Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
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The Franchise: Predator: following the deadly encounters between a tall, dreadlocked alien race that scours the galaxy in search of dangerous species to hunt and kill — dangerous species such as man! Dun dun dunnn! The proper franchise spans three films, from 1987-2010, as well as two ancillary cross-over films featuring the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise.
The Installment: Alien vs. Predator (2004)
When a satellite detects a mysterious heat bloom beneath the surface of an island off of Antarctica, super rich business guy Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) discovers that the heat source came from a subterranean pyramid. So Weyland assembles a team of scientists – led by mountain climber Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) – to investigate said pyramid. Turns out that Predators came to Earth thousands of years ago and suckered our ancestors into building pyramids and worshiping them as gods, while meanwhile the Predators farmed us out as hosts for xenomorphs so they could send their young warriors into rite of passage battles against the Aliens. Now three young Predator hopefuls have returned to the pyramid at the same time as our heroes, and Alexa and her teammates find themselves stuck in the midst of some hot monster-on-monster action.
A common sentiment echoed among Predator fans is that after the two AVP films, Predators seemed positively amazing. And I can’t say that my reaction was any different when I saw Predators in 2010. Yet, watching AVP as an addendum to the “proper” three Predator films, my feelings are now the exact opposite. For all its fuck-ups, Alien vs Predator seems positively bursting with life and ideas after the safe flaccidity of Predators.
AVP‘s all-consuming failure is as a crossover film. Whereas Freddy vs Jason managed to evenly service its two monsters, AVP‘s usage of the xenomorphs leaves a tremendous amount to be desired. The Aliens are merely a macguffin and the creatures have a surprisingly scant screen presence in the film. The first face-hugging doesn’t occur until the 49 minute mark, and an adult xenomorph doesn’t kill anyone until the 53 minute mark. And this is a 97 minute film. Crunch those numbers. The Aliens almost seem like an afterthought. The rules of the xenomorph aren’t even given much respect, considering that the incubation period from face-hugger to chest-burster takes but a minute or so in AVP. To that end, the Alien mythology is basically ignored, with no attempts to expand upon it. Probably for the best. The Alien franchise is classier than this. But… the Predator franchise is not. Which is exactly why I chose to leave the two crossover films out of the Alien Franchise Me. As a xenomorph film AVP is a smoking turd. But if viewed as a Predator film, AVP isn’t without its merits.
I rarely have positive things to say about Paul W.S. Anderson, but if we slap AVP and Predators side-by-side, one thing you have to give Anderson is that at least he went for something here. His film doesn’t feel mired in attempts to sloppy-seconds shadow and reference the original Predator (and certainly not Alien). Good or bad, his film feels like a wholly new entity. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (who share story credit for the film), and Anderson borrowed from Chariots of the Gods? and At the Mountains of Madness – as well as the Dark Horse comics that inspired the crossover in the first place – for the story and setting, and oddly enough AVP wound up as more of a reboot than Predators did. Predator 2 established that the Predators have been coming to Earth for a while. AVP states that the Predators have more or less always been here — they were the catalyst for our shift from hunter gathers into civilizations. This back-story doesn’t hold much water, but sounds good if you just don’t think about it much, which a movie called “Alien vs Predator” clearly isn’t going to ask you to do much of in the first place. And Predators‘ lame attempt to connect itself with the original Predator made me appreciate that AVP didn’t bother with any of that shit. AVP is an intensely unsubtle film, yet its references are there for you to get or not — like casting Lance Henriksen as a character named Weyland (apparently before his company merged into the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), or Henriksen doing a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tribute to Bishop’s knife trick from Aliens (with a pen). In these cases, it is only important that a viewer be familiar with the two monsters, not necessarily the films in their respective franchises.
