One frequent way that I procrastinate (and believe me, I procrastinate quite frequently) is to click through any random period of time on BoxOfficeMojo and marvel at the movies that were given wide theatrical releases, knowing that nowadays there is no way in hell they'd get anything more than a single screen to fulfill a contractual obligation. In 1993, Warlock: The Armageddon was released on 1,320 screens - more than all but two of Wes Anderson's films have ever graced. Even crazier, in 1999 the film Bats managed a whopping 2,500 screen debut, more than the same year's bigger budgeted/star-powered fellow genre flicks Virus and Lake Placid. Studios and theaters alike used to take on this sort of fare more often, but over the next 10-15 years, those kind of releases were more and more rare, to the point that when a movie like Life (meaning: an original* sci-fi/monster flick, and an R-rated one at that) comes along, I actually get a bit stunned at the idea of seeing it in a multiplex.
It's something I thought about a lot when revisiting Species (newly re-released on Blu-ray), which I don't think I've seen since 1996 or 1997, but was one of the many who saw it in theaters during the summer of 1995. I was 15 at the time, so you shouldn't need much of an explanation to understand why this particular film appealed to me then, but over the years I thought about it less as "the movie that gave us Natasha Henstridge" and more of a fairly enjoyable inverse Fugitive kind of flick, with a team of specialists (very Crichton-y in that regard) trying to track down a single target in a major city. Of course the key difference was that this was not Harrison Ford but a lab creation that escaped, and was hellbent on finding a mate - not a crime unless you consider that she was unfortunately killing all prospects along the way. Like The Fugitive and others like it, we divide our time between the hunters (Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina, and Forest Whitaker) putting their heads together and trying to guess her next move, and their prey (Natasha Henstridge), figuring out how to stay one step ahead of them. Except she's a lab experiment that's only a few months old, so she also has to learn how to act like a human being.
Watching again I realize it's not exactly a masterpiece; it's a bit repetitive and Madsen's performance often borders on modern day Bruce Willisian levels of "I'll say the lines and then I'm going back to my trailer" halfassery. The terrific transfer makes some of its CGI FX look terrible, and Sil's creator (Ben Kingsley) gets sidelined too often, and when they finally come face to face near the end it's over far too quickly. But what it excels at is offering up those B-movie thrills with an A-list presentation, in a manner rarely seen since. None of these actors are marquee names, but there ARE two Academy Award winners (Whitaker and Kingsley), plus another nominee (Michelle Williams as the young Sil, before she evolves into Henstridge) for good measure, and most of the other actors have been nominated for Golden Globes or Emmys as well. It's also shot in Los Angeles for the most part, a luxury this sort of thing can never afford nowadays - if the movie was made in 2015, Sil would be rampaging around either New Orleans or Detroit, if she got to be in America at all. And most importantly - it sports an HR Giger design, which is a HUGE get for a sci-fi flick as he was not exactly prolific when it came to Hollywood productions - it was his first non-Alien credit on a major film since Poltergeist II, almost a decade before.
The film's strengths helped it become a fairly major success that summer, nearly doubling its $35m budget in the US alone while crushing would-be summer blockbusters (read: ultimate duds) like Judge Dredd and Under Siege 2, and in fact for 1995 as a whole it outgrossed almost everything else that was covered in Fangoria (Seven and, dubiously, Congo were the only bigger hits). And it revived the idea of non-sequel R-rated creature movies, which hadn't had much of a presence in the multiplexes since 1989's Deepstar Six/Leviathan "duel" (they both tanked), proving you didn't need to have a Michael Crichton novel as your source to get people buying tickets to see a monster. Most didn't reach the success of Species, including Species' own direct sequel which flopped in the spring of 1998, but they all had the same kind of approach: hiring good actors and throwing decent budgets to make, essentially, Sci-fi Original Movies.
And yes, you're right - Sci-Fi Original Movies didn't exist then, but the term is a perfect one to describe the kind of movies I am talking about. These aren't as classy as Jaws or Alien, or as sleazy/exploitative as Italian Jaws/Alien ripoffs, but somewhere in between, providing cheap thrills without a shred of pretension, but not winking at the audience either. It's a certain breed of sci-fi/horror flick that we used to take for granted, but once actual SOM's came along in 2001, that's when they started going the way of the dodo in our multiplexes. Sony was pretty much the only holdout, still putting things like The Cave (killer man-sized bat things, if memory serves) and the awesomely titled Anacondas: The Hunt For The Blood Orchid) on thousands of screens towards the end of summer, but even they gave up the practice after a while. Maybe I'm forgetting one, but if my (poor) memory is correct the last thing of this sort (again, R-rated creature movies with zero connection to existing material, and also kinda junky) to get a wide theatrical release in the US was Primeval back in 2007, which was a killer crocodile movie starring Dominic Purcell and Orlando Jones. Remakes (Piranha 3D), sequels (more Alien films, mostly), and sanitized PG-13 efforts (Shark Night) have followed, but even that sort of stuff hasn't exactly been plentiful at your local AMC or Regal over the past decade, and most of them have been shark movies.
