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During a big game hunt, the animals being hunted don’t arm the hunters!

Movie

AVP: Alien vs. Predator
(2004)

 

I suppose it made sound financial sense for Fox to greenlight Alien vs. Predator (or AVP: Alien vs. Predator), but that was about all it made. Perhaps they saw it as a toss-up. A once prestigious, feted series that had been gradually diminished by troubled productions and iffy creative choices, all the while to escalating costs and diminishing returns. This one would come in relatively cheaply, with no star overheads and a safe-pair-of-hands director. Against that, what price the damage to the franchise, which would now be rendered, as James Cameron put it, on a level with Frankenstein meets Werewolf? Approving the pitch of the blandest writer-director auteur going, Paul WS Anderson, was bound to be seen to creatively bankrupt a series that had at very least nourished the illusion of leading with character and concept. Obviously, going with the quick buck won.

While I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen (and I suspect won’t, and I really hope, if we do, doesn’t involve de-aging Sigourney) closure to the Ripley resurrected plotline, I’m not honestly too sorry that James Cameron’s Alien 5 idea was nixed – or he nixed it himself after learning about AVP (yeah, I’ll call it that here, it’s easier) – as even given he’s the writer-director responsible for the best sequel in the franchise, and far superior to Anderson – who isn’t, mind? –  and certainly more reliable than Scott in terms of ensuring his material is robust, he’s better with structure than concepts.

However, Cameron had a point when he suggested AVP would “kill the validity of the franchise”; since that moment, and on top of what many see as a straight-up botch with Alien Resurrection, its sights have been set incredibly low or entirely too high (the common response to the investigation of the series’ origins with Prometheus being that it was misconceived, if not outright disastrous). Of course, his subsequent critical appraisal of the move, that “I actually liked it. I actually liked it a lot”, unravels any high-mindedness he might have had in his court.

This, presumably, is the same keen faculty he brought to bear when he gave his blessing to Terminator Genisys (and the seal of approval to Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 screenplay)? And then you have to consider that Jimbo is working with scribe Shane Salerno, who worked on AVP and its sequel, on the next fifteen Avatars, so they should maintain a consistently high standard. Mind you, Joss Whedon, the greatest maligner there is of his own Alien Resurrection, while accepting none of the blame, also claimed to rate AVP. Maybe it’s just a thing of hating the previous two bona-fide sequels so much, anything else looks fantastic in comparison? Or maybe the rest of us are missing something?

To be completely fair to the concept, the Peter Briggs 1991 screenplay doesn’t read all that badly, in synopsis form at least. Albeit, like AVP, it includes a Predator saving a Ripley type who impresses him with her derring-do, and a scene in which she has to kill a friend while he watches – although, there he does the deadly – and ends with her looking over his dying body while his Predator pals show up.

It isn’t noticeably worse than the various rehashes that made up many of the Aliendrafts, just even more flagrantly generic. Lest Briggs be accused of starting this whole thing off, the meeting of Fox monsters had its first sighting in comic-book form, and a portion of the blame should be levelled at Stephen Hopkins, for it was he who stuck an alien skull in Predator 2, the year before Briggs delivered his draft.

Is it a coincidence that another fight between “legendary” cinematic monsters arrived the summer before AVP? No one could claim Freddy vs. Jason was punching below its weight, albeit even then, the canny postmodernism of the previous Freddy outing actually does rather suggest that. Freddy vs. Jason made about the same as AVP at the box office but cost half as much, which is probably indicative of the limitations of these kind of ideas (Alien vs. Predator: Requiem would reap half AVP’s gross). Of course, Fox has never been particularly preoccupied with quality. This was about the same time they handed X-Men: Last Stand to Brett Ratner, with expectedly atrocious results.

