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THE DATE FROM HELL

Clearly, the Art Cinematic has made great strides since the days when extraterrestrial invaders were all huge, featureless carcasses encased in blocks of ice, or spiders blown up to beach-umbrella size by atomic radiation. In the name of progress, the killer alien in Species is a gorgeous blonde (former model Natasha Henstridge) named Sil. Not only that, she wants to mate. Right here on Earth. In fact, she must mate right here on Earth.

You can almost hear those little wheels turning inside the heads of producers Frank Mancuso Jr. and Dennis Feldman:

--Yo, Feldman. How do we work a little T & A into our new sci-fi horror flick?

--No problem, Frankie mine. Forget all that kiddy dinosaur crap. Let's make the monster a real babe with a great butt, then set her loose in an L.A. discotheque. Later, have her get naked with some dude in a hot tub. Couple nights after that, pump up the volume with a major screwfest in a hotel suite--with a different guy.

--Okay, sounds great. But what about the fang-and-claw part? You know, the blood. We also gotta have scary, don't we?

--Hey. Frank. Don't sweat it. Listen: Whenever this chick gets really turned on, she reverts back into this thing with spines and horns and razor-sharp fingernails sticking out all over the place. Sometimes she's even got a kinda big dorsal fin running up her spine, for godsake. And get this! Every time a guy French kisses her, she goes ballistic and blows the back of his head off with her tongue.

--Cool, Den. Kinda like Fatal Attraction, only outer space. Or Sharon Stone on steroids.

--Exactamundo, pal. Now get those morphmeisters on the hook and let's roll. June's gonna be here before you know it.

It's hard to keep a straight face about director Roger Donaldson's ridiculous entry in the summer blockbuster sweepstakes, but there's a kind of cheesy boldness to Species that makes it more fun than most thinking folk may want to admit.

After all, where else can you find a beautiful, horny serial killer who's been spliced together in the lab from alien and human DNA? Apparently she also likes junk food, and she eats her bananas with the skins still on them.

And how about Ben Kingsley, the personification of good conscience in Schindler's List, as a heartless scientist whose little experiment has gone horribly wrong? Or Forest Whitaker as a nerdy dreamer who can read people's minds? Or Michael Madsen, back in his most sinister Mister Blond form, as an icy government assassin leading a team of official hit people charged with eliminating Sil before she does something really bad--like put her killer moves on O.J. Simpson in his jail cell or proposition Hugh Grant on Sunset Boulevard.

With or without her clothes on, the modestly talented Henstridge is easy on all eyes. But every time she literally jumps out of her skin and turns into a crazed lizard, the credit (if you can call it that) must go to Richard Edlund (visual-effects supervisor), Steve Johnson (creature and special makeup effects) and H.R. Giger, who "designed" the creature. Horror buffs will know Giger also designed the monsters in the Alien series, but he doesn't have as much intrigue or intelligence to work with here in creating a new character.

He does have a little subtext. Co-producer Feldman also gets script credit, and he's nothing if not a good marketing man. To that end, he's sent a cleverly mixed message about his rampaging heroine. On the one hand, Sil's an unbridled feminist power fantasy--a laboratory-grown innocent who's still capable of snapping her male tormentors' necks like twigs, evolving from child to woman in hours, then mutating from woman to monster at will. Meanwhile, she takes no guff from anyone as she draws what seems like every poser, punk and preening narcissist in L.A. into her predatory orbit, as well as the secret team sent out to kill her.

Sil's a quick study in other ways, too: She learns to drive a car in about nine seconds, usefully apes the pick-up lines of the jerks hitting on her in the singles bars and expertly dyes her hair for yet another new look. There's almost nothing this superwoman can't do, no matter what form she takes.

But Sil can play the other side of the street, too. The misogynists in the house will probably see her as the ultimate uppity man-eater, five feet ten inches of pretty poison lying in wait to trick her next victim, turning into a fiend just as the moment of truth arrives. Regarded in this light, she's an alien species, all right--every male chauvinist pig's worst nightmare, the monster concealed within the skin of a woman.

Before we get too carried away, let's reiterate that Species is basically a piece of junk and that the preceding discussion of its schizophrenic sexual politics is just that--a discussion. If the weather gets hot and you've got nothing better to do, Species may provide a couple of yuks. Otherwise, you might want to grab another look at Sigourney Weaver and company on videotape.

Or a carcass in a block of ice.

 
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