Tuesday, July 15, 2008

REVIEW: Alien(s) vs. Predator Double Feature

Either the Predator is 12 feet tall or the Alien is 4 feet tall.

Okay, so these movies are kind of low-hanging fruit after I snapped at a couple of movies most people actually respect. But let’s dedicate this review to Hollywood’s never-ending capacity to foul up can’t-miss concepts. The Alien and Predator franchises should have made a great team-up for those of us who enjoy a well-done, if low-brow monster movie. Aliens and Predators are natural enemies, despite never having, as of 2003, been on-screen together (aside from the best moment in Predator 2 apart from the Robert Davi sighting, when an eagle-eyed viewer can spot a Xenomorph skull in the Predator’s trophy room). One of these monsters is a gadget-packed intergalactic big-game hunter, and one’s the most deadly wild animal in the galaxy. Both are owned by 20th Century Fox, both live in science-fiction universes (one in the future, one in the present), and both have killed Bill Paxton. One keeps getting its ass kicked by a girl, and one got its ass kicked by Danny Glover years after he declared he was “Too old for this s**t.”

Until 2004, AvP had only existed in comic books (about ten trillion of them, according to Wikipedia), novels, and video games (one of which scared the bejeezus out of me). But in that year, Paul W.S. Anderson finally put them back in their natural environment, the silver screen. After going through a horde of well-respected action movie directors--Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, John McTiernan, that French guy who did Alien Resurrection--giving both franchises to the guy whose best movie was Event Horizon might have sounded a bit ominous. However, Anderson said a lot of the right things during interviews. And while he doesn’t exactly have experience making many good movies, he’s at least familiar with the “team of specialists in a building with eccentric architecture getting picked off by monsters” sub-genre. He‘s the Dick Clark of crappy barely-theatrical sci-fi. So I was optimistic that I‘d have fun. Then, I saw the movie.
Well, you can tell us!

First, the title comes up: Alien vs. Predator. I guess it was unavoidable that they call it this, rather than Xenomorph vs. Yautja (the latter of which Wikipedia claims is the canon name for the ones with dreadlocks), but I could point out that both monsters are aliens, and both are predators. And no character in either franchise has ever consistently called one an Alien and the other a Predator. Moving on…

A satellite detects a sudden surge of heat deep under the ice in Antarctica, revealing an ancient pyramid via thermal scans, and before you can say “eccentric team of scientists with diverse specialties,” away we go! The guy leading the trip is Lance Henriksen, playing billionaire industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland. Alien fans should now go, whaaaa? As in the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, which is destined to become a bunch of Paul Reiser-led jerks about 300 years into the future, and Bishop the android? Yes, the Weyland-Yutani-built android, beloved character from Aliens, was apparently modeled after the company’s founder from hundreds of years prior. The Weyland-Yutani CEO of the future must be a pretty humble and down-to-earth guy to keep the ages-dead former CEO’s endless narcissism alive. Proto-Bishop even does the same knife-between-the-fingers gag, which is a connection that makes even less sense. Thank God Anderson resisted the urge to include the characters of Gertrude Ripley and Franklin W. Hicks.

Weyland’s team: Sanaa Lathan, a woman who’s essentially Survivorman without a camera crew or a sliver of personality. Raoul Bova, love interest and archaeologist whose uncanny ability to read hieroglyphs he should have no business understanding will provide an awkward source of exposition/flashback narration later on, since Aliens and Predators aren’t very talkative. Ewan Bremner, who plays the role he was born to play: a Scotsman. The awesomely-voiced Colin Salmon, who pretty much just reprises his role from Anderson’s Resident Evil, even to the point of once again getting sliced to death by a grid-like weapon. The rest of the characters are so generic that Wikipedia, a source written by people who actually watched the movie closely, refers to them all with their names and a description of either “a member of the exploration team” (scientists) or “a mercenary member of the exploration team” (machine gun guys). Not that the characters I named are very well-written, since despite quite a lot of time spent before the Aliens and Predators even appear, those characters are best described as Tough Girl, Hunky Euro Guy, Chipper European with Kids Who Might as Well Just Shoot Himself Now, and Company Tough Guy. Lance Henriksen is most convincing, as Tired Old Guy.


They arrive at the site expecting to spend several days digging into the ice, but hold on! There’s already a tunnel carved into the ice, leading straight down to the source of the heat! How mysterious! Or it would be, if we hadn’t already been shown a cut-away scene with the Predator ship firing a laser beam from orbit. Weyland’s team makes less of this tunnel than it really should, and proceeds down into the ice, and into the pyramid.

