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Non-Review Review: Alien vs. Predator

To celebrate the release of Prometheus in the United States this week, we’ll be taking a look at the other movies in the Alien franchise.

I like cheesy movies. I have a fondness for those old fashioned mix-and-match creature features from back in the day. I have a remarkable tolerance for some of those incredibly awkward B-movie adventures featuring relatively bland characters trapped in a strange and slightly illogical situations. As such, I’m probably a bit fonder of Paul W.S. Anderson’s creature-feature fight-night beat-’em-up schlock-fest Alien vs. Predator. I’m not so fond that I’d argue it’s a good movie – in fact, I’d readily concede that it’s a disappointing lifeless husk of a movie. However, I will concede that there are some interesting concepts and ideas buried quite deeply in the middle of that film.

Natural born predators…

The problem with Alien vs. Predator isn’t quite that it’s a jumbled mess like Alien Resurrection was. That last film in the solo Alien series at least had its own identity and ideas. To me, the biggest problem with Alien vs. Predator is that it’s so decidedly average and mundane. It seems like the studio, the writers and the director were so keen to bring these two iconic monsters together that they forgot what made the original films so successful.

Ridley Scott’s Alien and John McTiernan’s Predator (and James Cameron’s Aliens) were unashamed B-movies. I don’t mean to diminish them, and I don’t use the term in a pejorative way, but that’s what they were on a most superficial level. They took the classic idea of space monsters preying on innocent humans, and found a way to make that work in a way that it doesn’t work nine-times-out-of-ten. For the two Alien films, the key was to inject a bit of existential reflection about mankind’s relationship to the wider universe. For Predator, it was to stick the creature into a generic eighties action movie and revel in the ensuing chaos.

A lot of this team is going to get iced…

They were B-movies, but they were the very highest caliber of B-movies. They had a wit, an intelligence and an energy about them that many of their compatriots lacked. That’s the reason those series have endured and become iconic. That’s the reason why, despite a lot of sequels, they still remain more in touch with the mainstream than other horror or thriller properties like Friday the 13th or even Halloween. And it’s those attributes (wit, intelligence and energy) that are sorely missing here.

Paul W.S. Anderson is not a great director. He’s not the terrible director most people make him out to be, but he’s not exceptional. I freely admit to enjoying some of his films in a decidedly pulpy manner, but none are anywhere approaching “great”, and I honestly doubt that Anderson has a truly iconic film inside of him. (Something that I think distinguishes him from the other directors to helm movies featuring the eponymous Aliens, although McTiernan is probably the only great director to work with the Predator – though I think Stephen Hopkins did a great job shaping the television show 24.)

This eggs-cavation project has gone horribly wrong…

However, Anderson’s direction feels like it’s focused on the next “kewl” image, rather than anything a bit more thoughtful or disturbing. At one point, for example, we get a slow motion shot of several facehuggers leaping through the air, almost Matrix-style. He gives the Predators what can only be described as a short “suiting up” montage. Similarly, when the Predators attack, it seems like something out of a music video. It seems, at any given moment, like an Alien’s tail is as long as the plot needs it to be, with one particularly bad-ass creature impaling a Predator while lurking in the shadows several feet above it.

I don’t want to dismiss Anderson so casually, because there is the occasional hint that the director knows what he’s doing – but these are typically isolated from the flow of the movie, and once Anderson has to get back to the plot, the moment is lost. For example, there’s a great image in the film featuring a victorious Alien over the corpse of a Predator in a room filled with human bones. It’s actually an effective image, framed by light from the chamber above. The creature almost seems to be howling. It’s a great image, just like one captured a few seconds earlier as the silhouettes of the creatures lend an epic quality to the confrontation.

A truly alien discovery…

Unfortunately, the coolness of these images is somewhat offset by the fact that the Alien and the Predator appeared to be doing clumsily choreographed slow-motion kung-fu wrestling a moment earlier. This includes one surreal moment where the Predator picks up the Alien by the tale and swings it around the room like a living baseball bat. It’s almost more like an outtake from a comedy film than an epic galactic throwdown almost two decades in the making.

I feel the need to clarify that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with blending the two series. I don’t think that it inherently diminishes one or the other – in fact, I think the two series are relatively compatible, if approached in the right manner. After all, both series are pretty much about how entirely crap the human experience is, and how we are blissfully unaware of how incredibly hostile and apathetic the wider universe is to us.

A cut above the rest…

James Cameron dismissed the idea of merging the two films, comparing it to the way that Universal famously handled its monster movies. In fact, it pushed Cameron away from plans to return to the franchise. “Because to me, that was Frankenstein meets Werewolf. It was Universal just taking their assets and starting to play them off against each other… Milking it.” He is correct to an extent, and I’d much rather have Cameron working on Aliens than Anderson working on Alien vs. Predator. However, I don’t think it has to be like that.

(Incidentally, when Cameron did eventually see Anderson’s film, he seemed quite taken with it. “It was actually pretty good. I think of the five Alien films, I’d rate it third. I actually liked it. I actually liked it a lot.” I wouldn’t agree, I’d rank even the theatrical cut of Alien³ above it, but it also seems like damning with faint praise – “it was better than the two that are nigh-universally considered crap.”)