It isn’t as if Anderson can’t put a movie together; he’s technically competent, but he’s incapable of touching anything that he doesn’t turn to slick, empty, serviceable-at-best dross. He rendered a David Webb Peoples script inert (Soldier) and has made a career out of forgettable remakes (Death RaceThe Three Musketeers) and video game adaptations (Mortal Kombat, mastermind of the Resident Evil franchise, including directing four instalments, so successful video game adaptations, which deserves some credit)). As well as his Titanic-with-lava epic fail Pompeii. It says something that his most creative endeavour is the mess that is Event Horizon, a grisly, tone-deaf Shining meets Alien knock-off. No one who knew his work was going to have high expectations for this, then; in some ways, he was exactly what AVP deserved (Roland Emmerich and Guillermo Del Toro were also apparently approached – even the former, maligned as he often is, is far superior to such material IMO).

In his wisdom, Anderson decided the best way to engineer a showdown between the creatures was to plunder Erich von Däniken. Apparently, he had been working on his concept for eight (!) years. Such hard graft doesn’t show, alas. Presumably then, the Earth based setting wasn’t thrust on him, because one might at least have given him the benefit of the doubt under such restrictions. If it absolutely had to be set it on Earth, and had to take place in the present, one might make the case that PWSA took the necessary precautions to make AVP as least conflicting with the rest of the franchise as possible, by ensuring it remained in a bubble, apart from civilisation (a thought process Requiem appeared to actively disdain).

Anderson said “You can’t have an Alien running around the city now, because it would’ve been written up and everyone will know about it. So there’s nothing in this movie that contradicts anything that already exists”. Nothing that contradicts anything, apart from conceptually and logistically, no.

I’m pretty much on board with most of the criticisms of AVP, from the basic aesthetic no-no of bodybuilder Predators to the accelerated life cycle of the alien (the only plus side to this is that Anderson rattles through the movie, allowing us to take our leave around the ninety-minute mark, depending on your preferred version). I don’t really care about the PG-13/15 certificate, except in as much as it represents a broader neutering of the scope and effectiveness of the entire franchise (it’s never been a series entirely about gore, but it ought to be one that places atmosphere over action).

The premise arrived at, of Predators using xenomorphs as a testing arena for young warriors, has some merit. Much less so, having Predators as the ones who taught us to build the pyramids. You can’t have it both ways; either they see themselves as gods, or they choose to come down periodically with a few days to kill. It’s not a good fit, refashioning them as minor deities. It’s almost as if Anderson had been watching Stargate and thought he’d have some of that (directed by Emmerich, of course, who’d also use the ancient aliens in 10,000 BC).

It will be interesting to see how Shane Black reconceives the Predator next year, as generally speaking, the more you see of them, the less interesting they are. And here, they’re straight-up boring. Even given PWSA’s safeguards, it seems like an enormous stretch that no one at Weyland-Yutani ended up knowing about aliens (and Predators) on Earth for a century-and-a-half prior to the events of the Ridley Scott classic (Requiem went out of its way to scupper that, in T2 fashion).

Besides those mismatches, there’s the thorny problem of Lance Henriksen’s Charles Bishop Weyland. Evidently, Anderson didn’t realise that Michael Bishop, who appeared at the end of Alien3, was supposed to be human (to be fair, there is some debate over this among fans, but it’s pretty evident the makers intended him to be a real boy). PWSA wanted a familiar face, so explained that the Bishop we know was a tribute (‘It’s created with the face of the creator”).

The end result, certainly as far as Ridley Scott is concerned, is that the AVPs are non-canon; he introduces his own Weyland – Peter – in the equivalent role for Prometheus, and Damon Lindelof commented that, when he mentioned Charles Bishop Weyland to the director “he sort of looked at me like I had just slapped him in the face”.

Which is probably about right, given Scott professes not to have even watched PWSA’s movie (I suspect few fans of the series mind ignoring the AVPs contribution too much, although I’d hazard many more are considerably more exercised by Scott’s retconning of the space jockeys; they’d probably also mostly agree that his kyboshing Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 was a sound move, though, so it’s swings and roundabouts). It looks as if Alien: Covenant will establish that the xenomorph we know is a relatively recent star beastie, further expunging AVP from the canon.

