Thursday, December 11, 2014

Take Two: Alien vs. Predator

by Patrick Bromley
I hate Alien vs. Predator, but not for the reasons you think. I hate it because it's a garbage movie that fails to capitalize on its potential in even the slightest degree and because it shits on two film series that I dearly love. Ok, maybe those are the reasons you think.

I'm a huge fan of the Alien franchise. Sure, you say, that's easy. Alien and Aliens are among the best (if not the best) science fiction horror films of all time, but I'm a big enough fan of the series that I still like Alien3 and, yes, even Alien: Resurrection. I love the way that each film is tackled by a new director who puts such a unique and individual stamp on his (because they're all directed by men) entry that while they're all part of the same series and feature 1) Sigourney Weaver as Ripley and 2) aliens, they couldn't be more different from one another. The franchise is unique in that way.

I also like the Predator series. I've written before about the first film, which made a HUGE impact on my as a 10-year old and is a big contributing factor in developing my love of #HeavyAction. I'm less enthused with Predator 2, but love what they were trying for and can find a ton of stuff to like in it. I like the series enough that I even like Predators despite the fact that it's basically just a redo of the first movie. Unlike the Alien series, this one was repeating itself by the third film. At least it manages to do that pretty well.

Predators probably wouldn't exist at all if it weren't for producer Robert Rodriguez's desire to get back to basics after the shitfest that is 2004's Alien vs. Predator, a piece of IP crossover garbage that is inept in every way. I hated it 10 years ago and have avoided it ever since. Revisiting the movie now reveals that my feelings haven't changed, only strengthened. As my affection for both franchises deepens in my advanced age, my distaste for this piece of shit has gotten so much worse.
Important side note going forward: I have still not seen the 2007 sequel Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, which I thought from the trailers at the time seemed like a vast improvement and would correct many mistakes of the first movie; it was released and deemed to be even worse by both the public and critical community, so I took a pass -- this is important, because if you have seen it you may be clenching your teeth at every negative thing I say about AvP, thinking "Yeah, but the second one is even worse!" You may be right. I may be crazy.

Alien vs. Predator began its movie life as an Easter Egg during the finale of Predator 2, during which Danny Glover is walking around the Predator ship and in the background of the trophy room we can clearly see a Xenomorph skull. It was just one of those cool fucking things for fans that didn't need to be explored any further, in the same way that Freddy's glove appearing in the final shot of Jason Goes to Hell was a fun gag that did not need its own movie. This was in the days before everything was part of a shared universe, so seeing two unrelated properties (particularly two that I liked) cross over was a real novelty.

Around the same time, Dark Horse had begun publishing Alien vs. Predator comics, which 13-year old me read rapturously despite the fact that I really only liked them because they had Aliens and Predators in them. The comics gave way to a popular video game and a couple of crossover novels, and because Fox owns both properties they were eventually able to put an Alien vs. Predator film into production as early as 1991, a full 13 years before it actually made it to screen. They should have left it alone.
Set in 2004 (which is one of its many problems, as now we are aware of the Xenomorph decades before the events of Alien), AvP kicks off because Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) learns of the existence of an ancient pyramid buried beneath 2,000 feet of ice in Antarctica. He decides he wants it. Why? Because fuck you, that's why. So he assembles a team of generic researchers and scientists and archeologists all played by white people with accents, plus one black woman (Sanaa Lathan) with no accent, to accompany him to find the pyramid. When they get there, the end up right in the middle of a fight between the Predators and the Xenomorphs. Most people die. That's it.

So I don't know where to start addressing my problems with the movie, because I'm not sure I can separate them on a case by case basis. It's the sum total that I dislike. I think it's a failure of conception to set the movie 2,000 feet beneath the arctic, as it makes all the visuals look the same -- the entire palette is a kind of white-grey-green color. I don't think it's totally wrong for a Predator movie, just that it's wrong for this Predator movie. If we're going to see Aliens and Predators go at one another, it should be in the setting of either a) an Earthbound landscape that we recognize or b) outer space. I'm not opposed to seeing a solo Predator movie against a snowy backdrop. In fact, when I was 11 or 12 my friends and I began planning to make our own Predator sequel which we were going to set in the snow, because it's the opposite of the jungle. That's as creative as you can get when you're 11 or when you're Paul W.S. Anderson.

