Monday, March 20, 2023

"It's All Gone Crazy" - Alien Species (1996)


It is time to return to the realm of science fiction with Alien Species (1996), an ambitious regional film featuring sophisticated special effects and terrifying alien creatures from prolific low-budget director Peter Maris.

Shockingly, some of your universe's critics are oblivious to the film's high quality. For example, reviewer blairman-3 writes, "It's just plain bad. What a terribly hacky piece of crap!" Reviewer nelsonramatos writes, "This is an unbelievable awful movie, with absolutely no sense or logic. I was even ashame of seeing it." (This critic should be ashamed, instead, of reviewing it.) And reviewer planktonrules writes, "In many ways, this is like a modern day Ed Wood production....The overall viewing experience is something you just have to see to believe, as it's bad in every possible way."

It goes without saying these reviewers are incorrect. Read on for an appreciation of Peter Maris's Alien Species...

As the credits fade in and out over shots of a 3D Earth spinning in space, a female narrator intones, “And so it shall come to pass in the year 1999 a mighty armada will dominate the Earth and in its wake great fires will plague the land, tidal waves will devour whole cities*, the Earth will shake with such tremendous ferocity that civilizations will crumble to their foundations. And the strong shall become weak, and the brave shall fall to their knees like children. The world as we know it will succumb to the invincible armada, and with it, the destruction of all mankind.” This helpful explanation of the end of the Earth is interrupted with a cut to a room full of computers, where technicians Max and Holly are monitoring a probe called Galileo II. Holly sees something on a screen. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Max says, though the only thing visible on the screen is a wide shot of a galaxy. “It just entered our solar system!”

[*Note: There are no tidal waves in this film.]

Eventually, a dark shape grows visible on the screen. “They sure are headed somewhere in a big hurry,” Max says. “The question is where?”

They type at their keyboards to bring up a map of the solar system. Max says, “They’re headed straight for…”

“How much time do we have?” Holly asks.

“They’re traveling really fast. There’s a three-day delay from Galileo II to Earth…”

Holly concludes, “They’re already here.”

The film dissolves to the underside of a massive, disk-shaped spaceship nearing Earth. The ship is joined by another ship. Then it ejects small fighters, which fly into Earth’s atmosphere. Their first act is to use a blue beam to teleport a cow into one of the fighters.

Meanwhile, out in a pouring rainstorm, two police officers wearing bright Dick Tracy-style raincoats (but no hats) load two prisoners into a van for a prison transfer. After they are scolded by their commanding officer, played by the redoubtable Charles Napier, they drive the van toward the nearest prison.

Nearby, a young(ish) couple sits on the ground making out until they are interrupted by the young woman’s father, who brings her into the house. Immediately, lightning lights up the sky and the young man sees a spaceship flying overhead. Before he can react, he is teleported into the spaceship on a beam of blue light*. Also, the young woman is physically abducted by an unknown alien. And the spaceship shoots green lasers at the house, blowing it up along with the woman’s father. (It can only be assumed the father is blown up instead of abducted because he is somewhat less attractive than the younger couple.)

[*Note: None of the cows or people teleported into the alien ships are even seen or mentioned again.]

Back on the highway, a suspenseful sequence plays out as the prison van nearly runs into a car on the side of the road. A woman holding an umbrella tells the deputies there is an injured person in the car. One of the deputies, though understandably worried about a trap, climbs out of the van to help the woman. The deputies radio back to the sheriff’s station to send help, unaware that the sheriff is dealing with an even more dangerous situation — a spaceship is blasting cars outside, resulting in some impressive explosions.

Back at the prison van, the deputies reverse direction (thanks primarily to Sheriff Napier, who is more interested in directing his deputies than dealing with the spaceships and lasers and explosions in front of the sheriff’s station) and bring the victims of the car accident—a woman, a girl, and an old man—into the van, where they sit down next to the convicts and then explain that they are scientists investigating paranormal activity, specifically extraterrestrial activity.

“Little green men,” one of the convicts, Doyle, explains. “You know, I turned green one time. Drank a whole jug of bathtub gin. I turned green as a frog.”

It soon becomes apparent that the accident victims are part of the same agency as Max and Holly. Back in their secret agency headquarters, Max and Holly watch a broadcast from the White House, but it the signal is interrupted by the alien species.

Suddenly, the prison van is sideswiped by a flying spaceship and turns on its side in an inch or two of water. As everyone leaves the overturned van, Doyle overpowers a deputy, but the deputy regains control of the situation by, perhaps unwisely, aiming his pistol at Doyle’s temple, which is less than an inch away from the deputy’s own temple.

After the convicts are re-restrained (and the van explodes for no apparent reason), everyone regroups and makes their way to a nearby cave—which, the deputy says, used to serve as an Indian burial ground. To make things even creepier, the deputy, perhaps unwisely, tells the accident victims about the crimes of the two convicts: Doyle raped and stabbed a 17-year-old girl to death (though he protests his innocence) while his cohort Towers knifed a man to death.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers add some more characters to their already large cast, a farmer and his wife who hear their horses spooked by a UFO, though they interpret the commotion as caused by a mountain lion. The farmer investigates, only to be assaulted by little aliens he interprets as children. The farmer is teleported into a spaceship while his wife is left behind.

Back at the cave, one of the deputies, who has left the others due to the call of nature, stumbles upon the secret of the cave: not Native American ghosts but an alien base. He runs back to the others. “We gotta go now!”

Unfortunately, he is too late. A group of alien monsters appears from the dark recesses of the cave to attack them.

The humans run, and one of the deputies is able to shoot one of the monsters, which falls to the ground, glows, and then vanishes without a trace. In the fracas, Doyle escapes the cave, but the convict is assaulted by one of the monsters and dragged back into the cave.

