Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Alien Week, part V: The chariots of the gods


ALIEN VS. PREDATOR

AVP isn't exactly great, but is absolutely some brand of "good enough," and it's entirely impossible for me to understand how this is the one that wound up pissing everybody off.

2004
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Written by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and Paul W.S. Anderson
With Sanaa Lathan (Alexa Woods), Lance Henriksen (Charles Bishop Weyland), Ian Whyte ("Scar"), and Tom Woodruff, Jr. ("Grid")

Spoiler alert: moderate


There is no reason to have human beings in a movie called Alien Vs. Predator, and frankly this is something of the film's downfall.  All you need, of course, is a Predator—or group of Predators, whittled down quickly enough to just one (and the movie does get this right)—on one of their race's customary excursions to some backwater planet, except this particular planet is overrun with xenomorphs, and, obviously, the Predators came here for that very reason.  Your film follows the misadventures of your Predator hero, playing out almost silently, as he (or she—because what the hell do we know? and if you wanted to connect your AVP picture to the Aliens franchise all the more tightly, but in a comparatively subtle way, there you are) gets in way over his or her head, until, at last, those xenomorphs are just a bunch of skulls adorning a trophy case in a starship.  It is pure, and it is essentially meaningless; and, if you did it right, it would be a lot of fun.  No, there's no need to thank me for pitching the better-conceived version of a movie that already got made thirteen years ago.  You're welcome.

But then, if "an almost silent movie, that features nothing but monsters, action, and special effects" seems a little too avant-garde (or just too expensive) for your tastes, then I do have a back-up plan.  You just throw some Predators right smack dab into the middle of the Alien universe, and assume they won't jar too much with the Aliens' already-established world.  And lo, that is exactly what they did, back when this was a Dark Horse comic book.

Well, the AVP that exists does indeed adapt the basic thrust of that story, which was, simply, "a Predator and a human, the lone survivors of their respective groups, must work together to fight an army of xenomorphs."  Good enough for 20th Century Fox, you'd think, though this appears not to be the case.  While I've seen no record of it in AVP's production history, I find it completely impossible to believe that during the decade and a half it spent in development—fourteen years between a set decoration in-joke back in Predator 2 and AVP's premiere in 2004—the first and only idea its makers ever considered was to make it a prequel set in Antarctica.  (What is this, then?  Alien vs. Predator vs. The Thing?)  The problems start coming fast now, for AVP changes everything about the original that ever made it reasonable, such as "taking place in the future," "not taking place on freaking Earth," and (especially) "not taking place in the polar cold, thereby contradicting Predator pretty much explicitly, and not even permitting our notoriously warmth-loving hunters to at least wear some sensible clothes over their customary fishnet lingerie."


But, happily, AVP does not change everything about the premise that made it rad.  For all its many flaws, it does one thing I couldn't expect: it trips over the low bar set by the franchise to become, at last, the first Alien film since 1986 that one doesn't regret watching in the first place.  Now, I know.  I shouldn't like it at all: I've gone on record, more than once, as saying I hate inter-universe crossovers on principle.  No, I don't want to see the X-Men meet Captain Picard.  How does that shit even exist?

Every rule has its exceptions, though; and Aliens meeting Predators is certainly that.  It must have been something about their mutual aesthetic, or the tenor of the movies they were in—I mean, Predator, for all that it is a triumph of the form in its own precious way, is a pretty objective rip-off.  Well, whatever the reason, they did always seem to fit together.

Since Fox had distribution rights for both, it was a real possibility—and it still took forever to get each side's respective producers on board, let alone to get the thing made.  Without the failure of Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, it still wouldn't have been; so there's also a noticeable whiff of desperation about the thing as a result.  (And that whiff is especially strong in regards its PG-13 rating, clearly intended to get undiscerning teens in the door—something that's been a bone of contention with the True Fans ever since 2004.  To AVP's credit, I didn't really notice.  Sure, it's probably true that the unrated version, which I wasn't able to watch, is "better."  Yet frankly, even in its more neutered form, I suspect that the PG-13 the theatrical cut got was a fair offering: not because AVP lacks the proper proportion of violence, but because, by 2004, Alien's iconic chest-bursting and such had been so denuded of its power that it only deserved a PG-13.  Besides, human destruction was never the draw here anyway.)

