Independence Day was released on July 3rd, 1996. The film was an immediate hit, as are many summer blockbusters. I’m sure that most of you have watched the film, so there’s really little for me to say about it that you don’t already know. As this review isn’t for Independence Day anyway, doing such would only make this review longer than it already is, which some might rightfully claim is already too long.
Alien Species is a science fiction film by director Peter Maris, released in 1996 much like the aforementioned film. Maris began his directing career with 1979’s Delirium (aka Psycho Puppet), moving along to films such as 1986’s post-apocalyptic tale Land of Doom and 1987’s Terror Squad, starring Chuck Conners. Maris would also serve as the director of the film segments on developer Sierra’s highly controversial and successful 1995 “interactive movie” game “Phantasmagoria”. As far as Alien Species is concerned, that last credit is the most relevant.
To say that Alien Species was “influenced” by Independence Day may be an understatement, but to call the film a “blatant ripoff” may also be a tad unfair as, really, the only similarity between the two films is that they deal with alien invasions. Sure, it was somewhat coincidental for two films released during the same year to share the same basic plot (much less so these days), but the disparity between the two films’ budgets ensures that’s where the similarities end.
Alien Species was produced by American Interactive Pictures, the studio’s only film. The film features plenty of computer-generated visual effects, many of which weren’t exactly “state of the art” even for the era and have aged quite poorly over the last three decades. The film also features performances from David Homb (Shock ‘Em Dead, Camp Fear) and veteran character actor Hoke Howell (Kingdom of the Spiders, Humanoids from the Deep), both of whom also appeared in “Phantasmagoria.” When one takes all of these facts into consideration, there is some question as to if Alien Species was once intended to be an “interactive movie” movie as well.
Set sometime around 1999, the film opens to find two young scientists (presumably of the astronomical variety) monitoring the computers at a small observatory. We have Holly (Barbara Fierentino, whom I found attractive enough to distract from a somewhat wooden performance) and her partner Max (Aaron Jettleson), who may just be the most extraordinarily useful person on the planet. There might be some question as to the legitimacy of this observatory as the duo seems to be illegally hacking into NASA satellite feeds. Ethics aside, they soon discover evidence of an impending invasion by alien forces. As there is a delay to the signal, “impending” actually means “immediate”.
The invasion starts small, with a single squad of ships buzzing the area, abducting a cow and a couple of unfortunate teenagers along the way. Elsewhere, two small-town deputies are assigned the task of escorting a pair of potentially dangerous criminals to the state prison. Of course, this would also be the same night as a mysterious rainstorm, one that seems to hang exclusively over the transport vehicle, effecting nearly nowhere else. Charles Napier of Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and The Silence of the Lambs fame appears as the sheriff. He’ll show up a few more times, but his role proves to be quite meaningless to the overall plot.
The deputies soon come across a wrecked car, stopping to pick up the passengers, which include a professor (Howell), his assistant, and his teenaged granddaughter. The professor also happens to be in charge of the observatory, but is currently unaware of the alien invasion. As the drive continues, one of the deputies fights with a prisoner, leading to an accident that leaves the transport vehicle overturned. As this is all taking place, the alien fighter ships begin their attack, albeit one focused squarely on a small nearby town (portrayed by the town of Clovis, California.)
This motley crew of characters is forced to seek refuge in a series of caves, ones that look almost as realistic as those found in the MST3K fan-favorite Eegah!. By sheer luck, these same caves are also being used as some sort of lair or laboratory by the extraterrestrial creatures, where they are storing and possibly experimenting on their human subjects. Unfortunately, the film only explores this concept marginally, even if it does invest in multiple, yet fairly simplistic, practical effects to create these images.
The film does feature two different types of aliens, thus pluralizing the “species” in its title. The first is somewhat similar to the “grey alien” generally described in most “close encounter” reports, but with a much more squished and wrinkled face. These would appear to be the “brains of the operation”, while the second type is much taller, sleeker, and presumably bred and/or designed for assault and extermination missions. While also not explored in any depth, I do applaud the variety in creature design from a low-budget production.
Despite destruction raining down from above, “bit player” Holly chooses to risk her life by driving home to save her cat, Roy, before fleeing to safety herself. Honestly, this character’s decision isn’t all that inconceivable as I know many other pet owners that would happily do the same. However, there may have been more emotional weight to this plot development if the character were ever shown or mentioned again.
Eventually, the film’s not-so-secret hero rises to the occasion. Sure, all Hell has broken loose on the planet Earth by this point (or, at least in one small California town and a still-shot of some high-rise buildings), but it’s the thought that counts. From here, Alien Species starts devolving into more of an action flick, featuring fights, guns, the return of a character from earlier in the film (as hinted to earlier in the review), a powerful weapon randomly found in the backseat of said character’s car (justifying my assessment of that character from earlier in the review), common fireworks used to create the explosion of a CG-generated spaceship, a car chase (of sorts), and even a X-Files reference for good measure. While these moments are the undoubted highlights of Alien Species‘ climax, if not the film as a whole, I do admit to feeling some guilt in even mentioning them as they’re also quite focused upon by every other reviewer that I’ve found to have covered the film. All 6 of them.
Alien Species concludes with Earth’s fate quite unresolved. As such, the filmmakers took the admirably ballsy move of announcing a sequel in the closing credits. Much to no one’s surprise, that sequel has yet to materialize.
Overall, Alien Species is not a particularly well-made film, nor is it one that I can easily recommend to many readers. The majority of the film’s acting is really quite bad. To be fair, the dialog didn’t do these folks any favors and the script contains plot holes large enough to pilot the alien mothership through. Keeping with the gaming themes, Alien Species‘ soundtrack frequently sounds like it was lifted from the “boss fight” of an early 1990’s video game, which considering the production team’s history isn’t overly surprising. That said, Alien Species isn’t a video game, so the music does tend to negatively stand out in this medium.
Somehow, I still find the film amusing, primarily because of its many flaws and shortcomings. Again, I can’t rightfully call Alien Species a “good” movie, but if you want a dose of braindead sci-fi/action fluff made on a shoe-string budget, you could do worse than giving Alien Species a watch. You might have to dig around a little bit, but I assure you, you could do worse.
Alien Species (1996) is currently available to watch on Tubi and YouTube (linked below).
I admire filmmakers who take on ambitious topics like alien invasions on shoestring budgets, but the results are usually not sublime. It’s too bad Charles Napier doesn’t have a bigger role — for me, his presence could always redeem a not-so-great movie. I had to smile that Alien Species is available on both Tubi and Youtube — those two are the goto platforms for obscure low-budget wonders!
Tubi is undoubtedly the “goto” in this household. The selection of 50s/60s sci-fi/monster films is pretty fantastic, but Ido admit that I’ve had to rely on Youtube recently for films such as “Man and the Monster” and “Monster of Piedras Blancas”.
As for this film, it was nice to see the veteran actors get top billing, but unfortunate that they were stuck in what are basically “filler” roles. At least Napier spends his limited screen time looking flustered and angry, which may be what he’s best at.