The others run for a minute or two, and then are too exhausted to move further. As they rest, the female agent asks the scientist, “What was that thing?”

“I don’t know,” says the old man. “Nothing. Not human.”

The deputy cries, “You’re supposed to be the expert around here!”

“Look, all I know is they’re not from this world.”

The convict Towers says, “Whoever they area, they need a serious attitude adjustment.”

At Max and Holly’s secret agency headquarters (or, perhaps, their apartment), the two observe a terrifyingly large UFO hover above the city. It releases fighters that devastate the city with their laser beams.

In a terrifying sequence back at the cave, the scientist’s granddaughter is grabbed by a tentacled monster, but she is rescued through the use of a red flare. In the process, the more aggressive and cowardly of the deputies, Harlan, breaks away from the others and runs through the caves, only to find himself strangled by an extremely tall alien.

Meanwhile, in the city, Holly rescues her cat from her house, at the cost of her house exploding due to an alien attack. 

At the cave, the survivors find themselves trapped by a dead-end, but they find a small hole in the ceiling through which they can climb. This takes some time—time that might be described as suspense-filled—and they are fortunate the deputy is armed with a shotgun, which is even more effective against the lizard-like aliens than against humans, causing the aliens to vanish in a green glow. Unfortunately, however, the deputy is killed by one of the aliens, despite the heroic actions of the convict Towers. Tragically, the scientist also dies and his granddaughter is abducted, leaving only Towers and the scientist’s assistant, Carol. During a brief respite, Towers explains his situation. “I’m not a killer. Got that? I’m not a killer. What I did, I had no choice. Look, the other day I stopped in a local bar to say adios to a really bad day. When I got in there, some guy who had a couple too many drinks in him decided he didn’t like the way I looked and he was going to do something about it. With a double-edged bowie hunting knife.” He killed the man, but he didn’t mean to, which is sufficient for Carol to trust him.

Towers and Carol make their way back to the aliens’ base in the cave, where they see the scientist’s granddaughter being subjected to some kind of experiment. They manage to overpower several of the aliens. Frighteningly, however, hordes of aliens emerge from green pods to chase them, but they retrieve the granddaughter, only to be immobilized by a force field. After some effort, Towers incapacitates an alien and steals a control unit, switching off the force field. In the thrilling climax to the sequence, Towers, Carol, and the granddaughter go back the way they came, chased by aliens, and are confronted by a tall alien.

“Time for that attitude adjustment,” Towers quips. He shoots the alien with one arm while holding the granddaughter with his other arm. They run outside and Towers aims his shotgun at the cave entrance. “Time to beam back up, kids,” he says as he fires at the cave entrance, blowing everything up for unexplained reasons. Then a spaceship flies out of the mountain, spins around, and falls to the ground before exploding.

“Why do I get the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore?” Towers quotes, not particularly appropriately.

Outside town, they are joined by Max in his pickup truck. They drive back to town to warn everybody while Max explains, “Alien ships have been destroying everything in their paths since late last night. People have been flooding the streets since it happened, trying to escape. It’s all gone crazy.”

“What about the military?” Carol asks. “How are they fighting back?”

“They’re not. They’re picking off our army and navy as if they’re toy soldiers. Sitting ducks.”

Towers and Carol argue about the situation, as Carol admits her organization knew about the aliens long ago. Carol explains eloquently, “We contacted everyone from the CIA to every newspaper on the Pacific coast. The response was either a condescending pat on the back or just outright ridicule.”

“Typical government bullshit,” Towers sneers, “to deny all knowledge.” He also says, “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in a bad episode of The X-Files?”

Soon, a spaceship flies over them, resulting in a thrilling spaceship/car chase.

Max, however, is not powerless. In the back seat, he types at his laptop and asks the scientist’s granddaughter to hold a rubber antenna out the window. This does nothing, so they park in front of a warehouse and hide inside. They also realize the alien ship is after the control device they stole from the aliens. Max, in an epic session of computer programming, decodes the control device and hits a button to remove the spaceship’s shield. 

Fortunately, there is an unexplained rocket launcher in the back of Max’s pickup truck, so Towers grabs it and aims at the ship while the massive mothership arrives. He blows up the fighter with one shot. 

The other spaceships retreat back to the mothership. 

Max and Carol believe they have defeated the aliens, but Towers is not so certain. “I have a hunch our alien friends aren’t used to their victims fighting back. They’re just taking a breather to regroup. It won’t be long before they find out this is as dangerous as we get.”

The four survivors decide to stick together and head to the nearest Air Force base…if it exists. 

“How are you even sure there’s even an Air Force base left?” Towers asks.

“I’m not,” Max admits.

The film suddenly ends.

Alien Species is nothing if not ambitious, containing a full-scale invasion of Earth with many scenes of alien spaceships blasting buildings and, especially, cars. Much of the film's budget clearly went into pyrotechnics, as buildings, cars, houses, and caves blow up every few minutes with impressive practical effects. The computer generated spaceship effects are impressive as well, as are the variety of monster designs (though the pedantic viewer might spot similarities between the different aliens and those in other movies such as 1981's The Being, 1985's Creature, 1987's Creepozoids, and 1990's Syngenor). Those same pedantic viewers might complain that the film should be more ambitious and show the battles between the aliens and the American military--which would answer the question of why a single rocket launcher could turn away the aliens, however temporarily, when the Army and Navy could not--but Alien Species is a suspense-filled adventure film, not a military action movie. In my opinion, Alien Species does everything just right, except perhaps for the sudden ending that sets everything up for a sequel or franchise that tragically does not exist in your universe, or for that matter any universe.