Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Written by Paul W.S. Anderson, ‘Alien’ Characters Created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, ‘Predator’ Characters Created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
Starring Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen, Ewan Bremner, Colin Salmon, Tommy Flanagan
First appearing in the pages of Dark Horse Comics the same year that Predator 2 was released, the Alien vs. Predator concept is an ever-intriguing concept responsible for a multi-million dollar property. The voracious, insidious Alien, facing off against the honorable, sporting Predator? It only makes sense for it to become a film. If only its success was that simple.
Charles Weyland (Lance Henriksen), an industrialist billionaire, leads an archaeological expedition in Antartica. Using thermal imaging satellites, Weyland believes to have discovered the ruins of an ancient pyramid temple that predates the Egyptian and Aztec pyramids buried under the ice. Once inside, the team finds signs that the pyramid is host to a ferocious, parasitic alien species. To make matters worse, a group of adolescent Predators are coming to the temple to perform a coming-of-age ritual that involves fighting to the death with the aliens. Soon, it becomes clear that only one species is getting out alive.
You know that saying, “having isn’t as good as wanting?” Remember it; it will become important later.
The result of a decade of development hell, AVP finally emerged as a feature film under the writing and directing of Paul W.S. Anderson, who then was most well known for directed Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil…yeah, not exactly the best of reputations for tackling not one, but two classic sci-fi/horror franchises. But hype was out of control for this picture, so most moviegoers elected to ignore the early warning signs.
On the surface, however, the premise seems airtight. Set on contemporary Earth, a discovery underneath the Antarctic ice leads a scientific team financed by Charles Weyland, a double-reference to the Alien series played by Lance Henriksen, to find a massive pyramid, the last remnant of perhaps the first human civilization, who worshiped the Predator race. Anderson certainly studied up on Erich von Daniken, as themes of ancient aliens influence (and using) man are pervasive throughout AVP. While I prefer the future setting of the Alien universe portrayed in the comics, this is no doubt a unique way to set up the monstrous confrontation. There are plenty of visual and narrative nods to both franchises without descending into remake territory.
It’s too bad that the characters don’t take the reigns from this premise. Sanaa Lathan plays Alexa Woods, a tracker and mountain climber who is meant to be cut from the same cloth as Ellen Ripley. While it is commendable to see Fox committed to a feminist hero, Woods is a far cry from Ripley. This isn’t Lathan’s fault, however: I blame a mediocre script by Anderson, which presents a gaggle of forgettable faces tied up in what seems like endless personality set up, only to fall to the titular monsters without any emotional attachment or distress. Even Henriksen seems to phone it in, lazily wheezing through his dialogue with no apparent intent at making an impression.
This ailment extends to the Aliens and Predators, unfortunately. While the Alien warriors recieve a slight redesign of the cloned specimens from Alien Resurrection and several distinct personalities like the Grid Alien, their menace is substantially diluted. Whether this is simply the result of them being shown in full with little suspense or their easy deaths at the hands of the Predators, it effectively kills any chance for the kind of horror the series is known for.
The Predators are likewise affected, having become beefed up comic book supersoldiers with comically-oversized blades and guns. Their facial designs were even softened, in an apparent attempt to set them up as the “good guy” species, something that New Line Cinema attempted the year before in Freddy vs. Jason. I wish they had learned from that bad decision. The Predators, while perhaps honorable in their own eyes, are cold-blooded killers who hunt for sport. For God’s sake, they slaughter the human team above the pyramid despite their innocence–why am I supposed to regard them as the good guys? The lesser of two evils, maybe, but good? Seriously? It doesn’t help that the suits seem much more stiff than previous examples, as well. In short, the ‘hero’ Predator, Scar, seems more like a linebacker with dreads and knives than an intergalactic warrior.
Shifting into the technical doesn’t yield better results. Anderson has never been praised for having a unique or beautiful style, and he doesn’t experience any flash of brilliance with this film. Shot placement and blocking are exceedingly dull, and sub-par editing sucks the life out of the action sequences. Gone are the iconic musical themes of the Predator or the creepy Alien tones of the past, replaced with a cut-and-paste sounding orchestral score that while not dating the film, doesn’t do anything to help it stand out.
Visual effects are competent for the day, sometimes even stunning and many of the creature effects are practical, however, Anderson’s choices behind the camera don’t do them justice. The Alien Queen, for example, is an even more impressive puppet than the one used in Cameron’s Aliens, yet appears inferior; this is the danger of downgrading from filmmakers like Ridley Scott and James Cameron to more commercial options. Granted, this isn’t completely Anderson’s fault: the film’s theatrical cut was rated PG-13, a certification Fox pushed for in order to market the film to a larger audience. Bad move. Two R-rated franchises revolving around intergalactic terror do not equal one family feature.
A year after release, Fox put out an Unrated Cut onto home video, extended by 9 minutes. While marketed as being the bloodier, hard-R rated cut that audiences wanted, this is certainly not the case. Most blood is obviously digitally added, and the overall tone is still relatively juvenile. Most additions flesh out the characters in minuscule ways that don’t really add to the plot or to their personalities.
To sum all this up, AVP could have been an interesting brawl, although I have no doubt it still would have failed to live up to both franchises. An intriguing premise quickly became a stagnant, all-too-familiar creature feature under Anderson, and that’s a shame. Oh well, I suppose it could have been worse. Right?