Now, don’t get me wrong. The idea of pitting the xenomorphs of the Alien series against the trophy hunters of Predator has yielded some interesting material if you take a whole-franchise perspective. The original Dark Horse Comics stories which introduced the idea may be some of the more respected crossover comics out there. There’s been some pretty good video games based on the concept. The xenomorph skull kept as a trophy on the Predator’s ship in Predator 2 is one of the more fun aspects of that movie.
Still, let’s not get away from the fact that when it came time to take Aliens vs. Predator (or Alien vs. Predator, the franchise is annoying inconsistent on this point) and make an actual movie out of it, the result was not one trainwreck but two – and a blemish on the reputation of the two cinematic franchises that spawned the idea. Why, when these are two creatures originating in the movies, do people seem not able to make a good Aliens vs. Predator movie? Let’s find out.
Alien vs. Predator
This one is misnamed because you have a whole bunch of xenomorphs against one Predator so it should really be Aliens vs. Predator. In terms of plot, it riffs on Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness playbook by setting its story in Antarctica; in the opening sequence a guy from an old-timey Antarctic expedition is pursued to his death by a Predator and a Xenomorph. We then cut to the present day: a Weyland Industries company satellite in low Earth orbit has discovered some sort of ancient ruin in the depths of Antarctica, and Mr. Weyland himself (Lance Henriksen) assembles an elite team of explorers and archaeologists to investigate. (This is altogether more like Prometheus than I think people like to admit.)
Whilst the satellite was designed to find mineral deposits, rather than archaeological finds, Weyland and his assembled team of experts are incredibly excited about the details they can discern in the images, not least because the ruins show archaeological motifs of Egyptian, Cambodian, and Aztec structures – suggesting that it’s the product of some sort of ur-culture that inhabited the continent before it was frozen over and seeded those cultures in a migration fleeing the encroaching ice. The opportunity to rewrite not just the history books but everything we know about human origins and settlementpatterns, is too much for Weyland or most of those he contacts to resist. However, Lex Woods (Sanaa Lathan), an expert in the Antarctic environment and survival techniques, thinks the site is far too remote and dangerous to risk undertaking an expedition with the level of haste Mr Weyland wants, and is only persuaded to come along because she’s convinced that anyone else who takes them out on the ice will be less able to keep them alive.
Meanwhile, the heat bloom that has prompted the pyramid to emerge from the ice has not gone unnoticed by others. A Predator ship in orbit has detected the re-emergence of their old enemy, and a mission is sent to neutralise the threat. The Predator death squad should be more than enough to purge the nest – but will any of the human bystanders survive the carnage?
Though stuffed with references to both franchises – the cover of a magazine reveals that Weyland is actually “Charles Bishop Weyland”, making him the model for the Bishop android Henriksen played in Aliens – there’s major issues with the plot here. For one thing, the Alien franchise has consistently told us that xenomorphs reaching Earth would be the absolute worst thing that could ever happen, because then they’d expand uncontrollably like in the colony in Aliens.
The presence of this ancient temple more or less precludes human history as we know it actually happening – unless, of course, we assume that the Predators are actively monitoring the site and are stopping the Xenos getting out in order to stop humans going extinct. Apparently, people were being sacrificed to Facehuggers here in order to produce new Xenos. Exactly what stopped the xenos running amok and killing/impregnating everyone the last time this was an active site? Why would they wait politely for sacrifices in the first place? The materials the ruins are made from can’t hold them – it’s made explicitly clear onscreen that their acid blood can burn through it and the xenomorphs can bust through the walls when they have a mind to. When did anyone have an opportunity to draw these hieroglyphs without getting mauled by xenomorphs?
In particular, someone evidently captured the Xenos Queen and used her to produce Facehuggers. Given that in Aliens we saw that the Queen had no qualms about ripping herself fully in half and leaving her big slimy egg-laying butt behind when it became a burden to her, what exactly is stopping this Queen from making her own escape? Just a little cut and her acid blood would make short shrift of her bonds – assuming none of the other Xenos produced by the sacrifice process try to free her.
I think we are supposed to believe that this place was built at the direction of the Predators by human worshippers using technology lent by the Predators in order to commemorate a Predator victory over the xenomorphs, so I guess the point of the sacrifices was to ensure a regular supply of worthy prey for the Predators whilst at the same time not having so many xenomorphs running around that the ecosystem would be totally destroyed. But for that setup to work they’d need to have effective means of actually containing the xenomorphs, and they very obviously don’t.
