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When the great heat wave hit, I sought refuge in an air-conditioned movie theater. I perused the listings to find the film that would best be illuminated by my critical acumen. The choice was obvious: Species.

Species is director Roger Donaldson's followup to his remake of Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway. That movie proved Donaldson is no Peckinpah, Alec Baldwin no Steve McQueen, Kim Basinger no Ali McGraw. Even Jennifer Tilly is no Sally Struthers. Both versions of the Jim Thompson novel should be required viewing at every film school, for there are few clearer examples of how to and how not to make a film.

You could perform the same academic exercise by screening Donaldson's new film back-to-back with the original Alien. In Species scientists combine extraterrestrial DNA with human DNA and create a friendly humanitarian with magical powers and an insatiable desire to do good. Just kidding. They accidentally create something much more predictable: a deadly monster with an infinite capacity for evil. The male "scientists" are played by some of our best actors: Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen, and Alfred Molina. The female monster is played by the equally talented Judy Davis. Just kidding. Actually the monster (Natasha Henstridge) looks like a supermodel and acts like she's on a runway. Species is so bad that I couldn't even wait for her to mate. Instead I decided to sneak into an adjoining theater.

Once again I found myself staring at a pretty face with the expressive ability of Barbie--only she had a better tan. I quickly realized I was watching Pocahontas and that its publicity budget must have dwarfed the animation budget. A Saturday morning cartoon looks pretty lousy when it's blown up to fill a movie screen. Of course Pocahontas was made for children, and most of the kids in the theater really seemed to be enjoying their popcorn. I couldn't handle the heavy-handed moralizing of the Disney corporation, so I decided to sneak from the Burger King movie to the McDonald's movie, Batman Forever.

To entertain us before the movie began--who knows what might happen if a roomful of Americans are left unstimulated?--theater number 14 was flashing yearbook pictures of famous stars on the screen. The guy in front of me correctly identified Andie McDowell and won 12 jujubes from his buddy. To my disappointment, there was no Fruitopia commercial (they always bring me back to prenatal memories of the halcyon 60s). But a seductive image of hot, buttered popcorn got me to salivate on cue. Then the lights went up and an usher attempted to get donations for a charitable organization. He held his cup in front of my face as the entire theater audience turned to me, and he pointedly asked, "Anybody else care to make a donation?" I pretended to look at the blank movie screen with tremendous interest.

Finally the lights dimmed, and I began to relax. The first preview featured Scott Bakula from the TV show Quantum Leap, prompting me to wonder if bland inoffensiveness is all that's required of movie stars these days. They're starting to look more and more like politicians (the blander the better). It's probably just a matter of time before Tom Hanks is president. But the preview of the Ace Ventura sequel restored my faith in popular culture. Watching an African beat two drums with Jim Carrey's head was cathartic. Then Batman Forever started.

Joel Shumacher has directed The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and Dying Young. Why is he still working? He seems to mistake technical virtuosity for soul. It takes Schumacher three or four edits to show a villain flipping a coin. "Hot entrance," says Barbie-doll Nicole Kidman. "Chicks love the car," replies Ken-doll Val Kilmer. Batman Forever is the worst movie Jim Carrey has ever been in, and his frenzied attempt to rise above the material fails miserably. I crawled over the other patrons and, with explosions still ringing in my ears, exited Batman Forever. I walked past the remaining theaters wondering, "Behind which set of doors will I find enlightenment, transcendence, nirvana?" I chose number six.

Inside the air-conditioning was broken, and the sweltering theater was empty. On the screen Buddhist Richard Gere was running through an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom-inspired amusement park. By his side was a French Barbie. Together they rode down a waterslide and over a waterfall. Later, when they were giggling together under a tree, I realized that about half of Gere's dialogue was being delivered in a British accent. Only then did the frightening truth become apparent: the movie was First Knight, and Gere was Lancelot. As Lancelot began detailing some childhood trauma that made him even more attractive to his lover, I knew my afternoon at the multiplex had come to an end.

I staggered out into the blinding light of a steaming parking lot, full of automobiles but devoid of humans. Blinking, watching cars on the expressway speed through the haze, I felt part of a scene of alienation worthy of Antonioni. Next time the heat hits, I'm going swimming.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.

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