Last year, in a fit of unabashed love for my favourite film series, I reviewed all four Alien movies. I don’t normally write reviews on my blog, having neither the requisite skills nor time to do so on a regular basis, but this franchise is a big part of my movie DNA and a personal write-up extolling their virtues seemed long overdue. The Alien franchise consists of four films, but the Aliens themselves proved to be too big for one franchise and they managed to appear in two further movies: a spin-off series co-starring another monstrous intergalactic species of the cinema – the Predator. Yes my friends, I’m talking about the oft-maligned Alien(s) vs Predator, and for the sake of completeness I’m going to review them both. Strap yourselves in, because we’re on an express elevator to Hell.
After Alien: Resurrection’s mediocre financial and critical reception, a fifth entry seemed to be an increasingly remote proposition. Sigourney Weaver’s fee alone was probably a major part of the financial headache, even if a satisfactory storyline could be hammered out, which apparently it couldn’t. Years went by, but fan interest in a new chapter remained steady. Somewhere along the line original Alien director Ridley Scott started to circle a new instalment, raising the hopes of many a sci-fi fan. His story preference was to visit the Alien homeworld, a quite daring idea which would demand a director of his vision and calibre to deliver a film that could live up to the fanbase’s high expectations. Aliens director James Cameron was also reported to have joined the effort in a writing and/or producing capacity, to try and move the franchise forward. Surely with these two Alien alumni onboard, the next chapter was a surefire winner?
Well, 20th Century Fox obviously didn’t think so, because it was abandoned in favour of their long-gestating crossover concept, Alien vs. Predator (commonly shortened to AvP). AvP started out as a comic book series in 1990 (titled Aliens vs Predator, as Cameron’s film was by far the more popular of the two flicks at the time) and was famously suggested in the same year’s Predator 2 when Danny Glover’s character examined a Predator’s hunting trophy case, among whose contents was a very familiar looking elongated skull. The popularity of the idea did not go unnoticed by the studio and they bought Peter Brigg’s initial treatment in 1991. But Weaver dismissed the idea as terrible and, unable to finalise a satisfactory script, it was shelved.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, when the Alien series seemed to be without life (as did the Predator – a third film was in development for much of the early 90s, but failed to progress). Pitches for an AvP movie had come and gone with no success. Then in 2002, seemingly out of nowhere, the project was greenlit. Cue much rejoicing… until, that is, it was revealed the man into whose hands the long-cherished project had fallen was none other than Paul W.S. Anderson.
To say there was disappointment would be to understate the reaction. Anderson was by and large loathed by the genre community. His adaptation of hit video game Resident Evil (2002) was met with derision by fans, while his earlier Soldier (1998) starring Kurt Russell was universally agreed upon as a complete waste of money and talent, despite the original script receiving strong reviews. The previous year’s Sam Neill/Laurence Fishburne starrer Event Horizon had appeared to show some promise, though it failed to live up to its pre-release hype as the scariest sci-fi horror since Alien.
Hopes had been dashed, expectations cruelly slashed, skinned and strung up like a victim of the Predator itself. Two franchises with strong fanbases felt betrayed. Not even the casting of Aliens veteran Lance Henriksen could lift the general air of gloom about the project. The problem was that Anderson was (and is) a hack, a director who does enough to make a decent-enough looking film, but no more. We were treated in the past to some great directors of vision and true craftsmanship. Anderson is neither; prone to MTV-style editing and effects, and shameless in his ransacking of older, better movies, his films lack any memorable, outstanding or original moments. They totally fail to conjure any sort of tangible atmosphere, and the less said about his writing, the better – the word “cliché” apparently does not exist in Anderson’s book. I won’t go so far as to say he cannot direct at all, as his career clearly shows that he has managed to; but no discernible talent has yet been displayed, so quite how he manages to continue bagging top Hollywood directing gigs is beyond me.
When the film opened in 2004, it was met with predictable criticism. The usual Anderson trademarks were on display: little-to-no characterisation; awful dialogue; no atmosphere; gaping plot holes; silly SFX scenes; and the overall pervading air of desperation and eagerness-to-please. Of all the crimes committed in this film, the bullet-time shot of a facehugger flying through the air is about the worst, though I’m sure everyone could list their own personal ‘favourite’. In particular, the decision to aim for a PG-13 rating in the States was singled out as a chief flaw, though I doubt a bloodier version of the same film would have improved matters much.
For non-fans it seemed to be an acceptable enough 90 minutes of sci-fi action, and to be fair it is competent studio product, but for me that’s the point: the other Alien films were much more than just product. They were ‘real’ films, born of a director’s vision – even Alien 3 was such, despite its infamous history of studio interference. Anderson is not a visionary like Scott, Cameron, Fincher or Jeunet, and unless something spectacular happens, he is unlikely to become so. That Fox considered hiring him at all to bring this film to the screen was a crime against cinema.
So what of the film itself? Well, despite all the above, there are one or two positive aspects to it. The seeds of a good story are in evidence: elements of the comic-book are mixed up with ‘Chariots of the Gods’-style historical fantasy, the film positing that Predators have been visiting Earth for thousands of years, worshipped as gods as they used humans and Aliens to establish a rites-of-passage challenge for their young. Interestingly it tries to position itself as a prequel to the first Alien movie: Henriksen’s character, Charles Weyland, is a nod to his earlier portrayal of the android Bishop in Aliens, evidently designed in tribute to the co-founder of the Company.
To his credit Anderson does try and build up atmosphere by concentrating on the human characters to begin with, delaying the onscreen introduction of the two monsters for a good while. And if the film had to be set on Earth (which it didn’t), then Antarctica is a good location choice – the inhospitable environment has the makings of a very alien setting (and of course it was mentioned at the start of the first Alien film). The pyramid under the ice set looks fantastic, and the first time an Alien comes face-to-face with a Predator is the closest the film comes to being genuinely exciting.
Sadly, Anderson squanders it all by failing to make any of the human characters interesting or the action thrilling. The aforementioned bullet-time facehugger is a classic head-slapper, but there are many others, like the opening lines of the dire dialogue: “Where’s the signal coming from?” “Sector 14.” “But there isn’t anything in Sector 14.” “There is now…” Ooooooh, scary. Actually, no it isn’t – it’s risible.
Plot holes abound: if Predators visit this pyramid every 100 years to hunt Aliens, then how the hell did the Aliens hatch in 1804, 1704, etc. when no humans were on the continent to act as incubators? Did they just turn around in their spaceship and fly home, grumbling to themselves about coming all this way for nothing? Why on earth would Weyland’s team bring that much firepower to an archaeological expedition? And the Alien lifecycle seems to have been sped up significantly for the convenience of the plot…
It’s all very frustrating, because with a director of just a bit more talent, a half-decent film could probably have been churned out. As it is, it’s not even half-decent. The sense of disappointment considering its enormous potential means it will forever be a rather sad experience for this fan. That said, it looks pretty good (at least the production values are easy to admire) and there are one or two potentially cool moments, which makes it better than some of the direct-to-dvd dreck you might otherwise encounter. So if you do find yourself watching it for whatever reason, then just remember to tell yourself: it’s a comic-book spin-off, not a real Alien movie. It helps lessen the pain, and who knows? You might even not hate it.