This isn’t the only difficult thing to swallow about the script by director Paul W.S. Anderson. There’s a bit where we’re told that the hieroglyphics are one-third Cambodian, one-third Egyptian, and one-third Aztec, just like the architecture itself, and I’m sorry but that isn’t how cultural divergence and linguistic shifts; when French and Spanish and Italian and so on diverged from Latin, they didn’t split the letters of the Latin alphabet between them. At other points the action sequences get implausible, the part where the temple architecture starts shifting rapidly, whilst exciting, feels a bit too much like an attempt to set up a platform section for a videogame tie-in.
Still, this sort of SF-horror is within Paul W.S. Anderson’s wheelhouse, and whilst this is in no sense as good as Event Horizon, I’d put Alien vs. Predator on the level of the Resident Evil movies if you want some brainless action interspersed with jump scares. It’s not that Anderson isn’t trying to do anything more thoughtful than that – the movie’s trying to do the thing that Alien did previously and Prometheus leaned into even more subsequently by having a lot of the backstory told through architecture and artifacts found in site – but it’s just that whenever he tries to do something with a bit of depth, it doesn’t quite seem to have been thought through.
Though the movie doesn’t really fit what we’ve been told in the Alien franchise very well, it does seem to fit what’s been established about the Predators a bit better. There’s a bit where one of them, on detecting that Weyland has cancer, decides he isn’t worthy prey and makes to let him go, turning back to kill him only when Weyland attacks and demonstrates that he is still a viable threat. Equally, having the Predators colonising Earth and having us worship them as Gods gives the Predators something to do for a day job outside of hunting, which is something the main series has consistently struggled to do.
There’s still problems on the Predator side of things, though – in particular, one of the flashbacks showing an unsuccessful hunt shows a mass of aliens so huge coming after a Predator that you’d think “surely, if they got that far, there’d have aleady been xenomorphs heading out into the wild to spread the disease, so the nuke set off when that Predator died wouldn’t have caught them all”.
Both xenomorphs and, to a lesser extent, Predators shift a lot between decent physical effects and poorly aged, cheap CGI. The human performances are similarly hit or miss. Sanaa’s performance as Lex is probably the best part of the film, but it’s a shame she couldn’t have been given a better script to work with. (She does at least get to reprise Arnie’s “You are one ugly mother-” line from the original Predator.) As far as the rest of the human characters go, we don’t get time to really get to know the team on this one, unlike in Predator, Alien, and Aliens, so we don’t really care about the fate of anyone except Lex. In fact, there’s actual xenomorphs and Predators who end up with more character than some of the human cannon fodder here – including “Scar”, the Predator who ends up being host to the antagonist of the next movie…
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Setting aside the fact that this whole story shouldn’t have really happened – it’s established in the previous one that the Predators are really quite good at spotting when one of their own has been infected with fetal xenomorphs and eliminating them before the creature hatches – this could have been great, since it documents the xenomorphs finally making landfall in a populated region of Earth as has been threatened since the original Alien.
Specifically, we see extraterrestrial horror invade a small town in Colorado, where a xenomorph that burst from the chest of Scar (the lead Predator in Alien vs. Predator) manages to make landfall with a group of Facehuggers in tow. Except, of course, this takes place before Alien, so for the timeline’s sake some bullshitty reason needs to be cooked up to take them all out before the end credits, which in turn obliges the film to stop them spreading too far.
Still, there’s some things about this movie that work quite well. For starters, establishing the “Predalien” – the xenomorph that bursts out of the Predator at the start of this movie/end of last one as a main antagonist allows directors Greg and Colin Strause (credited as “the Brothers Strause”, presumably mimicing the Sisters Wachowski) to do some clever things with the established xenomorph pecking order. It’s already been established in the series that the xenomorphs incorporate genetic traits from the hosts they incubate in which alter their appearance and behaviour, so it makes sense that the Predalien has an interesting new look (though incorporating the dreadlocks from the Predators is a little silly).