Closing in to seal their tomb…

In fact, I’d argue Anderson’s film is at its best when it plays up these conventions – playing into its cheesy monster movie roots. The allusions to Chariots of the Gods, which would play a more thoughtful and significant role in Prometheus, lends the story a pulpy feeling – as does the decision to set the story in an ancient temple recently unearthed. Don’t ask why a heat signal was necessary to lure in potential sacrifices from the local population, just go with it.

There is a great sequence when the temple revives the Alien queen, which Anderson structures as an affectionate homage to those old-fashioned Frankenstein films, complete with copious amounts of electricity. As the monster is raised from its chamber, as sparks fly, and as the creature slowly begins moving, we get the sense that Anderson might yet offer us a deliciously cheesy old-fashioned schlock horror film. It’s at moments like these when Anderson seems to be on to something.

Holding steady…

Similarly, I love the idea of the pyramid serving as a Rubik’s Cube… of death, as walls slide in and out and trapdoors open and close. “I’m guessing the pyramid reconfigures every ten minutes,” the archeologist on the team proposes, and everybody just goes with it – just like they go with the idea of two different extraterrestrial species making war in these hidden archeological ruins. While I don’t think the setting necessarily helps the story, I will concede that the set design is very effective – combining the claustrophobia of the Nostromo with the “jungle” vibe from the original Predator film.

The problem is that these two unique monsters are made to serve the plot – rather than the other way around. While the Alien is a unique and iconic design, it’s very hard to separate it from its traditional setting. In the original four films, the monster was synonymous with a sterile, decaying and apathetic universe – a world where humans were inherently disposable, and space was a cold and uncaring place.

Wey(land) out there…

In those original films, it was a reflection of the universe around it, hiding effortlessly in the Nostromo’s decaying circuitry, taking advantage of the tight confines of the “shake and bake” colony on LV-246, appearing as a demon to the religious inhabitants of an abandoned and decaying prison. Giger designed the creature to give expression to the fear of sexual violence, and there’s no real way that concept ties into the narrative of Alien vs. Predator. A lot of that is lost here as the creature is bowlderised into a generic extraterrestrial threat, and I think that diminishes the creature.

Similarly, the movie succumbs to easy and awkward cliché in dealing with these monsters, in service of the next “kewl” moment. At one point, the humans team-up with the Predator. “We’re in the middle of a war,” our plucky action girl suggests. “We need to pick a side.” Her colleague restates, “The enemy of the enemy is my friend.”This ignores the central concept of both franchises, the notion that the universe is at best apathetic and at worst hostile. The horror of those films was just how small we were in the face of the unknown – that we could barely comprehend the threat facing us, let alone reason or negotiate with it.

Looks like it’s face-off time…

Here, our protagonist gets to be B.F.F. to a gigantic Predator, a trained killing machine. He gives her a badass spear and shield, carved from an honest-to-goodness dead Alien. Sure, it looks cool, but it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the film or outside it. It’s like a hunter teaming up with a rabbit. It’s something that was included purely because it would they probably thought the thirteen-year-old audience would go wild at the idea of having a Predator as a kick-ass ally.

Indeed, the entire film seems to be aimed at the idea of pleasing teenagers – not that that’s an inherently bad thing, but that it removes a great deal of what made the originals so special. The movie was pretty much shot for a PG-13 rating, and even the Extended Cut doesn’t include that much more. That’s not to suggest that more gore would make it better a film – I think Alien vs. Predator: Requiem firmly disproves that assertion.It just means that Anderson’s editing feels decidedly clunky because he can’t actually show the aftermath (or even impact) of the events that he is showing. It seems as awkward as the attempt to reference the Predator films’ most iconic line without actually using profanity. “You are one ugly mother–“ It makes the movie feel curiously clumsy and disconnected at times.

Operating off the grid…

I just find something quite funny about the way that movie ratings work. As a result of the desire to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, there’s relatively little human blood on display, but the film can offer buckets of Predator blood. It seems just a bit hypocritical to determine that there’s less violence occurring because the blood being spilled doesn’t happen to be red. I find it hard to believe that the end result is that different to people watching at home.

I do appreciate the countless homages and references to the previous films in the series that Anderson shoehorns in, sometimes in a rather obvious manner. For example, the broadcast of the Predator ship is reflected in a visor, evoking the opening shot of the original Alien. Or the red light”scanning” through a gap in the door like the opening sequence of Aliens. I’d still feel more comfortable if Anderson had tried to put his own stamp on things rather than simply retreading old ground in a banal and relatively cautious manner.

Killer queen…

The cast is cliché. Compare the bunch of goons waiting to die here to Cameron’s space marines in the second film. There’s really no comparison – while Cameron imbued a great deal of his admittedly archetypal cast with some measure of personality, Alien vs. Predator never convinces us that its characters are anything more than one-note cardboard cutouts queuing up to die, brutally. “I’m documenting the trip for my boys,” one character notes during his first scene. He might as well have a flashing “R.I.P.” sign over his head. He seals his fate when he reveals he has a photo handy.