But I get ahead of myself, because there's kind of a plot to get to: in 2004, Charles Bishop Weyland—the aging, dying CEO and founder of the Weyland Corporation—has discovered signs of a strange pyramidal structure that simply shouldn't exist, buried deep beneath the ice on an Antarctic island.  His curiosity piqued, he organizes a team of archaeologists, scientists, and general-issue adventurers to investigate—though, as this is an Alien movie, only one of them matters.  This is Alexa "Lex" Woods, a professional mountain climber and guide, who looks about ten years too young to be the best in the world, but such is evidently her reputation.  Though hardly enthusiastic about the mission, Lex nevertheless agrees, and off the team goes, finding an abandoned whaling station, which they expected, and a giant hole already bored out of the ice, leading all the way down to the pyramid itself, which they did not.  Though dumbly confused (and unable to recognize the work of a Giant Space Laser even when they're staring slackjawed right at it), they make their ingress anyway, and investigate the pyramid—which turns out, of course, to be a facility for the ritual blooding of young Predators, wherein their mettle is tested against the universe's (nominal) deadliest monster, the fearsome xenomorph.

The Aliens wake up, and start breeding via facehugger, as is their wont; the Predators arrive, expecting to find their happy hunting ground.  But they've miscalculated just how quickly the infestation would get out of hand, especially with a bunch of stupidly curious humans running around the place and getting face-impregnated; and soon enough, only one Predator is left to fight for his survival alongside the last human, our hardy mountaineer.

And once we get to that point, there's not much to complain about too sharply; but until then, AVP is something of an outright slog, with a smattering of enjoyable grace notes (like "the call is coming from inside the mountain!" introduction of our heroine) that make you think it ought to have been better.  The single most meaningful piece of character work in the whole film is a piece of costume design (that also doubles as a piece of product placement), and it's pretty damning when the most interesting thing you can say about the most important member of the supporting cast is that he's an archaeologist who wears an antique Pepsi bottlecap he dug up when he thought he was unearthing a tomb, in order to remind himself of the cost of arrogance.  (So, then, the most meaningful character work in this film only comes later: the disfigurement of both the central Predator—called "Scar," in the credits—and his central xenomorph antagonist, "Grid," who awesomely acid-bleeds his way through a Predator net.  It handily personalizes the monsters, without quite anthropomorphisizing them in the process.)


But AVP's first act-plus winds up almost nothing but a giant lump of exposition, so densely endless that even the exchanges that appear to be character moments are still largely indistinguishable from the leaden recitation of all the film's many dry facts.  (Which, naturally, have a tendency to be markedly inaccurate if they relate to anything to do with the real world, and sometimes even if they only have anything to do with AVP's pair of fake ones.)

A lot of those dry facts rest upon AVP's most bizarre conceit, though: that the Predators are the ancient astronauts of legend, once worshipped as gods.  (I guess the working title was Alien Vs. Predator Vs. Stargate.)  It could have come off more smoothly, obviously, and there is essentially no forgiving AVP for pitching it as a mind-blowing reveal (in a film-halting flashback, no less) more than halfway through, because the audience already figured it out the moment Weyland mentioned "a pyramid under Antarctic ice."  But there it is: though they're ridiculously different in their approach, there really are two mutually-incompatible Alien prequels that have almost exactly the same basic plot, in which the exact same dying rich man discovers evidence of ancient aliens, then makes an ill-advised journey to meet them.  (Though this iteration of Weyland apparently only wanted to discover a neat pyramid, and doesn't voice any suspicions about its architects until he gets disemboweled by one.)  In some respects, AVP's carelessness is almost more admirable than Ridley Scott's attempted Kubricking: Prometheus may've wanted to explore the biggest questions about life, the universe, and everything, but mainly succeeded in inarticulately sputtering them out; AVP, though, wants nothing except to motivate its single-minded, goofy spectacle, and its reach does not so fully exceed its grasp.

