Thursday, May 18, 2017

Alien Week: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

There’s a moment that feels like authentic cinematic destiny in Alien vs. Predator (2004), or rather, AVP. 

From opposite corners -- left and right -- two classic movie monsters enter the same frame, and cast wary eyes on one another for the first time. 

The battle is joined.

The moment may work in a manner other than that as well, and perhaps in a way not entirely intended.

A fruition of fan boy dreams and fantasy, this meeting of the monstrous minds may also represent the first time in either franchise’s history that geek or fan desires are, well, pretty much the point of the whole enterprise.

Matters such as story, character, theme and humanity are given short shrift so that two of the greatest silver screen monsters in history can duke it out.

Again and again.

In short, the movie is its title. 

You get exactly what the words Alien vs. Predator promise: a wrestling match between two extra-terrestrial menaces of different characteristics, but equal power or strength.

When the film premiered, in 2004, it was advertised with the tag-line “whoever wins…we lose,” and many critics ran with that self-inflicted wound, noting the veracity of the studio advertisement.  “We lose” was a symbol, in fact, of any audience unlucky enough to sit through the film.

I felt much the same way in 2004, though -- over a decade -- I’ve come to appreciate Alien vs. Predator quite a bit more.


In part, because of what came after.

If you want to see two of the greatest horror movie monsters treated in genuinely shabby fashion, just spend ninety or so minutes with Alien vs. Predator Requiem (2007). That movie illustrates by example just how much Alien vs. Predator actually gets right.

But moving beyond invidious comparisons to the worst film in either monster line, Alien vs. Predator possesses some merit on its own terms. 

First, the 2004 grudge-match features some remarkable and imaginative visualizations, particularly in terms of its flashback sequences. 

And secondly, two characters seen in the film manage to make the enterprise feel like more than just a by-the-number monster-on-monster contest.

AVP’s biggest deficits, by contrast, involve the nature of the action -- which is toothless -- and the depiction of the vast majority of human characters. Beyond the two I mentioned above, the majority of the characters are -- as the script describes them -- literally cattle to be manipulated by one “monster” side or the other.

Still, I'll readily admit that I can watch Alien vs. Predator anytime and get a thrill or two out of the experience.  

If that’s the benchmark you require of the film of this type, it may be judged a success of sorts.  

The disappointment, I suppose, is that the film possesses no ambitious sub-text or theme.  Even the flawed Alien Resurrection (1997), by contrast, tried to get some message across to audiences. 

Alien vs Predator feels slight or empty, somehow, and therefore not the fitting heir to two remarkable franchises.

“The enemy of my enemy…is my friend.”

In October of 2004, a satellite belonging to robotics genius Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) detects a heat signature 2,000 feet below the ice of Antarctica. Soon, satellite imagery makes out a subterranean pyramid of unknown origin.

Bishop quickly assembles a team, including guide Alexa Woods (Lathan), archaeologist De Rosa (Raoul Bouva), chemical engineer Grame Miller (Ewen Bremner), and mercenaries Verheiden (Tommy Flanagan), Quinn (Casten Norgaard) and Adele Rousseau (Agatha De La Boulene) to investigate the pyramid.

When the team arrives at remote Bouvetøya Island, it discovers that someone else has already drilled down to the vast pyramid.  Alexa leads the way down, though she boasts reservations about Bishop, who is dying of lung cancer, participating on the mission.

In the subterranean cave far below, Bishop, Alexa and the other humans discover that they have walked into a trap; a trap sprung by beings called Predators who were once revered as Gods by primitive man.  

Now, the human beings are to be "fodder" for another alien race: fierce serpents who gestate inside living human hosts. 

Alexa attempts to survive, even as the two alien species go to war.

“It’s time to pick a side.

The idea of ancient astronauts visiting Earth and shaping human culture -- the Von Daniken Theorem -- may be absolute, total hooey in terms of history and science. 

But much like Prometheus (2012), Alien vs. Predator utilizes the idea to good effect. Here, it is the hunters, the Predators, who taught man how to construct pyramids, who used us in human sacrifices, and who basically taught mankind the fundamentals of civilization. 

