BE FRUITFUL: ‘SPECIES’ (1995) TACKLES THE SCARY AND THE SEXY OF (IN)HUMAN REPRODUCTION

Given that it’s ostensibly what sex is for, it’s surprising how the act of impregnation is the source of so much psychosexual drama.  I know for most men, the thought of knocking someone up you didn’t mean to knock up is the source of much anxiety, and if anything, I’m even more phobic about it than most. For my entire sexual career I’ve been an assiduous condom-user and a take-your-pill reminder-er, and many a “the Girlfriend’s Slightly Late Period’ had me paralyzed with anxiety. You can ridicule my caution all you like, but it’s paid off – I’ve only had one real scare, and let’s just say I’ve never been happier to find out I was being cheated on.  

When I admit this to people it kind of throws them for a loop, not the least because my partner of six years has two kids, and I’ve been their stepdad for five. The thing is, having kids, raising them, was never something I was phobic about.  It’s the thought of making a kid that made me uncomfortable.   

Because let’s face it: pregnancy is as close to real-life body horror as you can get. A strange hormone cocktail surges through your bloodstream. Certain body parts mutate and swell. Your organs get smushed. Your skeletal structure alters to such a degree that someone can dig you up a thousand years from now and tell you’ve borne a child. Your emotions change and you get weird urges. You start leaking strange fluids. And then when it’s all over, the poor person you subjected this to disgorges a creature out through an opening way too small for any reasonable person’s comfort; and thanks to huge-brained heads that I guess we just had to evolve, there’s a decent chance that this creature will kill its mother on the way out. 

Imagine explaining all this to an alien. Imagine telling this alien that millions of humans are going through it at any given time. They’d think we were maniacs. It never seemed fair to me to subject another human being to this nightmare just to satisfy my caveman desire to spread my seed around.  

But as is so often the case where sexual matters are concerned, repulsion and attraction are two sides of the same coin. I’d venture to say that for most guys, the scariest part of knocking someone up is the knowledge that one only has to let one’s judgment lapse momentarily, only has to surrender to one’s animal imperative one time. It’s only a danger to you if some part of you wants it to happen. The caveman desire for progeny is real. The woman with your baby in her represents proof of your potency, a testament to your masculinity. It’s a male obsession, borne out in popular culture from time immemorial, from Zeus’s legions of offspring to John Stamos on Law & Order: SVU siring forty-something kids through serial reproductive abuse.  A lizard-brained, selfish and shameful pleasure, which of course only increases its hold upon the mind.   

Because of this tension, there’s a long cultural history of villainous women who use their feminine wiles to take men to bed, secretly intending to get pregnant without mentioning this to the man. Succubi, demons who have sex with helpless men during their sleep, leap to mind – a medieval myth often invoked to explain the existence of children no one wanted to admit to making. At the height of his mid-70s coke paranoia, David Bowie was reportedly plagued by fears that witches were going to steal his semen. Less supernaturally, there’s Kanye’s classic “gold digger” archetype of trifling women who entrap horny men with a baby in the search for a guaranteed meal ticket. It speaks to something deep in the male mind. Possibly the fear of karmic retribution for all the reproductive coercion that men have put women through. Possibly shame in being such weak-willed creatures that, given a hot enough lady, we’ll give her all the baby batter she wants with nary a thought of what she’ll do with it. 

The annals of horror and sci-fi cinema have had plenty of fractured takes on the horrorific aspects of pregnancy: Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, Inseminoid, Demon Seed, and the like – but only Species (1995) comes close to capturing the precise mixture of horror and fascination that characterizes the male attitude toward the act of conception. I saw this movie at an “impressionable” age, late at night, at the house of one of my friends who got all the premium movie channels, and in retrospect it explains a lot.  

Species is an unapologetically male-gaze movie. Both its eroticism and its horror come from the perspective of an outsider to the world of female sexuality. The movie’s monster is a modern take on the myth of the succubus. She transforms at will from a beautiful woman to a tentacled, Gigerian monster. She’s made from spliced human and alien DNA – superficially human, but no one’s sure what goes on inside her. She’s got a strange anatomy, totally alien mind, and operates according to drives that are a mystery even to herself. Her one quality that makes her relatable to an Earthling is the urge to mate. Throughout the movie, Sil’s biological clock is spoken of in the same kinds of ways that men talk about “baby-crazy” women: sometimes in a chuckling, know-it-all way, sometimes with awed terror.    

Sil’s very existence is, metaphorically, an accidental pregnancy – a horror which arose from science, depicted in the movie as a stereotypically male pursuit. In the same stumbling way as a young man might approach his first sexual conquest, the scientists of Earth began broadcasting a radio message out to the cosmos, inviting any alien entities out there to come and get together for a little cultural intercourse. The government began receiving strange broadcasts back from an alien source, which made grandiose promises of fantastic new technologies. The project leader, Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) jumped onto the promises of these messages in the same overeager way a man might jump into bed with a woman he knows nothing about. And his lack of wisdom is his undoing, when the aliens give him the DNA sequence for an alien gamete and tell him how to fertilize a human egg with it. He thinks he’s being careful. He thinks he has total control over what goes on in that egg. In one of the movie’s least subtextual bits of subtext, Fitch says he purposefully made the embryos female under the assumption that they would be more docile and controllable.  