One of the strengths of both the Alien and Predator series is the strength of their characters. Both films (the first couple, anyway) have simple but effective characters with well-defined personalities, memorably played by talented actors. One would think that AvP would at least take this to heart and offer up a few strong human characters to caught in the crossfire of this war between the two races. Instead, the screenwriters of AvP (Anderson and Shane Salerno) go another way and populate the film  with nondescript Europeans. I couldn't tell you one thing about any of them except that one of them is Spud from Trainspotting and one is Tommy Flanagan, that Scottish guy with the scar on his face who is in a ton of movies (including Braveheart and Sin City) and is on Sons of Anarchy (R.I.P. Sons of Anarchy). I love Sanaa Lathan, but even she doesn't have a character to play -- she is defined by the fact that she does not die and has a vagina.
So the buildup is stupid, the characters nonexistent, the dialogue expository at best. To the movie's credit, it has roughly as many Predators in it as Predators, which needed more Predators. Also to the movie's credit: it uses practical Xenomorphs as often as possible -- until we get to the "giant" alien at the end, which is achieved through CG and is easily the worst thing about the movie. Gotta give it to AVP: it has quite the ability to out-shitty itself.

About an hour into the film, the Predators and the Aliens finally come face to face and duke it out. This is what we've been waiting for, right? Wrong. Aside from the initial would-be iconic shot of the two monsters staring one another down in the same frame, the rest of the "fight" is stupid. Anderson doesn't realize that, of course, so he stages the whole sequence like it's some Battle of the Titans we've looked forward to seeing our entire lives. It's not Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. It's not even Freddy vs. Jason. It's also pretty uninteresting, especially because there's a lot of one-on-one fights. The strength of the Xenomorph is that there's a bunch of them (except for when there isn't, like in the original Alien, but at least it has the element of surprise) and that they just keep coming, so logic would dictate the best way to stage these scenes is to watch a Predator take on dozens of bugs at a time. I think this happens once or twice, but it's usually a single Predator fighting a single Xenomorph, which Anderson is only interested in representing visually by showing their differently-colored blood.

Three quarters of the way through the film there is an exposition dump that flashes back to the Predators being treated as Gods in ancient Egypt, as we're told they would visit Earth every 100 years and actually taught the Egyptian how to build the pyramids. WHAT THE FUCK. It is as stupid as it sounds, especially when it climaxes in a computer-animated shot of thousands of Xenomorphs climbing the pyramids as a Predator stands atop it fighting them off. This is ridiculous and it is terrible, but it contains what might be the movie's only interesting idea: that Predators breed Xenomorphs to hunt for sport, using humans as the vessels in which they can incubate. It's a reasonably clever way of bringing the two mythologies together, even if it ruins the entire Alien franchise in retrospect. Are we now to believe that they've been seeded all over the galaxy? That every time Ripley has encountered a Xenomorph off world it's because a Predator was there first?

Finally we arrive at the "team up" between Lathan and the Predator, which would be sublimely brainless if it wasn't so fucking stupid. There are shots of them running side by side like buddy fucking cops ("They're gonna solve this alien case...if they don't kill each other first!") and escaping the subterranean pyramid together like they're Gentleman Timothy Dalton and Maryam d'Abo in The Living Daylights. I know this is taken directly from the Dark Horse comic series, but what works on a comic page (if we're even going to agree that it works in the first place) does not necessarily work in a film -- especially in a film that has done nothing to build towards this moment or to suggest that such a thing is even possible. It can't even achieve the ludicrous heights of "Do your thing, cuz!" because it doesn't go off the rails in a fun or crazy way -- it just gets dumb. There is a different between stupid and crazy. Texas Chainsaw is crazy. Alien vs. Predator hates you.
I've found myself talking about Paul W.S. a lot these days, from our Event Horizon podcast a few weeks back to a more recent #HeavyAction column on Mortal Kombat. I've come to the conclusion that he is a terrible filmmaker. "No shit," I can hear you say through the computer (I am spying on you). "That is common knowledge." I know that it is, but it has become such widely accepted wisdom that I had begun to wonder if it was just something people say now without really considering his work -- he sucks because we've said he sucks so many times. I see too many movies and filmmakers dismissed without consideration for this very reason, so I always try to check in and see if those reputations are deserved or if it's just lazy criticism.

In Anderson's case, it's deserved. Don't get me wrong: he is not incompetent. He has a visual sense and understands choreography and is competently mediocre. The thing about Anderson is that he doesn't ever understand what makes the things he's "adapting" special. His films have no heart, no soul, no clue how to tap into the "why" of people's affection for these properties. He just throws things on screen he thinks will look cool to fans. Nowhere is this better represented in Alien vs. Predator than with the speed-ramping face huggers -- a garbage moment that spits in the face of Alien fans by turning one of the series' most horrifying images into a fucking Mountain Dew commercial. Anderson has no idea why the face hugger carries any power. He just takes the work that someone else has done and then makes it EXTREEEEME. He co-opts everything and filters it through his own terrible style.