Indeed, if somebody wanted to make an argument that AVP is, in its own way, a return to form for the famously auteur-driven franchise after the mess of Alien: Resurrection, they probably could.  Clearly, the person making that argument should probably have seen more Paul W.S. Anderson films than this and Mortal Kombat; but my understanding is that he specializes in an especially pure strain of schlock.  And schlock, of a particularly appealing kind, is precisely what we get.

So whether Anderson consciously believed that he was making a movie like Alien or like Predator (insanely, he has personally compared it to Jaws), he must've known, deep in his heart, that it was really the opposite: this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, or maybe Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, and AVP's joys are bound up, exclusively, in the images that flash behind your eyes when you read its title.  Thank God then, that Anderson gives in to the real needs of his material.  Once the Aliens finally get around to versusing those Predators, everything is right with the world, above all in that perfect pulp centerpiece shot of a Predator coming face-to-face, literally, with his destined nemesis.


So long as that's the focus, AVP never truly sets a foot wrong: the initial monster wrestling is refreshingly unblinking, allowing us to get a good leer in while they struggle; and, as the extraterrestrial brawling proceeds, Anderson tends to keep it just inventive enough to keep it on the right side of lazy, recycling all the various elements of each series' mythology as weapons to use against the other.  Scar and Lex themselves present as a decent mismatched duo, too, though I expect that has more to do with the fact that they can't talk to each other, thus compelling Anderson to deliver all the exposition he has left by more visual means.  Ultimately, AVP's action does get a little big for its britches—one can unabashedly love the way the xenomorphs free their Queen, yet still remain agnostic about how she careens around like a dinosaur in the climactic chase.  (Great, now it's Alien Vs. Predator Vs. Jurassic Park.)  But, altogether, it works, right up until its 100% predictable ending.

What does not work, and cannot work, is the film's production design; though given that its concepts were baked into the film at the script stage, there's no use at all blaming Richard Bridgland, who does well with what he had.  Sadly, what he had was a series of dreary, blue-filtered chambers that arbitrarily shift like the platforms in a frustrating video game.  (I gather this also is a hallmark of the PWSA style.)  But at least the pyramid looks like the playable part of a video game: the "sets" for the Predators' spaceships are an abysmal collection of CG backdrops so indifferently-underdetailed they look 8-bit, and every moment spent aboard is tied for the worst in the film entire, including its last, even if I personally think AVP's infamous final frame gag of a "predalien" is more of a pleasant bit of cheek than it is some kind of life-altering travesty.


Meanwhile, Anderson somehow actually manages to get his slippery hands onto something like a worthy theme: what is (gratifyingly) never said aloud, but is certainly shown, is that out of all the parties involved, the "villains" of AVP are the most blameless, yet the film explicitly invites us to identify with the Predators, whose whole culture revolves around enslaving and killing things (including us) purely for the hell of it.  It says something, though Anderson may not know what, that this is the species that we can better relate to; and I elect to find that at least a little fascinating.

But AVP, after all, is not much for themes, nor for thinkin', though that is surely the prerogative of any movie like this one.  It owns up completely to the B-movie influences of the franchise, and, on occasion, it does that in some exceedingly wonderful ways.  It's juvenile, that much is patently obvious; if you needed just one adjective to describe it, then that adjective would surely be "kewl."  But sometimes the kid in us, who just wants to see monsters fight, then fight some more, is worth indulging, and if AVP must be called a guilty pleasure, I can admit my own complicity.

Score:  7/10

2 comments:

  1. That mountain-climbing phone call intro is one for the ages. That scene made me actively excited for the movie, but the rest of that tedious first act rubbed it away pretty quickly. Although "woman becomes best friends with a Predator" is the only ending I'd ever want. It really does get better as it goes along.

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    1. Yep, it's a long, slow ramp-up, but by about an hour in, I had to admit to myself I was digging it.

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