. "No means no," he snickers as he draws her into his embrace for a violent kiss. Let's just say this must be the first cinematic victim to die by French kiss.

The satirical implications of Species are too delicious not to savor, and ultimately, since the movie wears its sense of humor proudly on its sleeve, the filmmakers let us know they're in on the joke as well. It's the ultimate parody of men's worst fears about female sexual independence, and it scores some canny points about how we expect women to adopt a prettified exterior that conceals all the messy parts within--their anger, hungers, desperate hopes, and fears.

At the same time, Species should provide a chuckle for every guy who's ever felt pressured by a woman toward marriage and fatherhood. When a film can address so many different audience experiences and still make you jump out of your seat, you know American commercial entertainment isn't the wasteland so many left-wing snobs and right-wing moralists prattle on about today.

Species. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Marge Helgenberger. Written by Dennis Feldman. Directed by Roger Donaldson. Now showing.

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