That’s not to say the performances are bad – Colin Salmon is great as a proto-Nick-Fury assembling the crack team. “Some of you might be wondering why this team has been assembled,” he tells his recruits before the briefing, in a sequence that almost seems like an homage to a film produced eight years later. Salmon has a knack for delivering incredibly cheesy and contrived dialogue in a way that manages to avoid being too serious or too flippant. It doesn’t matter that his character has no personality, the actor has a bit of gravitas.

Just looking for a face it can love…

The best part of the film is the character of Charles Bishop Weyland. Part of it is the fact that he’s played by Lance Henriksen, who is generally awesome and needs more work, but it’s also because he actually seems like an ancestor of Sir Peter Weyland portrayed by Guy Pierce in Prometheus eight years later. Naturally, the themes and the character aren’t well developed, but the connection is there – a wealthy industrialist who discovers that he’s dying and wants to change the world before he does. Indeed, it actually seems like the part of Anderson’s film that has the strongest thematic connection to the franchise, even though it didn’t really exist until eight years after the film was released.

“You know, when you get sick, you think about your life and how you’re going to be remembered,” Weyland tells one of his recruits. “You know what I realized would happen when I go? A ten percent fall in share prices. Maybe twelve. And that’s it.” There’s something quite touching about that idea, and it makes Weyland the most engaging member of the cast. Sadly, he’s not the focus of the plot, and is only a side character. It’s a shame, because I think that the film from his point of view would be much more interesting than what we ultimately got.

Is losing an alien sensation for the Predator?

There are very faint traces of the same themes that worked so well in the Alien series, like the sense of human hubris as we attempt to control something we don’t understand. At one point Weyland boasts that he’s got everything under control. When his guide asks about what happens at the site, he responds, “You don’t have to worry about that. Once we’re on the site, we have the best technology and experts that money can buy.” Of Antarctica itself, one character observes that it’s “the one last place in the world that no one owns. It’s completely free.” None of these are developed enough to form any meaningful connection with the dystopian corporate-controlled future of the series, but they very subtly (too subtly) hint in that future. Sadly, it’s not nearly enough.

Alien vs. Predator is a disappointing film, because it squanders a lot of potential and a lot of goodwill. It has moments of occasional insight, and it’s not a complete disaster, but it feels like it never completely knows what it’s doing, and it never has the enthusiasm for the material to go completely for broke. The result isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a hallow shell of a film, with a few nice moments thrown in.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

10 Responses

  1. Interesting review. I agree AvP is a disappointing film, although the best of the AvP movies in my opinion. A couple of things I’d add: I enjoyed the fact that Lance Henrikson was cast not only because he is, as you say, a great actor, but also because he is Bishop from Aliens and Alien3. That pleases my inner geek 😉 Also, while I agree that having the Predator team up with a human is a bit iffy for a few reasons, there are a couple of justifications for it: 1. In the tradition of the Alien franchise, we need a kick-ass woman. 2. Having some sort of team relationship between a predator and a human is consistent with the direction of the Predator franchise, after the ending of Predator 2. I must admit I quite liked that development of the story arc and the way it melds the traditions of both franchises. I thought it was one of the (few) things that briefly lifted the film out of its schlock-C movie core. Without these touches, the subsequent AvP movies are much more disappointing.
    Are you going to attempt a review of AvP2? Good luck with that 😉

    • Hi Rachael, I think we agree on the subjective merits of AvP as both an Alien film and an Alien vs. Predator film!

      While the team-up is arguably consistent with the end of Predator 2, I think there’s a world of difference between acknowledging that a human is a worthy warrior and teaming up to the point of equals. And I don’t mind the kick-ass woman – it’s certainly a better stock archetype than anything we got in the sequel – but I think the movie might have worked better if she had been truly caught in the middle, rather than teaming up with one against the other.

  2. I actually liked this film even though it was a little simple, the second one was just terrible

    • Yep, the second one was dire. And while I think it’s very flawed, I think it can be enjoyed in the right frame of mind. Turning off the brain at reception and all that.

      • Although it did cause a great term in my college when it came out, ‘you’ve been glaved!’ don’t ask me why but its just from that bit where the girl gets glaved to the wall haha ;D

  3. The idea of having a kick-ass woman team up with a Pred actually comes directly from the Dark Horse comics/novels. The novels, however, actually flesh-out the Preds as full blown characters in their own right with a name and a backstory and a purpose for teaming up with the human.

    AvP was obviously based on the AvP:Prey but extremely watered down, which is a real pity because a movie that directly followed the comics would have been epic.

  4. Has there ever been a bigger missed opportunity than Alien Vs Predator? I can thibk of very few. *sigh

  5. Horror movies suck

    • I’d respectfully disagree. I’d rank The Shining as one of the best movies ever made. But I think it’s fair to say that this horror movie largely sucks. (And even then, it’s sadly nowhere near the bottom of the horror barrel.)

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