A propos of nothing: If the making-of documentary on the DVD of this movie isn’t called “On the Origin of Species,” why even have one?
I’ve heard it said, and I’m inclined to agree, that Science Fiction is effective when it uses its extra-human or fantastical elements to explore aspects of the human experience. Species doesn’t bother with anything like subtlety in its examination of the human condition. When a clone baby is created combining human and alien DNA, the resulting creation, named Sil, goes absolutely apeshit, by murdering, mutilating, and boning her way through every person she meets with the ultimate goal of procreation. At the end of the movie, a pre-CSI Marg Helgenberger speculates “She was half us, half something else. I wonder which was the predatory half.” It’s a bit heavy-handed to just announce your thesis statement at the end of a movie but at least we don’t have to guess what Species is trying to tell us.
We’re meant to question the nature of humanity and whether its inclusion in a cosmic genetic soup has led to the monstrous behaviour Sil showcases. To be fair, human beings don’t typically punch holes through each others’ heads with their tongues, drown people for being diabetic, or strangle each other using hyper-extended nipples but sure, we can still see how it’s sexy to suggest that Sil is made worse for her human DNA.
The other question Species brings up (remarkably without having a character blurt out exposition like some kind of hack narrator) is the philosophical debate of whether the ability to push the boundaries of science necessitates doing so. Sil is created because the folks down at SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) hear back from the universe and are presented with two gifts. The first is an infinite power source and the second is a recipe for a human/alien fusion. Rather than running with the first one and clearing up a multitude of global issues, SETI’s scientists focus on the second and end up making a creature that almost immediately gets out of their control.
Despite the multitude of disasters that Sil creates, it’s never really challenged whether anyone was in the wrong in creating her in the first place. We do see some accountability taken when the lead scientist, played by an awkwardly-accented Ben Kingsley, recognizes the danger that Sil represents and goes to great lengths to destroy her. His tears when he first tries to gas his creation, in her pre-pubescent state, show that he cares about his baby, but his insistence on seeing the execution through demonstrates that he understands that come hell, high water, or cranial tongue-punch, she is his responsibility. Still, no one challenges the decision to create Sil. There seems to be an unspoken understanding that human beings are always going to touch the stove to see if it’s hot. It’s only not okay if we don’t accept responsibility for our own actions.
What Species does not do is tell us much of anything about human empathy. Whitaker’s character, Dan Smithson, is an empath a person with such heightened senses of emotional perception that he is, apparently, although not always capably, able to follow a person through a smelly sewer simply by following the emotional residue they leave behind. The rest of the team hunting Sil makes sense within the created logic of the movie: you’ve got an anthropologist who can help predict Sil’s behaviour, a molecular biologist who can piece together the clues she leaves behind, and you’ve got a gun-for-hire to take her out. The odd man out is Dan, the emotional bloodhound.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the fourth team member was another scientist, a zany astronomer, or even a wacky alien abduction victim like Randy Quaid in Independence Day because, within the rules of science that Species seems to agree upon, these kinds of people could actually exist. Instead, we have Dan, a man with supernatural abilities in a science fiction movie that don’t have anything to do with the other themes or ideas in the rest of the film. If the point of science fiction is to create a means by which to explore facets of our own existence by enhancing or exploding them, then any excessive supernatural elements are just window dressing and, ultimately, a distraction from the point of the whole thing.
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe empathy is actually the point all along. Maybe empathy is the only differentiating factor between us and the alien other. Sil shows that she has a lot of characteristics in common with humanity. She is vulnerable, resilient, intelligent, resourceful, selfish, and highly motivated by sex but at no point does she showcase any sign of empathy. Instead, she uses empathy as a weapon to get others to help her in her quest for fertilization. At one point, she runs naked into a woman’s car, begging for help, before repaying the favour by cutting off the woman’s finger and burning her alive in a fiery car wreck.
But, in the end, it is the combined team of the the mercenary, the biologist, and the empath who survive long enough to take out Sil and save the day. The man who is so sensitive to others’ emotions that he has to go to therapy to talk about his isolation and incompatibility with people, is part of the team that survives and wins in the conflict against the clever, violent, almost-us monster. It’s when humanity uses its violence, intellect, and compassion in balance that we are ultimately successful.
So maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Dan isn’t just a tacked-on magical character to make the movie more fantastical. It just feels that way because it’s uncomfortable to see the weakest third of our existence at its most exposed.
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Species is also available from Amazon.