It’s 2004, and the billionaire head of the Weyland Corporation (Lance Henriksen) is paying top dollar to gather a team of archaeologists, scientists, drillers and explorers from across the globe. Once aboard his ship in the Antarctic ice pack, Weyland explains his mysterious purpose – to be the first to reach a heat source that suddenly appeared deep under the ice. Satellite photos indicate the bloom is some sort of underground pyramid. Archaeologist Sebastian (Raoul Bova) believes the pyramid may be a missing link between three ancient cultures, while climber and Antarctic expert Lex (Sanaa Lathan) is only concerned with the lack of prep time the team is being given before they face the perils of an Antarctic expedition.
When the group arrives at the deserted whaling town atop the ice above the pyramid, they find that someone has already drilled a perfect tunnel down into the pyramid chamber. They start to explore, but it’s only a matter of hours before they realise the pyramid is preparing for the resumption of an age-old hunt – and before they know it, they’re being used as breeding stock for acid-blooded creatures, which the pyramid’s ancient hunting gods have returned to Earth to do battle with…
Alien Vs. Predator has a significant weight of history behind it. It’s the sequel to two films that haven’t had an outing in twelve years and the prequel to four films that span three decades. Most members of the audience know as much as there is to know about both its star monsters. Its basic idea has already been seen in Dark Horse Comics’ various Aliens Versus Predator mini-series. In general concept, it’s a throwback to the monster matchup movies of the Hammer era. Even with the (theoretical) inbuilt audience appeal of the two franchises, Alien Vs. Predator had an uphill battle for its audience, simply because the second cinematic halves of both franchises were broadly panned.
Viewed on its own, AVP isn’t without faults. The production is almost too busy making nods and homages to its movie and comic book history to tighten its dialogue, some of which had me rolling my eyes. I didn’t get the time or opportunity to bond with any of the characters, except perhaps Sebastian (and only thanks to actor Raoul Bova’s charisma); the movie spreads itself too thin trying to cover as many of them as possible. (This is bad for a horror movie; if the audience can’t connect with the movie’s protagonists, it can only shock, not make its audience afraid. James Cameron showed how to handle a sizeable cast in Aliens by letting the plot-vital few speak for the cannon-fodder rest, who become important to the audience because of what they mean to the important characters.) The usually professional camerawork occasionally and needlessly resorts to MTV slow-mo and other such tricks.
I’ll avoid pointless comparison between lead actress Sanaa Lathan and Alien legend Sigourney Weaver. Her character, Lex, supposedly the key heroine, fell victim to the same lack of characterisation that plagues the film. Lathan never really portrayed any sense that Lex was a competent Antarctic guide, simply overlaying her lines with a basic “cool”. Her larger-than-life act in saving Weyland was out of place in a not larger-than-life cast. It’s only toward the end, when Lathan ably portrays stark naked fear, that I felt some sort of connection to her character.
Still, there’s little about AVP that stands out as being awful. The high production values are front-and-centre but not in-your-face (except when we’re treated to those aforementioned MTV tricks). It maintains pressure on the characters, even if you’re not quite rooting for most of them. Even when the Aliens go CGI, it’s because the director wants a shot that can’t be taken any other way (most of the time, the shots make sense and fit with the movie). And, thankfully, they do look better than the last two attempts to portray them with computerised imagery. As mentioned before, Raoul Bova is the standout performer here, and it’s nice to see both Lance Henriksen and the Predators back on the big screen again. AVP is at its best when it’s focused on the Predators; they’re still big, they’re still bad, they’ve got new toys, and there are more of them in the film at once. They’re used well, even if fans of the comics have seen the final third of the film before. The big flashbacks are gorgeous, too.
As I wrote earlier, Alien Vs. Predator was always going to have an uphill battle for acceptance. Its two movie franchises have had a chequered history; one hasn’t had a cinematic foray in twelve years (and got royally panned in its second outing), and the other, having managed to fend off sequelitis in its first return to screen, caught a cold and couldn’t halt worsening symptoms in the mid-nineties. Fox probably had a lot invested in this film, in the hope that it could resurrect two franchises in one go.
In the end, it’s the legacy of those very franchises that buries AVP. There are too many fans of the Alien franchise that got burned in the last two outings (even if Alien3 wasn’t all that bad), and enough people who hate Predator 2 because Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t in it. Either party would view anything less than a triumphant return to form as a wasted opportunity, and, unfortunately, AVP isn’t. It’s just a mediocre-to-pretty-good SFX action film. It tries to favour its easier-going, larger than life dad over its harsher, realism-driven mother, but cannot truly please either.
On its own merits, Alien Vs. Predator isn’t really a bad film. It’s just not really a great one either, and when contrasted against its well-done forebears, its mediocrity can’t help but stand out. If you didn’t splurge on a ticket when it was at the theatre, rent it out before making your mind up about buying it (no matter which way you’re leaning).
SF Nerd Questions:
- Why didn’t the film address some of the franchise-old questions, like where the Space Jockey came from or, since the Weyland Corporation was featured, how Weyland-Yutani knew where to send The Nostromo to find the Alien?
- Although the ancient pyramid establishes the Predators’ presence in the Antarctic, the previous two Predator movies make it abundantly clear that the Predators much prefer hotspots, and only when it’s hotter than normal. Why do this film’s Predators arrive without any shred of cold weather gear?
- How did the Aliens gestate in a few hours when the previous Alien movies establish their gestation period as at least a day?