Of course, it makes sense - why pay a premium (and, in recent years, deal with cell phones - for those not able to go to a Drafthouse) to watch the same sort of schlock Sci-Fi (later Syfy) was offering up for free almost every Saturday? Nowadays they tend to cater to the ironic crowds with the likes of Sharknado and its ilk, but back in the '00s they were making straightforward, unapologetic B-movie flicks that checked the same boxes as the likes of Species did in the previous decade, albeit on a smaller budget (and yes, there were two DTV Species sequels, and both premiered on Syfy before their DVD releases a few days later). Hilariously, Michael Madsen even appeared in one or two of them himself, now that he, as so many other '90s stars, was more commonly cashing paychecks for DTV stuff than taking on theatrical roles. In 2007 he starred in the simply titled Croc, not exactly one of the better ones you can find out there but a watchable and even impressively risky (read: a little kid gets chomped) take on the usual killer creature movie. The FX are uneven, but the pacing is fast enough and it delivers on the promise of its villain killing people every 10-20 minutes, so unless you demand the accompanying nudity, what does Species really offer that Croc doesn't? Not a lot, really - and you could "attend" its premiere in your underwear if you so chose.
Some of these Sci-Fi/Syfy flicks even bested their rare big-screen competition. There was one called Caved In: Prehistoric Terror that was basically the lower-budgeted ripoff of the aforementioned The Cave, but it was way more fun. Whereas The Cave was a waterlogged Aliens ripoff (with expert divers replacing that film's marine grunts), Caved In took a less oft-mined source of inspiration: Renny Harlin's Cliffhanger, as our characters were a group of robbers who force a guide to help them navigate a cave that turns out to be filled with oversized beetles. And 2004 offered what may have been my favorite of the ones I've seen: Mansquito (or Mosquito Man), which was basically a Fly ripoff but one that split its time between two victims: one who turned villain and the other who retained her moral compass, until they had a mansquito v (wo)mansquito brawl in the finale. And it featured Corin Nemec, who appeared in another one I enjoyed far more than I thought: Sea Beast, which was a giant sea creature tale that robbed Armageddon's "father disapproves of his daughter dating a guy that's in the same line of work" scenario, even recycling some of the same dialogue at times, but with one key difference: the "Ben Affleck" part of the triangle is the one that gets killed! Brutally! I know ripping off other movies isn't exactly ideal, but when they do something like that and then make a switch, it actually kind of pays off in a weird way.
Now, none of these movies are worth watching more than once, but that doesn't mean they're not enjoyable for what they are, and I really miss seeing this kind of stuff in theaters. I don't get to see movies with a big bunch of friends too often anymore, but if Screen Gems took a break from Underworld or glorified Lifetime movies to bring us some "alien/shark hybrid in a lake" movie or whatever the hell, I'd be dropping all other responsibilities to get a good-sized crowd of like-minded pals to see it at one of the increasing number of theaters around here that serve alcohol, just to enjoy it on the big screen instead of crowding around my living room. I was surprised to see that Alien: Covenant offered up those kind of cheap thrills, but you could sense Ridley Scott had zero interest in those moments, severely crippling their ability to entice that particular part of my brain (I liked the movie, but more for its man vs. creator philosophizing - the alien scenes kind of sucked). And again, that's a sequel, so you can't help but bring in the baggage from five other movies (seven if you count the AVPs), which is why new properties would be ideal. Your expectations are probably not high or inflated by any kind of nostalgia, and you can just enjoy this junk for what it is.
All it will take is one hit to get the other studios to fall in line; if Life hadn't tanked we'd likely be seeing something similar but on land or in the water within a year at most. With audiences thumbing their noses at a number of franchises over the past couple years, the time is ripe for "Part 1s" to take their place, and the success of The Shallows and 47 Meters Down proves folks still want to see monsters (well, sharks) eating people. Now let's see it in all its bloody, irony-free R-rated glory (both of those were PG-13), and add some new creatures into the mix as well. There will always be good actors happy to catch a paycheck by slumming in some "B-movie" (especially if they can do so alongside other good actors cashing their own paychecks, unlike the Syfy types that tend to only hire one and fill the rest of the cast with unknowns), and I believe audiences will be happy to see a big-screen film like Species if it has an identifiable hook. I think Life failed to catch on because it just looked exactly like Alien and there was a genuine Alien movie coming along a few weeks later, so the timing has to be right as well - but I have faith that if one of the studios tosses some money at a more original-looking idea, schlock-starved fans will show up in droves.
*Don't get cute, it may have ripped Alien off a lot (and Ryan Reynolds' flamethrower bit was swiped from Species, I just discovered on this rewatch), but it wasn't based on another movie, or video game, or whatever. It was "original".