reviewed by Greta Christina
Maybe I don't get out enough. Or maybe I don't see enough horror movies, and this sort of thing is more common than I realize. But I found the sex and the sexual politics of Species totally fascinating. A movie about a killer alien from another planet disguised as a beautiful sexy blonde, who seduces men so she can reproduce and overrun the planet, with lots of agreeably gratuitous tit shots and icky gory alien violence...well, either this is a one-of-a-kind deal, or I've been going to the wrong movies. It looks as if the sexual horror genre (Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure, etc.) has at last come to its logical, and much more entertaining, conclusion.
Here's the story. Earth gets a response to the signals it's been sending to outer space. The response includes information on how to merge the DNA of the alien species with human DNA. Government scientists stupidly swallow the bait, and grow a human/alien mutant girl-thing, Sil, in an isolation bubble. They eventually decide she's too dangerous and try to kill her; but Sil breaks out of her bubble and escapes the compound. She runs around Los Angeles, imitating and adapting to human behavior, and incidentally slaughtering everything that gets in her way. Her mission: Find a healthy guy, get laid, get pregnant, propagate her icky scary species, and wipe out mankind in the process. The Feds send out a team of experts to hunt her down and stop her before she fucks.
What we have here, folks, is a first-class example of vagina dentata -- the vagina with teeth. Species seems to have been created with the sole purpose of capitalizing on men's fears of women in general, and women's sexuality in particular. (It generally doesn't succeed -- the overall effect is an amusing, campy gross-out rather than genuine fear -- but the intention is there all the same.) Sil's sexuality is at the foreground of the movie. The camera focuses lovingly, if rather cheesily, on her desirability, her beauty and blondness, her perky, muffin-like breasts. Especially her perky, muffin-like breasts. We see an awful lot of them before the movie's over. She has intense recurring dreams about procreation, and is fascinated by a porno movie she sees at her motel. She does her manhunting at a club called The Id, a singles bar with a frenzied sexual atmosphere and scantily clad trapeze artists. (Why don't they have nightclubs like that in San Francisco?)
Sil is portrayed as extremely horny and sexually aggressive, and her brazen sexuality is depicted as predatory and brutal. She uses her beauty to trap men, to manipulate them into giving her what she wants. What she wants, ultimately, is conquest. Not too surprisingly, her method for achieving conquest is pregnancy; a rather obvious twist on the all-too-common male fear that women get pregnant to trap men into giving them what they want.
The gruesome murders that Sil commits are sexualized as well. She kills one man by projecting a tentacle through his skull during a French kiss; she kills yet another, a guy she's making out with in a hot tub, by shooting out a tentacle and fucking him in the mouth until he chokes. Needless to say, the man who finally fucks her and gets her pregnant dies horribly after the deed is done.
But wait! There's more! When Sil escapes from the government compound where she was born, she has the form of a young human girl, roughly age twelve (Michelle Williams). But while she's hiding out in a sleeper car on a train, she envelops herself in this weird chrysalis doodad, from which she emerges as a fully-grown, twenty-something blond chick (Natasha Henstridge). The alien cocoon thing looks like -- how shall I put this delicately? -- a gigantic twat. It's about six feet tall, a fleshy, veinous, reddish-brown cavernous glob with writhing, pulsating labia, and it oozes slimy brown stuff when it spits out the full-grown Sil. Whoever designed this thing wasn't even trying to be subtle. It might as well have had "Big Scary Ravenous Nightmare Cunt" tattooed on its perineum.
But Species isn't just another woman-hating monster movie from a misogynist Hollywood. Its sexual politics are much more complex and twisted. Despite her fearsomeness and brutality, Sil is presented as an essentially sympathetic character -- at least for the first two-thirds or so. Significantly, the Sil that escapes from the compound is a child -- a ravenous and homicidal child, but a child nonetheless. She's seen as an innocent, born into a world she never made, trying to figure out what the world is and how she fits into it. She doesn't become violent until the Feds try to kill her; whether she would have eventually broken out and wreaked her havoc anyway is something of a moot point. Even after she matures into an adult, the movie presents her situation as sympathetic and even tragic. Sure, she's destructive, but she's only doing what she has to do in order to survive.
The other characters in the movie are all too aware of the tragedy and ambiguity of Sil's situation, even as they hunt her down. When Xavier (Ben Kingsley), the big government scientist in charge of the Sil project, tells the story of Sil's childhood in the isolation bubble, Dan, (Forest Whitaker), a telepathic empath, replies, "She didn't like that. She didn't like being locked up. She didn't like being alone like that."
And the team's molecular biologist, Laura (Marg Helgenberger) points out to the government assassin (Michael Madsen) that, from the alien society's point of view, the human race could be seen as a galactic disease, for which Sil would be the cure. The old question of cultural relativity, the ethical defensibility of survival and the way history is written by the victors, all contribute to a rather complicated emotional framework. The audience is asked to sympathize with the same creature they fear, to feel the pain of the creature they want to see dead. (For the first two acts, anyway. The last act degenerates into a pretty standard monster movie, complete with "The monster's around here, let's split up" inanity, and the sympathy that the movie has so carefully created for Sil degenerates into simple fear and loathing. But I digress.)
The movie also ridicules a common male attitude towards women; the attitude that women are weak and helpless. When Laura asks Xavier why they made Sil female when they were genetically engineering her, he replies, "We decided to make it female so she would be more docile and controllable." This remark is met with guffaws and general scorn from the rest of the team, and it becomes a running gag throughout the movie. Species not only makes fun of men who think women are docile and controllable; it presents this belief as blatantly and unquestionably absurd.
And at least one of the murders is deliberately written to create sympathy for Sil and righteous anger towards her murder victim. Sil picks up a sleazy guy from Club Id, goes back to his place and starts to make out with him. She then changes her mind (she detects that he's diabetic and therefore not genetically satisfactory for her purposes) and very clearly says No. He insists, he presses, he forces, he won't take no for an answer -- and she puts a tentacle through his skull, to the great delight of the audience.
But I have to be careful about using who does and doesn't get slaughtered as a sign of the movie's moral message. Nice people who try to help Sil get killed, too; a train conductor, a guy who takes her to the hospital when she gets hurt, a woman who sees her running naked towards the road and helps her escape. The murders don't have a moral pattern. Sil doesn't follow the rules of morality; she doesn't know them, they have no meaning for her. Her violence is presented almost as a force of nature, and although the movie asks us to fear her, it doesn't ask us to hate her, any more than we hate a lion or a wolf.
It does ask us to fear her, even as we sympathize with her. And it does validate our desire to see her dead. It's important to remember this. I believe it is the crux of the movie's perspective on women and women's sexuality. It is sympathetic with women, with women's anger, with women's fear, with women's desire for freedom. But at the same time, it validates men's fear and repression of women. It says that women are, in fact, dangerous and destructive; that we do, in fact, use our sexuality to injure men and get what we want; and that men are, in fact, justified in doing what they can to keep us from being unleashed. Sil is female sexuality, and the moral stance of the movie is that her destruction is a regrettable necessity.
Yes, Species is in many ways just another vagina dentata movie, another movie with women as the culprit and scapegoat. But it doesn't offend me the way that, say, Disclosure offended me. The message of Disclosure was, "Hey guys, you're afraid of women, and you're right to be afraid, they really are evil rapacious bitches with no morality. Feel free to destroy them by whatever means necessary." The message of Species is somewhat different. The message of Species is, "Hey, guys, you're afraid of women, and yes, they can be rapacious -- but they're also just trying to survive. Have a little compassion."
Copyright 1995 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.