At this point, it would be better to describe the resultant scenario than describe how we get there. In a scheme so unnecessarily prone to randomness that it would make a 24 terrorist laugh, a trio of Predators have activated the pyramid so that the humans would find it and venture down there. There, the humans will be used to breed Aliens so that the young Predators have some game to hunt and prove themselves. Why did the Predators opt to draw the attention of a multinational corporation rather than kidnap some random villagers from Southeast Asia and use them to breed Aliens? That wouldn’t be much of a movie now, would it? However, because Raoul Bova is so damn good at deciphering alien puzzle boxes, he accidentally seals up the pyramid earlier than the Predators had expected and isolates them from their shoulder cannons, their most powerful weapons. So as the pyramid starts to reshape itself like a giant Rubik‘s Cube, the humans are on the run, the Predators are stuck without their favorite weapons, and the Aliens threaten to reach the surface and (somehow) get back to civilization, which they‘ll inevitably wipe out. When we get down to one surviving Predator and one surviving human, Sanaa, they team up. Good thing Sanaa has no hard feelings about the Predators slaughtering all these people. And thank God the movie ends when it does, because it was about 15 minutes away from the world’s first Predator/Human sex scene. The Predator even gives her a present, a hand-crafted spear-and-shield set made from an Alien tail and an Alien head. Having her fight 300-style with these things would have elevated the film to high camp, but unfortunately, Anderson didn’t want to break his well-earned suspension of disbelief.

You BASTARD! I knew you weren't working late!

Now, let’s just pause to say that this movie really could have been pretty good. The Arctic (or Antarctic, whichever) is a great setting for monster movies like The Thing, and the idea of an ancient pyramid under the ice is pretty interesting, reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. The idea of humans being used as fodder by the Predators for an initiation ritual in which they fight Aliens is even better.

There’s one problem, though: the movie isn’t very good. It’s just not made well, and if I weren‘t to start off with such a blanket statement, you‘d get the sense that the aspects of this movie that suck are limited to those which I can put into words. Anderson isn’t bad at making good-looking movies on modest budgets, and the special effects are okay (aside from some fireball effects that could have been lifted straight from the last level of a Sonic the Hedgehog video game). He also deserves credit for using actors in Alien and Predator suits more often than not, which look far more realistic than when he resorts to computer effects, even if the Predators tend to lurch around like Frankenstein‘s monster rather than crawl up and down trees like they did in previous movies.

I must break you.

But the story sucks hard. Fans of the Predator franchise won’t like that their favorite monsters are pussies without their guns, that they’ve been turned from stealthy hunters into clunky tanks, that they wrestle with Aliens Godzilla vs. Megalon-style, or that their well-established fondness for hot environments has been forgotten so that they can comfortably fight in Antarctica. Fans of the Alien franchise won’t like the fact that their favorite monster’s birth cycle has been cut from a few days to a few minutes, or that when the Predators get their guns back, they slaughter the Aliens at will. I guess Alien fans could whine that their monster should get shoulder cannons too. But its fans of Humans (remember them?) that really should be angry, because there's no one in here who's recognizable as one. God, I miss Danny Glover, swearing up a storm and runing around town in his suspenders chasing the Predator.

On the other hand, the movies does have two of the funniest lines in film history: Raoul having the gall to say, “It’s all starting to make sense now,” and Sanna interpreting her Predator buddy’s gesture of opening his fist as, “Oh, it’s a bomb,” speaking in a tone of voice as if she’d just figured out a crossword puzzle clue while waiting at the bus stop.

Just as in Predator 2, the movie ends with a bunch of Predators showing up to haul off their honored dead comrade and give the surviving human a cute little Predator keepsake from the Predator gift shop, this time a collapsing spear. But as the beginning of 2007’s pretentiously-titled Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (which even uses the ridiculous marketing abbreviation of AVPR on the title card) reminds us, there was a little alien stowed away in the dead Predator’s body. So before the ship can even get out of orbit, all hell breaks loose and the ship crashes into the forest outside an idyllic Colorado town, spreading Aliens left and right and prompting another Predator to arrive and try to clean up the mess by hunting down all the Aliens. I guess he doesn‘t want the human race to go extinct, since the Predators still need to find some way to make up for getting bitch-slapped by Danny Glover, so he goes around killing aliens and melting them with some kind of quick-dissolve acid, but his effort to keep the alien infestation under wraps has a real “I Love Lucy/factory conveyor belt“ feel to it. The US army is much better at the cover-up game, deciding to simply nuke the whole town at the end of the movie to contain the outbreak, although the movie otherwise can’t decide if the government is helpless, amoral, or compassionate.