The resulting offspring, code-named Sil, grows from infancy to puberty in mere weeks. Her biological perfection is of intense interest to the scientists; however, in the subconscious world of her dreams, she has violent fits of rage which cause Fitch to get cold feet and attempt to kill her with cyanide gas. She breaks out and begins to fulfill her biologically coded mission: to mate and create progeny that will, if all goes to plan, eradicate humanity.  

The horror of Species is men’s horror of having typically human, and even more typically male, weapons turned against one’s self. Sil doesn’t differ from humans in having an urge to procreate: she differs in the ruthlessness and efficiency with which she pursues it. She is not contaminated by human concepts such as “gender” and “morality.” She turns the seduction script on its head, hunts for mates more aggressively than any man has ever hunted a woman.  She selects potential mates on the basis of pure reproductive fitness, violently rejecting those who have some undesirable trait that could be passed on to her offspring. She even murders rival women. Her whole game is just the human mating dance, stripped of all its artifice. 

Even her mission to eradicate the human race by having biologically superior children isn’t as far removed from human motives as we’d like to think. The drive to procreate is, in some sense, far down (sometimes not very far down) mixed in with the urge to dominate. One of the reasons we even want children is so they can serve as foot soldiers in our quest to make a mark on the world, as bulwarks against our own mortality. Zeus frantically squirts out children as safeguards against those who might depose him. The Bible exhorts humans to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” In the tradition of all the best monster movies, all the scariest things about the monster are those things that are all too human.  

To track down the alien requires an entire team of government-approved experts in various sciences. The only two on the team who really do anything, however, are the non-scientists: hitman Preston (Michael Madsen), and “empath” Dan (Forest Whitaker). By “empath,” the movie means, essentially, a psychic, and in keeping with Species’ general regard for traditionally female traits, the ability to connect emotionally with other creatures is treated as an amazing paranormal ability. Though both men distinguish themselves on the team by relying on their “instinct” and their “gut feelings” (a quality they both share with the monster they’re hunting) the two characters could hardly be more different. Preston is uncouth, proactive, and has a mercenary, devil-may-care take on the more unsavory aspects of his job: Dan is sensitive, passive, and morally outraged by many of the things he’s asked to do. While Preston’s rugged masculinity makes him attractive to women, and in fact he hooks up with the team’s only woman (Marg Helgenberger), Dan freely admits that women find him “weird.”  

The power of Preston’s maleness doesn’t escape the notice of Sil. After meeting him momentarily, Sil begins having dreams about Preston, and after faking her death and changing her appearance, Sil begins to pursue him, having selected him as the ideal mate. Watching her hunt down one potential mate after another is scary, because she’s such a deadly creature, and kills in such intimate settings and with such amoral randomness: her male victims include a douchebag attempted-rapist, and also a Good Samaritan who takes her to the hospital and pays for her care when she gets injured. To top it all off, she even tries to get with the very man who’s trying to kill her! The only real way to be safe from her predations is to be sexually undesirable, and no one wants to think of themselves that way.  

That’s part of what makes the thought of knocking up a woman like Sil so hot, even while at the same time scary in its implications. As a youth I watched the seduction scenes from Species in a state of blithe envy toward the victims, even with full knowledge of their probable fate. I didn’t figure out why I found it so sexy until later in life. The one thing all the hottest sexual encounters have in common is that you know exactly what you want out of them. And a woman like Sil is incapable of seeing sex any other way. A normal woman might sleep with because she likes you, or because she wants to prove she’s desirable, or because she wants something out of you later, or she feels pressured to, or is just bored, or whatever. Sil’s sexuality, by contrast, has no trace of artifice or superego in it. It’s pure biology. She might dissemble or lie to get what she wants, but she knows exactly what she wants. And if you’re in her sights, you know that she really wants you.  

What an ego trip that must be! To know that such a superior creature would deign to show you her favor. Not only for a momentary pleasure, but for the long haul, as it were. She thinks you’re good enough to have a baby with, she wants to go through the agony of pregnancy and childbirth because she’s convinced that raising a creature that’s half you is worth it. Regardless of how you feel about that prospect, that’s a huge compliment. Pure male fantasy. And there’s something that’s just so appealing about just being to surrender to your animal self, to stop thinking about the future and do what your body was built to do.  

After such a long build-up, Species disappointed a lot of viewers by stopping short of depicting the birth of Sil’s cursed offspring. From my point of view, though, it’s entirely in keeping with the movie’s guiding philosophy. Childbirth has long been depicted as something too mystifying and terrible to the male mind to even contemplate – how many jokes have there been over the years about husbands fainting in the delivery room? (And a lot of them before C-sections became popular!) But additionally, being around for the birth of your bastard really kills the vibe of this whole scenario. The impregnation fantasy is a power fantasy –  part of its appeal is imagining you’re a high-status enough male to be getting away with that kind of thing. Gods, kings, celebrities, they can so their seed wherever – you think King Solomon was around every time one of his thousand-odd concubines gave birth? But for a normal bloke it’s all doctor’s appointments, child support payments, and anxiety about seeing yourself unflatteringly depicted in someone’s memoir one day. Instead of all that, wouldn’t it be great if you could just gratify your lust with an impossibly hot woman and then die. Perhaps that’s why we, as a culture, are fascinated by black widows, mantids, and all other creatures where the female kills the male after fertilization. It’s a fantasy that provides a neat resolution to this dilemma: you can surrender to your desires and never have to live with the consequences.