In the case of AVP, I guess he didn't need to understand what's special about Alien or Predator. He was acting as Fox's boy, carrying out a project that would cash in on two of their biggest IPs at the time and weakening the legacy of both. Shame on them. And, of course, one of AvP's greatest sins is going out to theaters with a PG-13 rating despite being the crossover between two very violent, very R-rated series. Now it wouldn't just be a shitty movie, but a shitty movie with its balls cut off. The Blu-ray restores some violence in its "unrated" cut, but much of the violence takes place off screen or outside the frame. For a film that supposedly exists to give fans what they want, it has no idea what its fans want.
It's unusual that I have a real reversal of opinion during any of these "Take Two" columns (only Jason X really comes to mind), but I always try to remain open to the possibility that I'll change my mind about something upon revisiting it. That didn't happen with Alien vs. Predator, a movie that's every bit as cynical and shitty as I remember it being. It doesn't ruin my love of the Alien series or the Predator series, but goddamn does it try.


  1. Excellent read as always Patrick. I was thinking about this movie just the other day. I was watching a few short videos breaking down the Jurassic World or Star Wars trailers (did I mention I'm single ladies?) and found myself being very annoyed by constantly hearing "dude, it's going to be so epic." Particularly, one video proclaimed something along the lines of "It looks like in Jurassic World, we're finally going to see the humans and raptors team up to fight the (insert generic fake dinosaur name here.) Chris Pratt and raptors teaming up? THAT'S GOING TO BE SO EPIC!" And it immediately made me think of the girl teaming up with the Predator, and how completely wrongheaded I found that, even as a dumb 16 year old. The Predator, like the raptors, is a classic movie monster at this point.

    I think AvP is what it would be like to give a property to one of the annoying youtube movie critics (like Jeremy Jahns). Who don't seem to know much and who's reviews always seem to consist of how "awesome", "badass" or "epic" something is. I feel like the outline for this movie consisted of a sheet of paper with 2 columns on it- "awesome" and "epic." You know what's awesome? The alien queen! You know what'd be epic? Teaming up with the predator.


  2. Great column.

    The sequel is definitely worse. And the saddest thing is, the directors (sigh ... The Brothers Strause) came out from the get-go talking bullshit about how the first AvP was crappy, but they're going to fix everything. You want an R rating? Boom, R rating. You want an alien-predator hybrid? Boom, there one is. You want a move that is less a combination of these two iconic franchises and more a standard teen slasher film in the vein of Dimension's post-Scream output only with predators and aliens instead of a masked killer? Boom, you got ...

    ...what? You didn't want that? Well, shit.

  3. Patrick your thoughts on this movie are 100% correct. I remember going to see this movie with the worst feeling in my gut and praying, PRAYING it would all work out to at least be fun. Its just not, its so boring and poorly made and while an R rating would have helped a little bit with the awkward cutting and action, its just so boring.

    I would say AVP Requiem is just a hare better then the first one, only cause it has a couple WTF scenes that stick in my head, where as the first movie is just forgettable.

  4. If you're looking for a movie to rehabilitate, what about Terminator 3? It's an impersonal corporate rehash of T2, granted, but it's a well-made, exciting impersonal corporate rehash with a kinda daring self-parodic streak in its first half and great performances all around. (One might even call it a podcast-worthy case...)

  5. Yeah, you nailed it Patrick - AvP sucks for all the reasons you mention and so does Paul W.S. Anderson who doesn't even deserve all those initials, let alone to be a Hollywood director. I'm going to go with Tom Bartman and say that AvP:R is slightly better, if for no other reason than it at least feels and looks like a movie instead of a weird cartoon. Also I note you left out Prometheus in your rundown of the franchises - not enough "Alien DNA" in there for ya? :P

    Like El Gaith I'd be interested in your thoughts on Terminator 3 - there is something very watchable about it - as much as I love T2 more and know that it's far and away the better movie, for some reason I could just about throw on Terminator 3 any old time, where I have to be in the mood for T2.

    1. I've always thought of T3 as the movie equivalent of a Rolling Stones cover band playing your local county fair - sure, it's all copied and unoriginal, but, darn it all, the songs still work, and they're still tons of fun. T3 may be a rehash of Cameron's two T-films with all the substance and poetry stripped out, but the race-against-time-featuring-killer-cyborgs structure alone makes it a much more enjoyable and engaging experience than many other mainstream action flicks not blessed with story hooks that awesome.

  6. Ide forgot about the Predator on top of the pyramid scene till I just read it here. Im actually chuckling at how bad it is. Oh dear. ;)

  7. I think the movie can be reduced to a single shot of embarrassment and lameness: The Predator running away side by side with his new BFF in slow motion.

    The whole thing is just a storm of idiocy, but the way they neutered Predator is brutal.