Not to keep harping on Predators, but it is in contrast to the film that AVP‘s small successes are most apparent… As I complained about last time, aside from offensively downgrading the Classic Predator, Predators seemed disinterested in trying to do new things. But that is all Anderson seems interested in doing. It is like he is filling in gaps left by the two franchises, only wanting to use bits and images we haven’t seen yet. While that attitude gets gonzo in places, it is still the attitude a filmmaker should approach a sequel with. And even though AVP came out six years before Predators, Anderson was a lot more interested in driving the FX forward. Some of the CGI is definitely jinky. The bad stuff doesn’t look as bad on the small screen as it did in the theater, but things get a little Resident Evil-y at times, particularly with the xenomorphs (though, to be fair, Alien Resurrection already broke the seal on CG Aliens prancing around). But this is really an issue with the sheer amount of FX in the film. Overall the FX are solid, and unlike Predators, AVP finds ways to make itself feel “modern.” So we get bits like an ultra-slow shot of a face-hugger flying through the air with gross articulation towards a victim; a lot more Predator cloaking gimmicks (like a dude getting snagged by a cloaked noose); more intricate Predator-vision, and a cool shot in which a massive Predator spaceship flies silently and unnoticed just over the heads of Weyland’s security team. The snowy setting is a lot of fun too, feeling fresh for both franchises.
Monster crossover films are inherently silly. Any semblance of seriousness a franchise may have had (in this case the Alien franchise) goes immediately out the window. This is why James Cameron stopped working on Alien 5 when 20th Century Fox announced AVP. If you accept monster mash-ups at all, you have to be into the cage match element of the film. You want to see the monsters go at it. And though Anderson may not have a good mind for beginning-to-end storytelling, he can shine in certain moments. There is base, playground pleasure to be had watching a Predator swing a xenomorph around by the tale. Or seeing a xenomorph get the front half of its face sliced cleanly off. Or a Predator snap a chest-burster’s neck in one hand. Or seeing the Queen haul ass across the snow, crashing through the massive ribs of a whale skeleton while chasing Alexa. These aren’t moments of depth or heady creativity. They just need to be cool, and for the most part when Anderson tries to do something cool, it comes off at least kinda cool. Even James Cameron had to acknowledge this.
The film’s most interesting element is one it adapted from the Dark Horse comics. That would be Alexa’s decision to team up with a Predator, which the Predator accepts after Alexa successfully kills a xenomorph. I dug the bit with the Predator showing Alexa that the xenomorph blood can’t burn the xenomorph exoskeleton, then proceeding to chop up the dead xenomorph and make Alexa a spear from the Alien’s tail and a shield from its skull. That’s awesome. I love this weirdo buddy-cop turn in the story.
And the final shot of the film, in which a Predalian chest-burster pops out of the Predator’s chest, is exactly how AVP should have ended. Any kid who ever discussed an Alien versus Predator fight talked about what would happen if a Predator got face-hugged. If the surprise ending of a horror movie is supposed to establish a need for a sequel, this does the job (far more so than the film itself).
What Doesn’t Work:
Foremost, as we already touched on, this film completely fails as an Alien sequel. The film’s weak attempt to give us a “main” Alien, the grid-marked xenomorph, just doesn’t work. The Aliens are simply a secondary aspect of the film, which is really about the humans and the Predators. The only addition AVP makes to the Alien franchise is the presence of the Weyland character. If you want to connect your own dots, we could deduce that in the aftermath of its founder dying mysteriously in Antarctica, Weyland Industries poked around and found some evidence of extraterrestrial involvement, which in turn became a secret obsession of the company in the ensuing centuries — this would tie nicely into why The Company was so eager for the Nostromo to investigate the space-jockey’s warning transmission in Alien (because the higher-ups at the corporation have always known that somewhere out there, there are