SPECIES (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence, Strong Sexuality and some Language

Directed by: Roger Donaldson

Written by: Dennis Feldman

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker & Marg Helgenberger

H.R. Giger has become known for his trippy illustrations and creatively horrific designs. He’s most famous for creating the Xenomorph in ALIEN, but he’s also made other contributions to cinema…like the antagonist in SPECIES. This science-fiction/horror blend is about as generic as generic can be. SPECIES is what happens when a subpar creature feature is mixed with a softcore porno, and there’s barely an original bone in its Giger-designed body.

After scientists send out signals to outer space and receive a reply, they decide it might be a good idea to cook up a science experiment with DNA codes that “friendly” aliens have given them. The result of this experiment is Sil, a human/alien hybrid that rapidly matures over the course of mere months. When something deadly appears to be manifesting itself inside of Sil, head scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) decides that its time to terminate their pet. Unfortunately for them, Sil escapes and evolves into a sexy adult version of herself (Natasha Henstridge) who’s ready to mate. If they wish to save the world, Xavier and a special team of hunters must exterminate Sil before she gets her rocks off and gets pregnant.

Many cast members seem embarrassed to be starring in this film and that comes across in their performances. Ben Kingsley (who was in SCHINDLER’S LIST two years prior to this mediocre mess) seems in a rush to say his lines and leave the set. There’s not one ounce of believable emotion injected into his performance, even when he’s trying to look sad or scared. Alfred Molina plays a nerd stereotype (with a godawful haircut) and comes off as borderline creepy. Meanwhile, Forest Whittaker is a useless psychic who can feel other people’s emotions (kind of like Mantis in the recent GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2). This leads to a few laughs, but not many profound insights. In the end, he’s a totally useless character.

Only three people seem to be having fun with the cheesy material: Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, and Natasha Henstridge. Madsen is typecast as a tough guy (what a shock) and manages to inject his rough-around-the-edges charm into this clichéd one-note “hunter.” Helgenberger is solid as a scientist who contributes exposition about Sil’s biology and serves a love-interest for Madsen. Dare I say, the two of them have believable enough chemistry to seem charming together. They also serve as the only two potential victims who are worth giving a shit about.

The real show-stopper is the sexy model-turned-actress Natasha Henstridge. I wasn’t expecting much from her performance, but she did a damn good job with the cheesy material. Henstridge’s acting abilities and unexpectedly clever writing make Sil into a bit of a sympathetic antagonist. It’s a little sad to watch her naively make her way through the outside world, but it’s fun when she snaps into full-blown predator mode and begins taking people out. One scumbag’s death scene is pretty damn cool, even if it seems like the sexier version of an ALIEN kill.

Speaking of which, the creature design for SPECIES is not one of Giger’s shining moments. I appreciate that there are freaky things about this monster, like spikes that come out of her back (when she’s aroused), a cocoon (that eats an unfortunate passerby), and her reptilian-succubus appearance. However, the CGI used to bring this character to life is scattershot to say the least. The film takes a less-is-more approach for its first half, resulting in the practical version of the creature looking neat and the computer-generated version looking like total garbage. Also, it certainly doesn’t help that the monstrous version of Sil sounds like Stripe from GREMLINS.

SPECIES loves to shoe-horn in pointless nudity and erotic sex scenes. Yes, the film revolves around a group of people trying to take down a monster before she’s able to mate…but that doesn’t mean that we need to see Natasha Henstridge’s boobs every five minutes. There are scenes that seem like they exist only to cram more sex and skin into the film. Movie sex for the sake of sex isn’t sexy if there’s no emotional appeal to both characters. Sil is on a quest for a baby, but the men she’s making out with are merely lambs to the slaughter. I wouldn’t be surprised if SPECIES started off as a Skinemax script and then someone tweaked it into a sci-fi/horror film for the big screen.

SPECIES is one of those films that banked in the 90s, but seems laughably silly and mediocre now. It’s a hodge-podge of science-gone-wrong plot points and creature feature clichés. There are redeemable qualities in three performances and attempts to make the alien seductress into a sympathetic character. However, the film mainly languishes away in territory that ranges from mediocre to full-blown bad. SPECIES is a mess.

Grade: C-

THE NOVEMBER MAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence including a Sexual Assault, Language, Sexuality/Nudity and brief Drug Use

NovemberMan poster

Directed by: Roger Donaldson

Written by: Michael Finch & Karl Gajdusek

(based on the novel THERE ARE NO SPIES by Bill Granger)

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic & Lazar Ristovski

Color me pleasantly surprised. I did not expect to like THE NOVEMBER MAN as much as I did. There’s a certain charm that’s usually apparent in most standard spy movies. What’s surprising is that this one turned out to be a pretty damn great thriller that has an interesting plot, dark atmosphere, and a whole lot of ass kicking from a former Bond. This flick may have some clichés, but I had a blast watching this full-throttle blend of action and conspiracy thriller. NOVEMBER MAN is bound to walk away as one of the most underrated movies of 2014, which speaks both to its overall quality and the sad state of the box office for this film.

