So I'd like to amend something I said last week. In last week's installment of The Series Project here on CraveOnline, I said that I would take the goofy gooiness of Alien: Resurrection over the tragic sadness of Alien³. A week's thought proves the reverse. While Alien: Resurrection is still a much easier film to enjoy than Alien³, and has plenty of enjoyable gross-out scenes, I find now, after some consideration, that Alien³ is the stronger film, with a better aesthetic, and more thought behind it. Yes, it'll still make you want to weep and band your head against the wall in futile depression, but it's most certainly the better-made film.
Okay, that's off my chest. Or I suppose out of my chest.
We've spent the last two weeks delving through the concurrent Alien and Predator franchises, which has been a rather wonderful little jaunt, as all the films to date have been outright classics at best (Alien remains one of my favorite sci-fi films), and interesting genre exercises at worst (Alien: Resurrection is a bit off-putting and atypical, but it has the benefit of strangeness and alien gore on its side). Almost all of the films to date have been the result of a clear vision of some sort; each seems spawned from the mind of a hard-thinking auteur. And while the visions have definitely clashed from film to film – both series' tonal continuity is a little iffy, even if their story continuity remains sound – they have all been solid and complete entertainments in themselves. This week, however, all of that will shift, as we'll look at the two films that overlap both the Alien and Predator franchises. No longer are we using a popular sci-fi series to explore anything deep, or show off awesome action. Now we're just pulling strings to orchestrate a monster mash.
Monster mashes can be fun, of course, and I found the first of the crossover films to be goofy entertainment, but I think we need to recalibrate our expectations for the next two or even three movies. We should not be expecting the mystery of Alien and the masculinity of Predator on full display. We should be expecting, well, a film that has “vs.” in the title.
As I stated over the last two weeks, the creatures from Aliens and the creatures from Predator have been largely accepted in some pop culture circles as existing in the same universe. This started with a tease in Predator 2, which showed a hunter alien with the skull of an Alien alien in its trophy case. This little tease coincided with a series of comic books, which features the two alien species facing off. Alien vs. Predator became a popular notion within sci-fi fandom, so a feature film was long coming. And with Freddy vs. Jason out of the way, I guess the groundwork was set for Alien vs. Predator, the movie. Let's take a look.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004)
Why “AVP?” “AVP” sounds like it refers to an element of varsity football. And why did the producers decide to make the film under the aegis of a PG-13 rating? Two of the goriest movies in sci-fi history are now okay for Junior High kids. You suck.
So, as I have reviewed several long-running series in The Series Project, it's time to address something that I have noticed in most all of them: time compression. Let me explain. In most long-running series, the first chapter will introduce us to a new, presumably creative mechanic that makes it unique. Chucky shunting his soul into a new body in Child's Play, for instance. Or the Lemarchand configuration summoning the cenobites in Hellraiser. When we're introduced to these mythological conceits, they seem vast and weird and typically take a long time to establish, as it's the first time we've seen them. As the sequels progress, however, both the audiences and the filmmakers become perhaps too intimately familiar with the mythic mechanic, and tend to speed through the known details in order to get to the mayhem. What took a lot of time, energy and magic in the first chapter now takes little time, almost no effort, and no longer has any magic.
In Child's Play, Chucky found that after inhabiting a doll for about a week, he began to feel pain and bleed. It also took a lengthy incantation to make the soul-swapping work. In Seed of Chucky, the fifth film in that series, the incantation is literally only four words, and the dolls begin bleeding immediately. In Hellraiser, it took hours of careful manipulation of the puzzle box in a quiet and solitary location to unleash the famous demons. By the third movie in that series, people could solve the puzzle while running. Time compression.
The same happens in AVP. We know the mechanic from the first two Alien films: an egg-laying queen alien deposits a leather egg on the ground. The egg hatches a face-hugging creature that, over the course of about a day, implants a human being with an alien fetus. The fetus gestates for another day or so, and then bursts out through the chest of its human host. Less than a day later, the alien is human-sized and prowling dark places looking to kill. Remember when that happened in the fist Alien? How shocking and weird it was? Well, now that process takes about, oh, thirty minutes from beginning to end. Egg, face-hugger, gestation, chest-bursting, full-grown creature, all in less time than an episode of Mannix. I know we all get how the alien reproduction works, but some propriety is, I think, warranted.