aliens). Yet, Weyland’s middle name is Bishop. And he looks exactly like Bishop. There is nothing to deduce here. AVP is telling us that Bishop from Aliens is designed and named after Charles Bishop Weyland. That contradicts Alien 3. Apparently Anderson was among the many viewers who were confused over whether or not the character credited as Bishop II was an android. As we talked about in the Alien 3 Franchise Me, the red blood around Bishop II’s mangled ear should have made it clear that Bishop II wasn’t lying when he said he was the android’s designer. And the Assembly Cut of the film makes this even clearer. At least Henriksen gives a good performance, and this is a fairly trivial element, because as noted, AVP functions as its own beast. And the film’s most blatant crap-out is its delivery on its own title: Alien vs Predator…
The Predators and the Aliens don’t actually encounter each other until one full hour into the film! Now, granted, we didn’t need a wall-to-wall, unending monster war. No one wants Transformers 2. Building up to things makes sense. But a full hour? And then the monster battling is non-stop, with our humans doing nothing more than running around. Franchise treatment ignored, AVP‘s real problem is a structural one. Horror movies walk a fine line when it comes to characters. On the one hand, if we’re supposed to care about the danger the characters are put in (and emotionally react to their deaths), we need to become invested in them. On the other hand, if the whole cast is going to wind up dead, and we’re not literally supposed to start weeping each time one of them dies, then there is only such much investment we need. Recall that I said the face-huggers appear at the 53 minutes mark. That’s when the film finally kicks into gear. The odd thing is that the movie isn’t necessarily boring before then. Comparing it to Predators, I was practically at the edge of my seat. The new setting and unfamiliar story elements, combined with the Jurassic Park-lite “We’ll fund your research if you come with us to a mysterious island for mysterious reasons!” preamble keeps things going. And the set design of the film is excellent (the whaling village is particularly nice looking). So I was intrigued. The problem is that once the Aliens show up, we shift into a completely different kind of movie. Then when Alexa teams up with the Predator, we shift into yet another completely different kind of movie. Then it is suddenly over before you know it and you look back at that first half of the film and realize it was a colossal waste of time — with characters you didn’t even like in the first place.
Anderson wasn’t totally embracing the dumb fun of AVP — he just crammed it all into the last 45% of the film. Jurassic Park had character set-up and then it continued to organically evolve upon those characters even as the monster shenanigans commenced. AVP just shuts things down once the “V ” element commences. So, if that is the case, why waste time with a cluster of scenes in which Alexa quits the team only to change her mind and rejoin? All of which happens before the team even reaches the pyramid! What purpose does that serve? She quits because she thinks the mission isn’t safe enough. Who cares? What awesome hero trait is that supposed to show us? That trait, by the way, also comes back into play in no way whatsoever. In fact, it actually seems at odds with her behavior later when she is suggesting they try and team with the Predators and everyone else is rightfully pointing out, “That seems pretty risky.” Alexa seems like a risk taker. Furthering the Jurassic Park-esque tone, Alexa also has an inexplicable bug up her butt about Weyland’s motivations for exploring the pyramid. And I’m not sure why. Every explorer on Earth would be dying to get in there. Yet the whole reason Anderson wastes time with Alexa quitting is because apparently we’re supposed to view exploring the pyramid as a bad thing (she only relents when Weyland points out that the team will be in even more danger if he hires someone other than her — cause she’s the best!) When a member of the team dies, Weyland says, “He died trying to make history.” Then Alexa snottily responds, “Whose? Yours?” Then Weyland makes a regretful face. But I felt he should have snottily shot back, “Oh, gee, I’m so sorry I didn’t anticipate that this ancient buried pyramid was actually a hunting temple operated by space aliens. How reckless of me.”
