We’ve waited to write about this movie. By now, everyone who was excited to see it has seen it, so we’ll just proceed with the discussion: Many people did not like Alien vs. Predator. The film, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, has received some negative reviews, and there are several theories circulating as to why the movie was not what so many fans had hoped it might be.
If you clicked on any of those links, or if it’s been a few years since your last Comic-Con, you’re liable to be tickled by the silly venom of the fanperson community. The Alien vs. Predator (aka AvP or, for the purpose of this column, Al v. Pred) threads on the message boards have been sweaty with the frustrations of consumers betrayed by a franchise to which they’ve devoted their walking-around money since adolescence.
Fan reactions to Al v. Pred have mostly been about the cultural ownership of the franchises by the nerdy set, not about its possible merit as a film. In particular, geek concerns have focused on the film’s various treacheries against the Dark Horse comic series, Aliens vs. Predator, and against the previous Alien and Predator films. Nerds everywhere have been deceived into watching a film of questionable quality and now a crisis of fan-faith brand loyalty has erupted: What has it all been for, if not this?
The first movie my husband saw on VHS was Aliens. He tells me that he made a trip to the Silver Snail in Toronto, where he beheld the lead-cast Aliens figures he would later receive for his fourteenth birthday. He shares the crisis of faith. He had some expectations for Al v. Pred: At the very least, he thought it would be like watching an extraterrestrial, biological monster-truck rally. Or else, like the gory lawsuit the film’s title suggests, a dramatic battle between plaintiff and defendant, with humans as impartial as a court recorder. When the lights went up, he hit the exit doors cussing back the tears.
Most of his critique was generally just disappointed mouth-lather, but a few specific points deserve mention. The details of Anderson’s film—from the time that elapses in an Alien’s gestation from face-hugger to chest-burster, to the climate preferences of Predators, to geological time-frame issues with Antarctica—don’t fit with the pro-filmic truths presented in the previous Alien and Predator films. However, as I didn’t invest my babysitting money in comic books and action figures, I take a looser, more accepting approach to these sorts of problems. Oversights like these are dumb, and suggest a disrespect for the mythos, but they’re not all that’s of interest in the film.
My fascination sits closer to the cosmology of the franchises, which consist of six different films by six different directors “co-operating” to create a coherent universe. Predator 2, prompted by the comic books, offered a relationship between the Alien and Predator cultures in a scene, set in the Predator ship’s trophy room, which prominently features both Danny Glover and the skull of an Alien. Al v. Pred, transpiring in our present time, provides an efficient route from the near past of the Predator films to the future of the Alien films. I don’t fault Anderson’s film for being too brisk and shallow; one of its lovelier qualities is that it’s the most expedient path between two fixed points.
To further discuss the “quality” of this movie, we can move away from the diegetic constraints imposed by the previous Alien and Predator installments. The casting of Al v. Pred is right in line with its predecessors. Although the class issues exploited to awesome effect in the other films are missing from Anderson’s effort, how many large-grossing action films feature a capable African American woman in a Ripley-prototype lead? I’m not pleading Girl Power, I’m just saying. And what I’m saying is this: NOT A ONE. The lead in Al vs. Pred, Sanaa Lathan, has previously worked mostly on black folks’ films, like Love and Basketball, The Best Man and The Wood. She’s a somewhat unlikely candidate for the role of Alexa Woods, given the lame reality of Hollywood, but it’s the type of deliberately interesting and fantastic casting choice that the franchise began in Alien with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Yaphet Kotto’s Parker.
In addition to these vague but valid sociopolitical dimensions, Al vs. Pred brings home the ham. Viewers are treated to the delightful mid-film plot twist of a lapse into the Buddy Cop picture mode: Alexa Woods (Lex) and the “Celtic” Predator are propelled through the air just ahead of violent explosions; soon after they come close to a cross-species makeout session. Lex outlasts and out-Predators the Pred and finishes off the Alien queen to ensure the continuation of human civilization on Earth. For her efforts, we’ll get the chance to someday meet Ripley. The team-up of Lex and the Celtic corresponds to the structure of the previous Predator films, where the human anti-hero battles the Predator, but realizes there’s an even worse enemy, common to them both. The exceptional human and the Predator collaborate, recognizing and respecting a kind of contract of sporting behaviour. Al vs. Pred takes it a bit further. In the final scene of Al vs. Pred, in recognition of Lex’s services rendered to the viewer, King Predator presents her with a crazy gonzo telescoping Predator spear, dangling with charms like a Japanese schoolgirl’s mobile phone.
Al v. Pred does actually work to enrich the total canon. We’ve been coached to hate the Predators, but only because we thought they hated us first! Now we’re BFF. We hate the Aliens; however, through the disturbing situation of the Alien queen in chains, we come to understand them not as the dynamically homicidal parasites presented in the Alien movies, but as creatures with a motivation. We hate the humans, but when there’s only one remaining, they’re prevented from performing frustrating dialogue. The burden of enjoying the film is lightened.
The stilted qualities of Al v. Pred emerge as a result of the film being compressed into lowest common semiotic denominators, to accomplish the task at hand in as few moves as possible. This is an especially interesting exercise when applied to a blockbuster in a franchise that has had so much difficulty perpetuating itself in any stable fashion. Anderson’s Al v. Pred does contain points of subtle interest, but they’re wrapped in unintended camp with a toothpick stuck through the middle. It’s not the best film that could have been made for Alien versus Predator purposes, but it grossed nearly $40 million US in its opening weekend. Divided by the price of a movie ticket, that yields a lot of disappointed nerds