Whatever its flaws, Alien vs. Predator’s flashback imagery -- of Predator strutting atop pyramids, hovering spaceships behind them -- remains powerful stuff.  The script is clever in the way it accounts for the disappearance of Mayan culture (a hunt gone wrong, and the deployment of a Predator self-destruct mechanism) in terms of franchise history. Similarly, human sacrifices are re-purposed to involve the aliens in a way that is imaginative, and yet doesn’t seem like a stretch.

The best imagery in the film, in fact, involves the Predators and humans battling teeming aliens...defending Earth territory from the “serpents” before that apocalypse occurs.  The imagery here is spectacular, and it suggests that aliens and predators have always been with us…we just didn’t know it.

In fact, a truly bold AVP film might have been set during that encounter, in that civilization, with man playing an even more peripheral role.  Critics couldn't very well complain about paper-thin characters and characterizations, if no one spoke English, and the main characters were Predator "Gods" in an Aztec or Mayan city.

Another powerful image in the film involves Alexa Woods and the weapons a predator, Scar, gives to her.  She receives an alien tail as a spear, and an alien head as a kind of glove/shield/armor that stretches up her arm.  

This imagery reveals a lot about how the Predators regard their prey, and -- even more than that -- acts as a pointed call-back to both the flashback scenes, and the finale of Predator (1987). 

In the latter case, Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had to go “primitive” and prehistoric to fight off an alien threat.  In this case, Alexa does the same thing. She uses the resources available to stand in battle beside the Predator. The impression, overall, is that we are seeing a timeless partnership replayed in the present for our own eyes.

But a human wielding an alien head as a weapon is an unforgettable visual, 

I wish the film had more moments like the ones mentioned above.  Instead, Paul W.S. Anderson relies on clichés -- both visual and written -- for much of the film.  There’s the dreadful moment that you will recognize from all action movies of the 2000s, in which Scar and Alex, for example, outrun a giant fireball.  It’s such a hackneyed visual at this juncture, and could be piped in from any number of insipid buddy movies.

I should probably establish that I am not an Anderson hater, as some folks apparently are.  I have written positive reviews of both Event Horizon (1997) and Soldier (1998) on this blog, as evidence of that assertion.  But facts are facts. The director crafts Alien vs. Predator with absolutely no sense of suspense of tension.  

There is no build-up to the just happens. The film opens in Antarctica on October 10, 1904, for example, and we follow a person being pursued by something, or some things, specifically an alien and a predator. The scene is so rudimentary and by-the-numbers that it makes us feel nothing. The scene’s final jolt doesn’t even provide a good jump scare.  

When one considers the level of suspense and terror in Alien (1979), or even in Predator (1987), AVP does not "feel" faithful to what has come before. The filmmakers demonstrate no patience, and do nothing to establish the setting or mood before leaping into the horror moments.

Again and again, the action scenes play out in this fashion with no real tension or suspense underlying them.  Most grievously, the final battle on the surface with the Alien Queen plays out this way too.  The special effects are fine -- extraordinary even -- but there’s no real sense of danger or surprise in the unfolding of the climax.  The movie just hums along, oblivious to the notion that its horror isn’t sticking the landing. We never feel scared or tense; we never feel the pure terror of these warring goliaths.

It would be something if the scare-less movie could make-up for its lack of suspense and tension with a sense of the visually grotesque.  Alien and Predator, after all, are both R rated franchises, noted for their violence and gore. But in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience, Alien vs. Predator is PG-13, meaning that almost no real, dynamic or memorable violence is depicted. 

Every time there is a promise of blood or gore, or even violent impact, the film simply cuts away to another scene, or to a post-impact shot that reveals nothing in terms of damage to body parts.  

No real suspense plus no real gore makes Alien vs. Predator a dull boy, or at least a very bland, generic one.

The characters are mostly fodder, too, for poorly-executed, poorly-shot death scenes. Few characters register here in the way that Hudson does in Aliens (1986), for example, or even the way Johner (Ron Perlman) does in Alien Resurrection. There’s just nobody that distinctive or memorable, overall.

With two important exceptions.