The pieces in the film are all mostly as they should be. Anderson just doesn’t space them out right. The film’s structural gaff doesn’t become fully apparent until Alexa teams with the Predator. This gimmick was great in the Dark Horse series and definitely should have been in the film. So cheers to Anderson for including it. And jeers to Anderson for leaving so little time to play with it. Because it takes so long for the “versus” section of the film to begin, Anderson has to rush through everything. The pacing of the action becomes mindless. There is a whole bit in which Sebastian (Raoul Bova), an archaeologist and fake-out love interest, realizes that the pyramid is shifting its configuration around at ten minute intervals. It is a fun idea to have the inside the pyramid keep changing, creating and closing doorways, etc. But it all happens so quickly you barely have time to care — given the amount of time Anderson allotted for this stage of the film, we really don’t need a gimmick like that. The transforming pyramid routine would have fit better in a structure where our heroes were trying to escape the pyramid for the majority of the film. Far worse than that though… when Alexa decides to team up with the Predator it should have felt like a HUGE moment. She’s teaming with the enemy! She gets a fucking Alien skull for a shield! But as executed the moment feels sudden instead of fully awesome. AVP makes Freddy vs Jason seem downright brilliant. Jason had already been killing the heroes’ friends for well over half the film by the time they realize they need him on their side. AVP needed at least 20 minutes more Alien versus Predator action, and then another 10-20 minutes of Alexa-Predator buddy cop shenanigans. Case in point: Alexa never uses her xenomorph skull-shield! Not once! And she only sort of uses her tail-spear in a single instance. They’re just props to make her look cool. What a waste. If the entire movie had played out as good as Alexa and the Predator’s showdown with the Queen, Anderson really could have had something here. As it is he just has a bunch of cool sets and some fun moments that only work as surface-level entertainment, divorced from the story they’re in.
Speaking of story. I like the idea of ancient humans getting suckered into willingly giving themselves over to face-hugging. But Anderson clearly didn’t give much thought to the implications and logic behind his back-story. We’re told that – back in the day – when the xenomorphs overwhelmed the Predators, the Predators would nuke the whole temple. This, we’re left to extrapolate, is what eventually ended the Predators reign over humanity. But…why? Why would it end? Why wouldn’t they just keep building new temples? Why did they end up with only one? And why would the Predators only come to battle the Aliens every 100 years? We’re told that the xenomorph showdowns are a rite of passage for young Predators. How fucking slow is the Predator development process that a crop of ready teenagers pops up at 100-year intervals? And then just three teenagers? How big is the Predator population that after 100 years they only have three teenagers available to become warriors? And what exactly was the Predators’ plan here anyway? Was the heat bloom that Weyland discovers meant to draw humans to the pyramid to get face-hugged? Cause that doesn’t seem like a very fool-proof way to get humans there on time, especially if the humans are supposed to locate the face-hugger room themselves — a lot of variables here that can go wrong. And if all that was indeed the entire plan, then why do the Predators seem surprised when they arrive at the temple and the humans trigger the “start” mechanism? What time frame were they anticipating? The Predators obviously know that humans don’t worship them anymore, and that their pyramid is buried under ice in a portion of the globe where humans don’t live. Frankly, it seems like the Predators were expecting to show up and have the joint all to themselves. Which makes no sense either. Plus, if the heat bloom was meant to summon humans (using advanced human technology), how did they get humans there 300 years ago? Presumably abduction. Why wouldn’t they just use that same process again? Well, cause it wouldn’t have been as cool a beginning. That’s why. Though that doesn’t satisfying my mythology queries.
Predator Kills: 9
Xenomorph Kills: 10
Best Kill: The random Weyland security member who gets gored with a cloaked Predator spear, that then de-cloaks revealing what just happened.
Best Scene: Final battle with the Queen.
Upon discovering utlra-advanced Predator weapons inside the ancient pyramid…
Graeme Miller: This is like finding Moses’ DVD collection.
Best Predator Weapon: The constricting razor-wire net that kills Maxwell Stafford (Colin Salmon) and almost kills the Grid Alien, giving it its recognizable grid of scars.
Evidence That the Predator is a Lousy Hunter: Seriously, what was the Predators’ plan here? Were they surprised that humans had already shown up? They clearly didn’t expect the humans to take their three special weapons (which trigger the “start” mechanism of the pyramid). So what were they anticipating exactly? Poor planning for such an advanced race.
Should There Be a Sequel: Well, we’re basically left at the same juncture as the ending of Predator 2. I wish the Predators had taken Alexa with them. I don’t see much reason to revisit the Predator/Alien relationship specifically.
Up Next: Aliens Vs Predator: Requim
previous franchises battled
Planet of the Apes