Which makes it ironic that AVP and Prometheus share so much conceptual baggage. In both, the Weyland character is on a quest to stall his failing mortality. In both, aliens are intrinsic to the development of life on Earth – indeed, there’s a race of giants in both depictions, both of whom fall prey to xenomorphs they have sought to tame. The difference being, while Scott’s movie was lambasted for using a tired idea (ancient astronauts) or attempting to address ideas beyond its reach while simultaneously being quite stupid in respect of essentials like character and plot development, Anderson’s move was only ever recognised as being as straightforward and unflustered as it was.

The director cheerfully appropriates whatever concepts he sees fit, be they the Cube-esque readjusting infrastructure of the pyramid or the idea of using Antarctica for his setting. This has, after all, been seen in everything from Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (instructive to PWSA) to The Thing (both versions), to The X-Files movie, to Doctor Who (The Seeds of Doom) as a site for ancient ruins of a lost civilisation or aliens and their craft, or both; you only have to look at current conspiracy lore’s suggestion of ancient craft found there to see the continent retains its remote and mysterious cachet as a source of mythmaking. These stories even filter into the mainstream with regularity, The Daily Mail (I know, but it is mainstream) providing frequent reports culled from an assortment of alleged insiders and whistle-blowers, mixed in with those with a creative flair for fashioning YouTube videos.

Anderson actually sets the scene quite nicely, giving us an intro in 1904 and the same deserted icy town 100 years later (PWSA was inspired by the Vela incident). Okay, the shot we get of the Predator skewering a villager and then being attacked by an xenomorph completely undermines any mystery, suspense or atmosphere, but the thought is there. Once we’re down below, however, he’s bereft of inspiration, right down to the bland alien hieroglyphics.

SebastianWhat were those things?
AlexaYou tell me, you’re the pyramid expert.

The biggest problem with AVP isn’t the lack of originality, though, or even the atrocious dialogue; it’s that it’s difficult to give a shit. PWA allows us to spend a little time with Henriksen, and you can’t go wrong with Lance, but hardly anyone else makes an impression. Ewen Bremner and Tommy Flanagan talk about how they have kids back home before getting munched (presumably to induce us to care about their fates), and Sam Troughton doesn’t even get that far. Sanaa Lathan and Raoul Bova are utterly vanilla (“How do you say scared shitless in Italian?”). The former suffers the ignominy of playing a Ripley substitute, but without a scrap of character to make her interesting – rather than dull or chiding – and annoying simply for being a Ripley substitute.

At least once there are no other humans left she has no one aside from a poor undeserving Predator to sound off at, telling them how it should be done. Weaver carries a genuine steeliness, even when Ripley is bricking herself. Lathan only ever seems like she’s faking it, and PWSA does nothing to suggest otherwise. Indeed, when the Predator removes its mask at the end, it’s such a non-dramatic moment, you half expect a delicate snog to ensue.

There’s the occasional nicely queasy moment – Bremner, cocooned, managing to shoot a facehugger, only for a pullback to reveal an entire nest of the critters emerging from eggs. On the other hand, if speed-ramped facehuggers are your thing, you’re quids-in here. And, while there are still too many shots of CGI aliens, Anderson also ensures there are some nicely-presented moments with the real, suited deal (although, the sequence where a Predator swings a xenomorph round and round by the leg before letting go is hilarious for all the wrong reasons).

Added to which, the finale on the ice with the alien queen – a design I’m not massively keen on – has a certain rampaging-T-Rex-in-Jurassic Park effectiveness (but what, is it likely to drown down there under the ocean? Does it need to breathe? Is it still there now, sucking fucking plankton?) Of course, we were also treated to the birth of a predalien at the end, the stupidest idea ever (it’s an inane fangasm, as opposed to something that remotely adds to the alien’s mystique).

Cue Requiem. Which everyone tries to forget. Perhaps the most positive aspect of AVP: Alien vs. Predator is that it’s almost innocuous. It’s difficult to care about. It’s unthreatening and forgettable, and no one really treats it seriously. It isn’t even bad enough to take exception to.

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