THE NOVEMBER MAN, Pierce Brosnan, 2014. ph: Aleksandar Letic/©Relativity Media/Courtesy Everett

Peter Devereaux, a former CIA agent, is living his retirement out quietly in Switzerland. When someone he cares about is put in danger, Peter jumps back in the game and his simple mission doesn’t go through as initially planned. Devereaux finds himself up to his neck in enemy fire, a conspiracy, and fellow agents turning against him. Not everything is as it simple as it originally seemed. Peter bonds with a Russian social worker in grave danger, must face off against his former protégée turned enemy, and finally reveal the truth about a deadly secret that started this whole mess he’s trapped in. Also plenty of bodies pile up, explosions occur, blood is shed, a Russian assassin is also on his tail, slow motion is used, and a whole lot of twists (that I didn’t see coming) are launched at the viewer. This is a rollicking good time.

THE NOVEMBER MAN, Olga Kurylenko, 2014. ph: Aleksandar Letic/©Relativity Media/Courtesy Everett

Pierce Brosnan funded this movie himself after it failed to gain much attention and I can safely say that NOVEMBER MAN will make its money back at the box office (only a mere 15 million budget, which makes everything that much more impressive). Roger Donaldson confidently takes the directing reigns. It was nice to see action scenes where the violence was actually well-choreographed (but convincing) and the camera wasn’t shaking all over the place. Donaldson makes a repeated stylistic choice that’s questionable (more on that later), but the action had me on the edge of my seat. Every single one of the performers did an excellent job. Pierce Brosnan is a compelling lead, going into territory that not even Bond would touch. Olga Kurylenko disappears into her role of the Russian social worker, who becomes Brosnan’s sort of love interest (it’s not an essential piece of the film). Also Luke Bracey is a pretty boy in all of his other roles, but does well as Brosnan’s main antagonist. Though I feel Dominic Cooper (the original choice for the role) would have delivered a far bigger rival screen presence for Brosnan. Other colorful characters include newcomer Amila Terzimehic as the Russian assassin and a smarmy Bill Smitrovich in a memorable part.

THE NOVEMBER MAN, from left: Luke Bracey, Pierce Brosnan (on screen), 2014. ph: Aleksandar

NOVEMBER MAN is loaded with an unusually smart plot for a summer action flick. It also doesn’t shy away from the R-rated content. There’s a reason it got this rating and I’m glad the studio didn’t go to absurd lengths of pandering to those who wouldn’t even be interested in watching this film to begin with (how many people under the age of 16 even know who Pierce Brosnan is?). The flick goes into dark (at one point, uncomfortable) territory, but it never lost me in terms of turning into an outright disturbing flick along the lines of 8MM. At the end of the day, this is a popcorn-munching action flick with more brains and talent than one might expect walking in. Comic relief can either work wonders or be unbearably distracting in this type of film. I can’t think of a single joke that didn’t work. It helps that there aren’t a vast number of them, but when Brosnan injected some humor, I laughed.

THE NOVEMBER MAN, Amila Terzimehic, 2014. ph: Aleksandar Letic/©Relativity Media/Courtesy Everett

On the annoying side of things (nothing is downright bad), a couple of the clever plot points are mighty convenient. I did call a major twist about 20 minutes before it was fully revealed, but it almost seemed like that was the film’s intention as the reveal is a quiet one that doesn’t spell everything out for those who weren’t paying attention. A couple of interesting characters are unceremoniously disposed of, but it was probably in the interest of time (though I would have been happy if the film lasted 20 minutes longer in order to resolve those plot threads in a more concrete way). Also director Roger Donaldson goes into slow-motion overload. It’s cool to show a few scenes (such as explosions or a bloody shootout) in this way, but Donaldson shows some mundane things like a cell phone being tossed out of a car or someone falling over a pipe during a fight in super slow-mo as well. These latter instances felt unnecessary and silly. He also indulges in a few too many lens flares.

THE NOVEMBER MAN, Pierce Brosnan, 2014. ©Relativity Media/Courtesy Everett Collection

In January, an attempt to jump-start a spy franchise was released in the form of JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. That film was decent at best, surprisingly high-grade compared to the rest of theatrical dreck in that dump month. However, it bombed and there’s not much of a chance to see another JACK RYAN flick in a long time. NOVEMBER MAN does what JACK RYAN tried to do with a much lower budget, a more mature story, and never panders to making things accessible for the widest possible audience (the R rating should really be applauded here). I’d much rather see the return of Peter Devereaux (a.k.a. November Man) than I would Jack Ryan. I really hope the announced sequel is really in the works and if so, I can’t wait to see it. THE NOVEMBER MAN is most likely going to wind up as my biggest unexpected surprise of the year. It’s not only better than looked, but it’s a legitimately great spy thriller. Check it out!

Grade: B+

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