That said, almost everything distinctive about the behaviour of the Predators comes not from their physiology (which makes them super-strong and super ugly – not a huge difference from the xenomorphs) but from their technology, and the more animalistic Predalien a) probably isn’t going to be able to master that technology and b) even if it could, can’t exactly buy a set of Predator equipment from PredAmazon Prime. Early on in the film the Brothers Strause come to a clever solution: they distinguish the Predalien by the social behaviour it exhibits and imposes on xenomorphs lower in the pecking order than it, forcing them to surrender kill opportunities to it as a show of respect, which raises the interesting idea that the xenomorphs’ social behaviour as well as their physiology is affected by the things they hatch from.
The Brothers also seem to have at least partly thought through the Predator response; it makes sense that if a Predator ship goes dead as happens here it’d cause an emergency signal to be received at one of the Predators’ nearby worlds, and it makes sense that a response will be sent – particularly if the mission of the ship in question involved xenomorph containment.
What makes substantially less sense is that a lone Predator is sent to check out a problem which clearly an entire xenomorph containment team couldn’t handle. After all. if the xenomorphs represent the ultimate foes for the Predators to test their mettle against, it follows that the counter-xenomorph teams would represent the absolute cream of the crop when it came to this sort of thing. It’s like sending a desk sergeant to check up on a situation which might well have claimed the life of an entire SWAT team.
Another thing about the Strause’s style, which you’ll either like or thoroughly detest, is that they really don’t have many qualms about how grim they allow things to get with the xenomorphs; they have no qualms about showing you a small child being facehuggered, or having an alien burst out of their chest later on, for instance. One particularly gruesome twist they throw is the other major ability they give the Predalien; realising that we don’t actually know how Predators fuck, they have taken that as carte blanche to come up with a gruesome alternate breeding strategy for the Predalien which is presumably a twisted xenomorph take on the beautiful act of Predator-on-Predator lovemaking.
In essence, the Predalien’s Predator-style facial claws allow it to act like a rechargeable facehugger, allowing it to jam not just one but several eggs down the throats of its victims. Allowing each human victim to incubate multiple chestbursters not only escalates the urgency of the outbreak, but also sets up perhaps the most shocking scene of the film, in which the Predalien uses an entire maternity ward of mothers as a mass breeding ground. This is a major shock, but it’s really annoyingly on the nose when you consider that the entire xenomorph lifecycle as established in Alien is already a perfectly good nightmare take on pregnancy.
The other thing I like is that David Hornsby has a bit part in this as a pizza store manager, and he pretty much plays the role like his character from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; the idea that Rickety Cricket might move to Colorado, turn his life around and get something approaching stability only to be caught up in a xenomorph invasion is too funny to resist.
That’s more or less all the nice things I can say about this movie.
The Brothers Strause claim that when making the film they tried to follow the principle that what you don’t see is always more scary than what you do see and they lit it accordingly. This is the sort of rule of thumb which works well when it’s properly applied, but in order to pull it off you need to actually understand the principles behind it: you can’t just cargo cult your way through making a movie mimicing stuff other people claim works in the genre you’re working in without actually understanding why it works and how to make it work.
The idea behind “the unseen is always scarier than what you see” is that if you show people just enough to engage their imagination, then they will fill the rest in with something more powerful than you could have come up with on your own. (The Haunting is the masterclass of how to achieve this in a cinematic context.) The problem here is that we already know exactly what the Predators and xenomorphs look like – multiple movies have shown us that very clearly – and we get some damn good looks at the Predalien early on too, so the darkness engulfing most of the movie’s scenes doesn’t hide anything particularly scary when it comes to the horrors we’re witnessing.
What it does hide is almost everything else; this movie is absolutely absurdly lit. I’ve heard of day-for-night filming, but this could be mistaken as night-for-day filming. As such, the darkness with which many scenes are shot ends up being entirely pointless at best, and at worst renders some scenes downright difficult to follow, in effect hitting the opposite extreme from the one the Brothers were trying to avoid; rather than showing us so much we never engage our imagination, instead the Brothers often so us so little that we end up with no framework to base our imaginings off in the first place.
Now, although the Super Strausio Brothers insist that all those scenes were smothered in darkness in post-production because they were deliberately going for this effect, there’s plausible reasons to think that this is an after-the-fact justification. With no background directing projects remotely this big – they were known for music videos and VFX before landing this job – the Brothers seem to have rushed through the filming process, simply pushing ahead when the lighting was clearly insufficient with the attitude of “we’ll fix it in post”.