First, what sense of humanity Alien vs. Predator possesses arises largely from Lance Henriksen. 

This is his third franchise appearance, and his third variation on the Bishop role.We’ve seen the innocent child/android (in Aliens), the malevolent tempter (Alien3) and now the ambitious, determined man behind all that futuristic technology, Charles Bishop. Henriksen brings his trademark humanity to the role, and shows us Bishop the climber (willing to go anywhere to achieve his goal), and Bishop the sick man, facing his own mortality.  

Henriksen gets a great scene with Sanaa Lathan in the film; one where he describes how climbing to a new summit is worth the risk, even if death is the result of the journey. The dialogue is good, but Henriksen makes it soar, and grantsthe audience a thorough understanding of this flawed but admirable human being.

I also love his death scene. Refusing to be ignored as harmless (and therefore unimportant) by the Predator, Bishop strikes the hunter with a flame, showing it his teeth. The Predator stops in its track, and gives Bishop the death he has earned, the death of a warrior.  It’s a fantastic scene, and in many ways, the highlight of the film's action. Bishop didn’t get to his position of power by being ignored, by being written off as sick.  

And if he has to die, he’s going to go out the same way as he lived: noticed and notable.

Secondly, Sanaa Lathan is a solid, promising lead as Alexa Woods. She’s not Ripley, and yet she displays a similar ability to survive by adaptation. 

Alexa thinks on her feet, and the audience can see her thinking things through.  That quality makes it easy to identify with her, especially since Alexa has to do a lot of catch-up learning about her enemies in the course of the film’s action.  

Specifically, I admire Lathan’s tendency not to over-emote, or play things for melodrama. Instead, she keeps just the right amount of distance from the material. There’s one moment in which Scar takes a bloody alien stump to her face, to mark Alexa as a survivor or hunter.  She endures it without complaint or drama, but you can see her in her eyes that she is girding herself.  

No, she probably doesn’t want an acid scar on her face. But are you gonna stop a Predator in his tracks when he is, in his own fashion, honoring you for bravery?

In short, I feel that Lathan takes the character and material seriously, but doesn’t fall into the actor’s trap of overplaying scenes that, if exaggerated, could transmit as silly.

I have read a lot of reviews that claim the fight scenes in Alien vs. Predator are too dark, but -- having seen Requiem -- I can’t make the same observation. Basically, I could make-out the details of each fight in the film and I would be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy the battles on some visceral level.  Again, if that's all you're looking for, you will find it here, and likely enjoy the film.

My big complaint with the monsters in Alien vs. Predator is that all the Predators are squat and chunky. They look more like over-fed professional wrestlers, than the lean giant hunters we saw in Predator and Predator 2 (1990). A couple of times, I was taken out of the film’s reality by the short, steroidal stature of the Predators here. They resemble muscle-men in costumes more than ever before in franchise history.

There are qualities to admire in Alien vs. Predator, as I hope I’ve enumerated in this review. 

So why don’t I like it more?  

Perhaps because the pedigree of both franchises is so strong. I feel that the Alien films are mostly great.  Same thing with the Predator franchise.  

So you put the two monsters together and get a film that is....merely serviceable?  I’m not certain how that really serves either franchise in the long run. 

But I suppose it did: the film was very profitable (though not as profitable as Prometheus was). Still, the film feels more like a high-concept gimmick than a fully developed, fully coherent narrative at times.

Indeed, there are points throughout where you sense the writer and director struggling for some meaty hook that will carry the movie across the finish line.  One such idea: the pyramid is like a prison! The aliens are escaped inmates, and the guards -- the Predators -- need their guns.  Another idea: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

And finally, the script sees bound and determined to feature endless variations of the joke “you are one ugly…fill in the blank.” 

So Alien vs. Predator? 

Those who choose, may enter.  

But you do so at your own risk.  

I have taken the plunge at least a couple times, in part for the visually exciting flashback sequences and special effects, and in part because I truly enjoy the performances of Lance Henriksen and Sanaa Lathan. 

And again, Alien vs. Predator is masterful, accomplished filmmaking in comparison to the follow-up  effort: Requiem.

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