I’ve got to admit, I had mixed feelings going into Alien vs. Predator. In one respect, I’ve been going through the films in each of the title characters’ canon knowing that the ultimate destination is this all-out brawl, and so the epic fight documented herein is the ultimate finale to cap off their individual stories. But I was well aware that the movie was likely a cheap stunt to cash in on the popularity of the two series, not far removed from the Jason vs. Freddy match-up. That the film is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, best known to me for being the name behind the unbearable 2008 mess Death Race, only added to my reservations going in. So I was both surprised and relieved to be able to say, once the film was finished, “That actually wasn’t that bad.”
I guess that’s the thesis I want to sell you here, that the movie really doesn’t forsake its source material in intertwining the title creatures, and truthfully comes out with dignity intact. The film opens with a group of scientists being gathered together to explore a strange heat signature which has suddenly shown up in an abandoned whaling village in Antarctica. The group is called together by Charles Bishop Weyland, the namesake behind the Alien series’ evil Weyland-Yutani corporation, and intriguingly played by Lance Henriksen, the same actor who portrayed the android named Bishop in Aliens and Alien³. It’s not a stretch to begin wondering how the seemingly peaceful Weyland became the name behind such a villainous company, to be re-created in android (and possibly even clone?) form centuries into the future. It almost makes one wonder if he’s suffered the same cruel fate as Ripley, consigned to living at the hands of his corrupted progeny for years and years. In any case, the group flies to this nearly-uncharted area, only to discover that what satellite imagery picked up was a huge, mechanized pyramid with ancient inscriptions.
It doesn’t take long to discover that the pyramid houses an ancient evil, namely the aliens of the Alien series. An egg-laying queen alien is chained up in a lower cellar, forced to produce replicas of itself which then attack the humans, thereby creating the full-grown xenomorphs that we all know and love. There is a bit of an over-reliance on CGI here, and maybe it’s simply because there’s been less time for the technology to grow stale, but the computer generated characters do not feel as unnatural within the scene as they did in David Fincher’s film. The pyramid is but a training ground for young Predators, who have been intentionally breeding the aliens using human hosts every hundred years or so and then letting them loose to hunt. Yet again, the inner-workings of the Predator civilization is left curiously blank. The creatures seem to possess great intelligence, given their awesome technological advances, yet they also appear to have no other purpose in life aside from sport. Perhaps they lead rich lives on their home planet, but only come to Earth for fun and games, and so this is simply a misperception from limited information (the IMDb FAQ for the film is rife with great discussion about the nature of the Predators – it’s worth checking out). I’ve been disappointed by the Predator series’ unwillingness to explore the creature’s nature at greater length, but Alien vs. Predator provides more insight than any of the previous films in the franchise. One of the Predators in particular becomes almost a primary character, interacting with the humans and expressing understanding far more than we’ve seen in the previous films. It gives the character a certain humanity, as do theories about the creatures’ rituals and beliefs. The creatures are never referred to as “Predators”, but are instead referred to by the human characters as “humanoids”, indicating that even these scientists can’t help but be aware of the eerie similarity between their race and our own.
But enough small talk, tell us about that hot Alien on Predator action! Indeed, there are a great number of scenes which involve the two extraterrestrial creatures duking it out, and they are invariably stellar. For the most part, the human characters serve little role except to get in the way, provide clumsy exposition or hackneyed references to the previous films in either series. When they fall by the wayside, the battles are a sight to behold. The xenomorphs have always been viewed as an almost unstoppable killing machine, so watching a Predator easily lift one up and toss it across the room like a rag doll is an awesome sight. Each of the alien species’ use their unique abilities in exciting ways. The Predators shoot netting at one alien that constricts endlessly, the tightening metal cutting a checkerboard pattern into its slimy black skin; the alien, in turn, flings its acidic blood in the face of its attacker, causing the Predator’s skin to sizzle and decay. Their dueling is gruesome, the creatures tumbling around and struggling to avoid the claws and fangs and blades of one another. If you don’t care about the political climate that led to the events of the Alien series, or if you’re not at all interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the Predator franchise, and you just came to see these two monstrous beasts go at it full-throttle, you will not leave disappointed.
It is disappointing to see the human characters given such a short shrift, though. With the exception of the epic battle that forms the basis of the film, a lot of the plot that the human characters inhabit is almost identical to that of 2012’s Prometheus, which I found to be very poorly staged. Weyland takes a group of clueless scientists into a foreign land, ignoring his doctor’s advice, in order to find answers that may or may not exist. There are a few moments when characters talk about their children, or try to have meaningful conversations about whether their lives will have had meaning if they die here in the unforgiving Antartic desert, but these are rare and have little dramatic impact. Unlike Prometheus, Anderson’s film doesn’t try to put on a facade of intelligence by acting like it has deeper thoughts about the function of religious belief (though with the sacrificial temple and ritualized behavior of the Predators, the potential was definitely there). Instead, it goes through the motions of a plot for its humans and lets the dazzling free-for-all take center stage.
I think this was the right choice, and thankfully there’s a creeping build-up to the massacre which proves that the director can do more than blurry action shots edited at breakneck speed. That air of grimness in the first act appears to have taken its lead from the Alien franchise, then the action spectacle of the second and third acts does more than nod to the Predator series – it easily outdoes its predecessors.
In the end, Alien vs. Predator is a lot of fun. It treats its source material with respect, and that shows. In response, I submit that viewers should treat it with enough respect to recognize it as a legitimate heir to both the Alien and Predator thrones.