They may have had good budgetary reasons to do this, mind: the movie was apparently made on the cheap, and rumour has it that the lighting was deliberately dim because the various costumes just weren’t up to snuff and showing them in proper light would have made that utterly obvious.
One thing the Brothers Strause don’t seem to believe in is distinctive characters. The cast is slightly too big, with no particular character ever becoming prominent enough to actually get full-on protagonist or even major supporting character status; whilst this does mean you can’t really predict who will be the final survivors in the end, at the same time it also means you don’t really care whether or not anyone survives.
Now, having an ensemble cast in this sort of SF-horror can have its advantages: it means it’s less immediately obvious who the final survivor is going to be, for one thing. See, for instance, the original Alien, in which Ripley, whilst significant, wasn’t so radically more important than the rest of the crew as to have an obvious “protagonist” halo floating above her head. However, it worked in Alien at least partly because in that movie the cast consists of a small crew of a single claustrophobic starship, so you get plenty of time with the same group of characters and observing their interactions; here, the cast is dispersed over an entire Colorado town and the relationships between them are painted in fat unsubtle streaks that don’t really help to make them feel like real people whose destinies we care about.
On top of that, the script by Shane Salerno is just plain lazy on a number of points. For instance, pizza delivery guy Ricky Howard (Johnny Lewis) gets his ass kicked by Dale Collins (David Paetkau), boyfriend of Jesse Salinger (Kristen Hager). So offended is Dale by Ricky’s crush on Jesse that he tosses Ricky’s keys down a grating into the sewers.
It is never made clear why exactly Ricky doesn’t just tell his employers or the police about this; it isn’t like he has any popularity with the crowd in question left to squander, and whilst there aren’t many perks for working for a pizza chain I’m sure “customers kicked the shit out of me when I was delivering their pizza” is the sort of situation where you can expect the company to back you up (if only because letting that sort of shit slide opens up to all sorts of liability, especially if something worse happens to one of their other delivery people after you warn them).
The key going into the sewer is the setup for Ricky and his brother Dallas (Steven Pasquale), who has just got out of jail on burglary charges, to gocreeping into the sewers to retrieve the keys, where they are a little spooked but ultimately nothing of any wider plot significance happens – despite seeing and hearing a few odd things they don’t come to the conclusion that alien invaders are lurking in the sewers, and they keep bimbling about their day-to-day business like nothing happened, so the whole “lost my keys” deal is there solely to kill time; whilst it does give a little context to the brothers’ relationship, it doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t pick up from the rest of the movie, and indeed almost none of this small town soap opera bullshit serves the main plot to any significant extent.
The Strauses can’t even achieve basic consistency, the movie outright contradicting itself at points. For instance, there’s a glaring inconsistency about just how severely acidic xenomorph blood is. A small splash cuts clean through someone’s arm early on; later, Dallas kills a xenomorph with a headshot which strictly speaking should have splattered him full in the face with a big gout of blood. By rights, his face should have melted off, but nothing happens.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that the Brothers own a special effects company, CGI effects are much in evidence here. A few of them are quite good; I was very impressed with the depiction of the Predator-controlled planet, which looked exactly like the sort of industrial hellhole that’d make you think travelling light years to fight Arnold Schwarzenegger is a good use of your holidays. Much of the rest, though, seems substantially more clumsy than the work in the previous movie (and remember that that hasn’t dated all that well at all).
Moreover, there’s a number of scenes which really don’t feel like you’d have needed to use special effects techniques to get them sorted but look, to my eyes, like they’ve been performed in front of green screens anyway – despite the fact that the setting in question is entirely mundane and nothing requiring special effects occurs. It isn’t even as though they were saving money on location shooting by doing this, because they did location shots in British Colombia anyway. Perhaps they had to do a bunch of reshoots on the cheap and didn’t have the budget to go set up at the location, or perhaps I’m just seeing things and they weren’t actually green screening it at all, just running the picture through some sort of weird filter that is meant to do something useful but ends up just making everything look fake and artificial.
Hmm, a filter which might have been of some use but just turns whatever material is fed into it into utter crap. That’s an idea. I’ll call it the Strause Filter.