B or not a B? That is still often the question. The standards of movie categorization have gone through a lot of mutations since the days when the term B picture merely meant the cheaper, less distinguished half of a theatrical double bill; back then, B didn’t necessarily mean bad. Because these days most of the movies made for not much money wind up going straight to cable or video, Hollywood gets to lavish big budgets on genre pictures that frequently emulate the efficient storytelling and occasionally lurid flourishes of yesterday’s cinematic B’s. Leave it to desperate video marketers to capitalize on the success of such movies by releasing their own, usually inferior, copycat flicks.
The new-to-video Species, which cost $31 million to produce, takes more than a few ideas (not to mention creature designer H.R. Giger) from another big-budget B, 1979’s Alien. The ad campaign accompanying its release in theaters cheekily echoed the earlier movie’s, down to its glowing green logo. Sharing a similar logo, similar title, and almost the same video release date is the somewhat less auspicious Mutant Species, a $1.75 million Alabama-shot effort originally titled Bio-Force I.
The Species box art has an edge, since it highlights one of the movie’s most talked-about assets: model turned, um, actress Natasha Henstridge, playing a part human, part alien creature who uses her sexy mammal wiles to attract men because she has a dire need to breed. Unfortunately, she also has a nasty habit of growing spiky tendrils, the better to kill her most recent mate with. By contrast, the box art for Mutant Species features the substantially less alluring character actor Leo Rossi crouching in agony. But the performer who gets top billing on the box is Denise Crosby. This might lead a video renter who can’t find a copy of Species to think: ”Denise Crosby, huh? Well, she posed in Playboy, did a couple of Red Shoe Diaries. She must play the alien babe in this one. So it might do the trick.”
It won’t. Crosby figures only in the last third of this remarkably clumsy movie, playing a backwoods girl who comes to the aid of a soldier (Ted Prior) fleeing from his now-mutated commander. That commander would be Rossi, who leads his platoon on a mission to examine a wrecked spaceship, becomes contaminated by the biological weapon it was supposed to take to the moon, and transforms into something with the head of a big dog and the body of a charbroiled linebacker. Direct-to-video adepts need only imagine Rossi (Maniac Cop 2, Relentless) acting out the various stages of his metamorphosis in order to know the true meaning of hell.
For all its ineptitude, Mutant Species, which also employs perennial second-stringers Powers Boothe and Wilford Brimley, seems to have been made (if not marketed) with some integrity; it’s clear that prolific cowriter-director David A. Prior (whose 1989 Lost Platoon merged The Lost Boys with guess what) intended the movie’s penultimate scene, in which the creature remembers his true identity, to be a moving one. Instead, it’s utterly laughable.
Ironically, Species — with its higher-profile cast (Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen) and its moderately respected director, Roger Donaldson (Cocktail, No Way Out) — delivers most of its slick, convincing kicks via the crass exploitation of B-movie conventions that Mutant Species skimps on. At the movie’s outset, Donaldson shows us Kingsley, as the leader of the experiment that created the creature named Sil (who was concocted with a dose of alien DNA sent to Earth by seemingly friendly extraterrestrials), impassively presiding over the young mutation’s execution by cyanide gas. She breaks free before she can be killed, however, and changes overnight into Henstridge. So why introduce this vixen-to-be as a preadolescent? Presumably, the sight of a youngster in danger of imminent cyanide poisoning is considered more disquieting and guilt-inducing than the sight of a supermodel in the same predicament.
But the movie isn’t so much morally bankrupt as it is ruthless. The sexual component was obviously added on the sound theory that such shenanigans make everything more fun. The multi-gender, multiracial motley crew assembled to track and terminate the rampaging Sil (shades of Alien) gives screenwriter Dennis Feldman the opportunity to mix and match genre staples. Michael Madsen’s hitman is a more humane spin on the Mike Hammer type, while Forest Whitaker’s empath (who’s supposed to get a fix on Sil’s feelings) bows to both Poltergeist and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, for all its cheap thrills, Species lacks what the best B’s of a bygone era always had, and what the spectacularly awkward Mutant Species so desperately wants: a heart.