This man has a long and fruitful life ahead of him.

I’m not going to describe the plot, because there is none. It’s Aliens vs. Predator vs. Dawson’s Creek (vs. Kramer, vs. Wade, vs. Topeka Board of Education). The Aliens go around and kill people. One Predator shows up and kills people when he’s not killing Aliens (further supporting the notion that the Aliens get their asses kicked by well-prepared Predators). A few attractive 20-somethings survive, but the overwhelming majority do not. It’s really no more complicated than that. Monsters come, generic characters die, other generic characters live and escape in a helicopter. You’re herded into the theater, watch 80 minutes of violence, and are herded out. The one “story” that kind of goes on other than random teenage angst is the sheriff’s investigation into what’s going on in his town, prior to all hell (say it with me) breaking loose. This is the narrative hook you chose, movie? To have us follow the detective who’s trying to understand the monsters we‘ve had seven prior movies to understand ourselves? At least the first AvP was adding something new to the Alien/Predator mythos with its Chariots of the Gods angle. I think the average Doom deathmatch has a more diverse narrative than this movie.

Most of these town-under-siege movies suck in part because the characters are too wrapped up in their own obnoxious character stereotypes (the pissed-off white collar guy, the cowardly teenage girl, the horny teenage boy, the crazy priest, the distraught mother) to make us believe they care about surviving. Here, we have the exact opposite problem. Everyone’s so businesslike and to-the-point once the monsters show up that we wonder if the directors (both of them) and screenwriters realized they were making an actual film, or just a film template. You know, they were just going to film the damn thing, then sell it to another studio that could digitally insert Bill Paxton to add wisecracks, Jeff Goldblum to play a scientist who says something ominous and thematic, Morgan Freeman to play a general who agonizes over what to do. And maybe some other actor to play a character with a motivation other than to just race to the helicopter and end the damn movie. There are board games with more complex storylines than this. The final helicopter escape/nuclear blast/crash into the woods scene even retreads a scene in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, a movie so horrible it would make Linda Blair in The Exorcist go silent in hushed awe.

Wowwwwww... It's 5 after 10 already.

Oh, but at least it’s bloody. Whereas AvP 1 was the first Alien or Predator movie to duck below the R rating and earn a PG-13, AvP: Requiem, in the interest of attracting the “after-church family outing at the movies” crowd, sports an R rating and makes significant use of it. Blood and guts fly freely, and the body count includes nearly EVERYONE in the town, including a young boy (who first watches his father die gruesomely before suffering the same fate), a sweet diner waitress who had just lost her husband, a pregnant woman whose belly explodes with chestbursters that had eaten her baby from the inside, and (off-screen) more newborn infants at a hospital. Nice. You know, there’s a difference between being making a horror movie and making a gore porn movie that happens to star Aliens and a Predator. It makes The Day After look positively… Nah, The Day After is still more depressing. As for AvP: R, rather than building a story that has acts or climaxes or plot points, the movie has 70 minutes of people dying in town and 10 minutes of people dying while attempting to escape from town. The one “dilemma” comes when people have to decide whether to trust that the military will airlift them out, or try to escape on their own. Gee, what do you think this movie is going to decide is the right course of action? I was actually impressed by the first film’s creativity and plotting after this hunk of junk.

So what lessons does the Alien vs. Predator film franchise impart to us? First of all, a Hollywood producer can take a franchise that has hundreds of diverse storylines across comic series and novels, and wind up using a pair of completely generic scripts without a decent character between them. Second, video games have somehow eclipsed movies for their ability to pay proper tribute to other movies. The Alien vs. Predator video game I remember playing many years ago on the PC perfectly captured the feel of both the Alien and Predator movies. It’s unforgivable that studios can spend tens of millions of dollars on these movies and wind up with stories that wouldn’t pass muster on a fan fiction forum.

I had a hard time finding a shot of the monsters in the 2nd movie that wouldn't come out too dark. I hope you like this one.

In ten years, YouTube mash-up videos will have gotten so advanced that some kid will make a truly appropriate movie with Aliens and Predators going at it. Until then, say NO to Paul W.S. Anderson, NO to iconic movie monsters attacking Smallville, and NO to Aliens and Predators on film unless they come thoroughly separate from one another.

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