We set out yesterday to see Scrubs actor Zach Braff’s Garden State, warned off of Alien vs. Predator by bad reviews . . . and then wound up seeing AvP anyway. The line to get into Garden State was enormous, probably because it had been receiving quite a bit of press the past month or so. Since Phoenix seems to get everything well after the rest of the country does, and it has also been a pretty dry summer for intelligent movie-going fare, this led to a run on the only theater in town showing the film. Being somewhat picky on where we get to sit, especially in non-stadium style seating theaters, as this one was, we decided we were better off waiting until next weekend. We were, however, still in the mood to see something – and that left our second choice, which is really only my choice – Alien vs. Predator – because Alissa has no interest in it whatsoever. What a compromise for her – we leave the house with the promise of seeing a gentle, thought-provoking “nice” movie and instead wind up seeing bug-guts being splattered about. I am blessed to have such an understanding wife, especially after seeing AvP . . .
The important thing to remember here is that I’m not a casual fan of the four Alien-based movies. No, I love this series, even the much-maligned – deservedly so – Alien Resurrection. Well, okay, I just “tolerate” the presence of Resurrection in the Alien canon. Also important to consider is that I’m not so big a fan of the two Predator movies – I haven’t even seen P2, and haven’t seen the original in more years than my two hands can count. So maybe I’m a bit biased. Predator, to me, is just an action flick with a foe that happens to be an alien being. Alien and the three that followed it are sci-fi thriller/horror, the first film being an exquisite study of mounting tension with minimal actual use of the adversary. I also feel the alien creature of these movies to be one of the most frightening and well-imagined cinema has ever had on offer. I am biased.
Artist HR Giger’s disturbingly erotic artwork proved fertile for usage in a horror flick. The alien creature plays to our deepest fears of nasty insects, especially things like cockroaches – skittering about all slimy and shiny, everpresent and seemingly unstoppable. An egg hatches an eight-legged spider-like creature that latches itself onto the unwitting face of its victim, plants a seed in the depths of the victim’s innards that presumably mixes some of the host’s DNA with its own, falls off, spent and now useless, and a day or so later a vicious little projectile launches forth from the victim’s chest. Scampering off quickly, the creature matures, unseen, and reemerges large, so very much larger than we last saw it – and hungry, very hungry.
In the first film, we learned quickly that the creature would be nearly impossible to destroy simply because of its biochemistry – coursing through its veins is a vile, powerful acid. Guns and knives were simply out of the question – destroying this creature with traditional weapons would likely take the lives of all those who set out to do so, and as in the case of the first film set mostly in space, would quickly lead to the destruction of the entire spacecraft. This is, without doubt, the perfect adversary and the perfect setup. Director Ridley Scott was forced by the limitations of the creature to resort to unique and clever means of dispatching it, and due to the low-tech nature of special effects at the time, he was also forced to keep the creature hidden most of the time, appearing only long enough to scare the bejeezus out of audiences, then immediately back into hiding where it would lurk while the remaining victims set out on a tense search for it, armed only with fire.
What I’ve always found intriguing about the alien creature is how faithful each director of each film has been to the initial vision. James Cameron’s Aliens really changed only one significant physical attribute of the alien (removing the shiny, transparent dome from the head to reveal a spiny, rib-like skull beneath) and added another now cinema legend, the Queen, to follow through on the theory started in the original film – if there are eggs there must be a mother as well. If the third film, Alien3, faltered, it was more because of the studio’s heavy-handed demands on upstart director David Fincher, who would go on to more than display his mastery with films like Seven. The story remained virtually unchanged – one alien, a bunch of people, and an isolated location. Why change what works, right? (I do, however, balk at the unnecessary murder by Fox/Fincher of the survivors of Aliens – Fox was apparently uninterested in carrying on with anyone but Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character, unfortunately.) I found myself most intrigued by the combination of the alien creature and what had spawned it – a dog in the theatrical release, but really a large ox as revealed in the uncut version – resulting in a decidedly more animal-like creature, complete with panther-like four-legged sprinting about. Alien Resurrection, however, messes with a successful formula – dead Ripley is “resurrected” from her DNA and somehow winds up with a bit of the alien DNA in her, too, since she had been carrying a Queen Alien inside of her through the third film, which she took to her death in molten lead. Intriguing, maybe, but not very well done – DNA just doesn’t work like that. Plus, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and writer Joss Whedon treated the subject matter as if it were camp – throwing in awkward humor where it didn’t belong and playing with the concepts behind the alien in order to fill out a clunky story – not only could it now swim, which I can accept begrudgingly, but it also spit acid? Why? That’s a too-easy solution, like a cartoon whose main character just always happens to have handy a weapon or tool to fix any situation, no matter how ridiculous. That’s what Resurrection was – a comic book-like, cartoonish abstract of the original, and far superior, three that preceded it. And that’s where Alien vs. Predator comes in – at the end of a good series with little energy and innovation left in it.
