And that's another Thing...

REVIEWS : SPECIES Roger Donaldson (18) THE WILD BUNCH Sam Peckinpah (18) NIGHTWATCH Ole Bornedal (18)
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The Independent Culture
It would be comforting to think that the genus Cinema Americana were guided by the principal of natural selection, but cloning and reversion seem, rather, to be the norm. Roger Donaldson's Species bears more than a passing family resemblance to such ancestors as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien and, especially, The Thing: even HR Giger's designs for the extra-terrestrial have a sense of deja vu. But a strong cast (it includes Michael Madsen, Forest Whitaker, Alfred Molina, although their roles don't always justify their presence) and decent production values make it mildly superior to the standard run of B sci-fi horror.

The film begins ambivalently, as a brooding scientist (Ben Kingsley, an actor who can play a hero or a villain with equal conviction) orders the gassing of a little blonde girl in a glass cage. In a strange and disturbing display of physical strength, the child escapes and makes off westward; by the time she steps off the train, she has become a nubile, 20-year-old woman with a burning desire to complete her life cycle by bearing a child. Fortunately she is in Los Angeles, city of beautiful bodies and - though less so these days - casual sex.

She is, it's no great revelation, a mutant, created by Kingsley by melding alien DNA with a human ovum: the scientists made her female in the belief that she would be "more docile and controllable." Big mistake: as she roves the city in quest of a mate, aggressively hitting on its startled males, Kingsley and his team of troubleshooters pound along behind, trying to prevent her at all costs from polluting and destroying the human race: on one level - and the film is quite knowing about this - the story is about fear of female sexuality and fertility. At the rate the alien develops, by the time she gets laid she should have been well past the menopause (a different plotline would have emphasised the race against her accelerated biological clock) but she mysteriously stops ageing the minute she turns into the supermodel Natasha Henstridge, all the better to flash her 20- year-old breasts in the film's copious kit-off scenes.

Another more interesting movie might have made some mileage out of Henstridge's fear and bewilderment (there's a residue of this in the numerous sequences showing her dreams), and out of its initial idea that the aliens were friendly, and that we, not she are the predators. Instead, it turns into a standard search-and-destroy mission kept bubbling along by Donaldson's fluid, fast-moving direction. The final scene, needless to say, suggests that the Species film cycle is unlikely to face extinction.

They don't make them like The Wild Bunch any more. They don't make opening credits (a vital part of the story, perfunctory in most modern movies) which grab you by the throat like this. The wild bunch riding into town in soldiers' guise; a temperance union marching along to the strains of "Shall We Gather at the River" (a faintly mocking reference to John Ford); a heist about to go wrong; children gleefully tormenting an ant colony which, in turn, swarms over a scorpion - a forecast of the predatory action to come. At the very moment when William Holden, as the leader of the band, growls "If they move, kill 'em", the final credit flashes up: "Directed by Sam Peckinpah."

They also don't make movies (or if they do, it's shamefacedly), where the women are all shadowy beings given a line or two of dialogue before they're blown away. Movies where it's a man's, man's world, bonded by guns, booze, loose women and constant stand-offs whose tension is released by gales of raw, comradely laughter. (Still, better a woman, in Peckinpah's world, than a horse: they don't, thank goodness, make films any more where you see them stumbling down sand dunes or tripped up in full gallop, and where you will search in vain for the American Humane Association's reassuring emblem in the end credits.) And yet, while these elements would be unacceptable in a modern film, somehow they add to The Wild Bunch's bleak, uncompromising power.

Peckinpah's great 1969 film (released here in a 145-minute "director's cut" already seen widely on television: various early versions ran up to 80 minutes longer and would really be something to see) remains hugely impressive, both for its technical brilliance (the intricately timed and edited robbery would repay dozens of viewings) and the emotional ferocity of its themes: old age, friendship, betrayal and the struggle to retain some kind of cock-eyed code of honour in an increasingly cynical world.

In Nightwatch, a nifty little psycho-thriller from Denmark, a young law student lands the night job from hell, as the caretaker in a morgue. But this is only the start of his troubles. His mischievous, perhaps malevolent best friend has egged him on to a game of double-dare where the challenges become more and more risky. And gradually (by coincidence, or by evil design?) he finds himself becoming the main suspect in the wave of serial killings sweeping the city.

The film is distinguished by its confident handling of the suspense, a goodly dollop of Nordic angst ("Let's play with destiny," the friends tell each other. "It's already resting heavily upon us.") and an enjoyably perverse sense of humour: the scene in which the student is taken on a tour of his spooky new workplace and instructed in the details of his job by the laconic previous incumbent is a minor gem of black comedy. It all collapses in the latter sections under the weight of some improbable plotting (the identity of the real killer strains credibility to the limit), but it should be worth tracking the career of the writer-director, Ole Bornedal.

n All films reviewed open tomorrow

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