Thursday, May 15, 2014

Recommended: Species (1995)

I can't write another obit. The arts have been decimated in recent months, and even the sentimental notion that the Grim Reaper is going on a spree to program the greatest arts festival in history isn't quite enough to overcome the devastation felt over here. Canadian actor Les Carlson, musician Nash the Slash, theatre artist/writer Charles Marowitz and now Swiss surrealist HR Giger, and that's just in the last several days. (And the sad suicide of Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul suggests the Reaper's offering a doc program, as well.) On the heels of the others, Giger's death hit particularly hard; a favorite artist of mine, his designs have transformed fantastic cinema as we know it. Everyone knows about his designs for Alien, as well they should, and I have no objection to his being best known for them. But to keep the conversation going, and to simply pay tribute, I wanna talk about Species.

It's as strange a hybrid as its leading character, bringing more detail and depth to its story of an alien on the loose in Los Angeles than it probably needed to (it's from director Roger Donaldson, whose previous effort White Sands offered similar unexpected rewards). There are elements of throwback to some of the sleazier sci-fi movies of the 1970s, as alien-human hybrid Sil (Michelle Williams, then Natasha Henstridge, both beautifully capturing a sense of non-human presence) escapes from captivity seeking to mate with a suitable human. But Donaldson injects some credible procedural aspects to the story, focusing on the interplay of four very different specialists (Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, Forest Whitaker, and Alfred Molina, all very solid indeed) brought in to track Sil down. There's a lot going on in the movie, and Donaldson keeps a strong balance among the story's various elements.

And HR Giger's on hand for much of it, designing Sil and various other elements. Actually, Giger appears to have created so much work for and around the movie, and even made some fairly insistent demands of the story, that he's pretty much entitled to auteur status on the movie, and why not?

I mean that piece directly above was designed just for a behind-the-scenes feature on the movie. (And that's a cast of Giger's face directly beneath Sil, 5th row down, third box from right.) Though a number of Giger's ideas were not integrated, and a number of designs were fabricated without him (owing to a family emergency), the fact remains that Giger dedicated a lot of thought, time, and ideas to this project, generating a mess of models, objects, and drawings, like the one below.

Species was a project to which Giger gave his all. He created Sil from scratch, working hard to keep the design original and as different from his work on Alien as possible. He consulted on the story, notably eliminating a planned lake-of-fire finale he found too derivative of both Alien 3 and Terminator 2. And there was even leeway to realize ideas long on his mind, most notably an eerie, spectral train which he'd previously conceived for another Ridley Scott project. Giger had been fascinated with trains since childhood; one assumes that, like many of his creations, the Ghost Train began in Giger's nightmares. Fittingly, it manifests in Species in one of Sil's dreams, and though seen only fleetingly it is one of the movie's most powerful, haunting moments.

By many accounts Giger was largely unsatisfied with the process behind the movie, but the sheer amount of material he generated suggests a serious engagement with the process. That Henstridge remained something of a muse even after his work was complete tends to reinforce this - she was photographed among various other Giger props on a couple of occasions in the run-up to the movie's release, including some time spent in Giger's studio itself. Sil proved iconic enough that Species generated a few sequels, and the original movie retains its offbeat charms. The Giger fan may well watch Species out of a sense of completist obligation, but there's more than enough within it to make it worthwhile. And the fact that it falls short of fully realizing Giger's ideas for it only highlights what an incredible, truly visionary brain the man had. His work remains.

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