I had low-hopes for AvP – the whole idea is rather goofy, regardless of the precedent setup in Predator 2 (an alien head is glimpsed on the wall of a Predator’s trophy room.) My knowledge of Predators is that they possess armor that renders them invisible and a cache of stunning cutlery any knife-freak would be more than thrilled to own, and they look like wrestlers in extravagant dreadl0ck’d masks. I think that’s really all you need to know about Predators, really – they’re just big, well-armed badasses. Somewhere out there in comic book land someone drooled at the sight of that Alien skull in the trophy room. The thought of matching these big buff dudes up with the vicious, insect-like Aliens must have been too much to handle, for a whole series of comic books, novels, and computer games spawned quickly, and eventually Paul WS Anderson was called to carry out a merging of the two franchises on film. As can be guessed, it’s a project that was doomed from the start.
The biggest problem of AvP is that it’s just plain silly. The Alien franchise, for three of the four films anyway, worked because it suspended your disbelief in a tactful way – it’s set in the future, on planets and spacecraft far, far away, and, most of all, the creatures are well-thought out adversaries to the weak, nearly indefensible humans. Why couldn’t these nasty insect-like creatures exist out there, somewhere on some lost planet in deep in space? Predator asks a bit more for a simpler concept – that one of a noble race of warrior-creatures has wound up in South America in then present-day world, and the now-governor of California dispatches it after seeing his entire crew destroyed by it. But with AvP, we’re asked to believe that not only do the Predators make regular visits to earth, but they also house a Queen Alien deep beneath the frozen ice of Antarctica that figures in the production of facehuggers, and obviously then Aliens hatched from human incubators, for the Predator youth to partake in target practice upon. Oh, and let’s not forget that the Predators are also pretty much entirely responsible for human civilization, while we’re at it. All of this is tossed off in an off-hand sort of manner, like, “yeah, yeah, here’s some background info for ya, now let’s get on with the killin’!”
It’s an insulting film to the Alien franchise – PWS Anderson has cherry-picked things he liked about the alien creatures and easily ignores other things that don’t work easily into the action-film framework he sets up. Rather than build suspense, as the extended incubation time the facehuggers had allowed for in the previous films, Anderson just speeds the whole cycle up – facehugger attacks, implants, and is done in minutes, and minutes after that a chestburster forces its way out of the victim’s chest. The suspense time allowed by the growth of the unseen creature is done away with, too – we see that chestburster and the next thing we know, there’s a full-grown Alien preying upon the humans and Predators. It’s insultingly simplistic, destroying any chance for suspense to build. Instead we get just what the title suggest – Aliens vs. Predators, only not as much of the Aliens as one might think the title indicates. When there are Aliens, they’re usually right out in the open, not lurking about in cleverly-disguised ways like in the other films. No – the Aliens are just there, leaping about like freaked-out monkeys, squealing and biting and not a bit of the hunt present in every previous film. And the Predators? Two are taken care of quickly by Aliens, which makes this proud species look weak and insipid, and the third is left to carry out the destruction of the hive of Aliens. What proceeds to happen fits just about every action-movie cliche’ one can imagine. It’s a real sad shame when the most clever thing that happens in the entire film is the slicing-open by a nasty Predator knife of an Alien head, revealing the goopy, chambered internals of presumably the “brain” of the creature. That’s the one thing that’ll have the Alien freaks excited. Other than that . . . it’s pretty typical brain-dead, teen-horror summer fare. All of the characters are basically forgettable, save for Lance Henriksen’s Charles Bishop Weyland simply because we already know him from his role as the android Bishop in Aliens and maybe Sanaa Lothan as Ripley-wannabe Lex, but she’s a long way from the strong lead Weaver always is.
What AvP does have going for it, the one thing that actually surprised me, is a reliance upon man-in-suit and animatronic creatures, rather than computer graphics. When CG is used, it’s obvious and out of place, and, luckily, is only relied upon a few times. Scares and gore are kept at a minimum, and some violence is more implied than explicit, surprisingly – all to ensure it fits within a PG-13 rating so the kids can be sure and see this one. That’s the problem, really – AvP is dumbed-down for a younger audience that would likely not appreciate the relative subtleties of even Alien Resurrection, let alone the gloomy spook-laden atmosphere of Alien. It’s aimed at the big summer action-flick audience, who don’t really care so much about plot as long as there’s enough action to keep their attention diverted from their cellphones. Like most summer action flicks, AvP will be quickly consumed and just as quickly forgotten, leaving behind no legacy like the original series did – but surely spawning a number of equally brain-dead sequels.Powered by Sidelines