Either that, or introduce something new to this process. Change the definition of what the alien creature is, or perhaps have it become capable of more than what we've seen. Just like so many long-running series, Alien has now become hamstrung by its own myth. It won't be until Prometheus that the definitions will change a bit. Long-running series (if they have any continuity at all) have a careful balance. They have to keep the familiar myth alive, but still introduce new elements to keep us interested. Most series trip by trying to keep the myth alive, as they run the risk of time compression. Others trip up by introducing new elements that will upset any longtime fans. It's rare that a series grows organically.
But to the film itself: How did the two creatures end up together?
AVP: Alien vs. Predator is the first Alien film to take place entirely on Earth and the third Predator film to do so. It runs only 104 minutes, making it the shortest film yet. It also seems to have the lowest budget so far, making for a film that looks cheap; the sets look like they were built on a soundstage. AVP is largely indistinguishable – well, perhaps of slightly higher quality – than many late-summer action flicks. It's a clearly artificial Hollywood action flick. I can't compare it to Alien or Predator, but I can say for sure that it's better than, say, Van Helsing. It's about as good as Resident Evil. It's not as good a Predators. Those are the kinds of comparisons I'm reduced to making.
The story follows Mr. Weyland (of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, the evil alien-seeking company first mentioned by name in Alien: Resurrection) as he assembles a team of scientists and linguists and archaeologists on a mission to Antarctica to investigate a recently-discovered Mayan pyramid that is buried thousands of feet below the ice. Weyland is played by Lance Henricksen, who played the android Bishop in Aliens, and the android's possibly-human counterpart in Alien³. The implication is, perhaps, that Weyalnd was the physical model for the bishop android. Maybe the filmmakers just wanted some continuity cred. Weyland's team consists of about a dozen ragtag rock 'n' roll scientists including Ewan Bremner, Roaul Bova, and Colin Salmon. Leading up the scientists is Alexa Woods, played by Sanaa Lathan. She's strong, but seems, like so many action heroines before her, too dainty to be kicking alien ass as she'll do later in the film.
This mysterious Mayan pyramid is located miles below an Antarctic whaling station that was abandoned in 1904, so we're treated to an old-timey wooden set covered in Christmas tree flocking. Our scientists discover a tunnel leading down to the pyramid that has been drilled by some bloody great force of unknown origin. Our team trek down into a giant cave with the pyramid in it. By the way, it's never explained how this pyramid got here, why it was built in this peculiar location, or how it's powered. Stones move around inside it like booby traps from an Indiana Jones film. Neither the technology nor the function is explained. I don't need everything to be spelled out for me, but I would appreciate at least a sense of mystery to cover the inexplicable machines.
There's a scene early in the film wherein a character is startled by a really cute li'l penguin. I like the penguin. Keep the penguin. Or better yet, have a face-hugger latch onto a penguin. How cool would that have been?
When our humans enter the Mayan pyramid, they set off a series of interlocking devices that, as shown to the audience, unfreeze an egg-laying alien queen in the castle's basement. It is held in shackles, and is forced with automated cattle prods to lay eggs. Our heroes above spend their time running flashlights over inscrutable hieroglyphs, translating as they go. They find that this pyramid is built of three separate cultures, and that it is emblazoned with images of both Alien creatures and Predator creatures. They also discover that the pyramid seems to change its own inner geography automatically every ten minutes, so hallways shrink and vanish, trapdoors open, and everyone becomes separated and lost pretty quick. It also doesn't take too long for those eggs to find their way to our heroes and impregnate them.
Meanwhile, our more intelligent predator aliens land on Earth to hunt the creatures. It turns out that the predator creatures, for clarity let's call them “Ziggies,”have somehow found a way to make alien creatures, let's use their fan-accepted name of “xenomorphs,”in order to prove themselves superior hunters. Hunting seems to be everything to this race. In the next film, we'll finally see this species' home planet, and it looks lush and vast. Surely members of the Ziggy species want more than to hunt. But it's only the hunters we'll ever see. The Ziggies have been coming to Earth for many centuries, and intentionally unleashing xenomorph plagues to hunt. When the xenomorphs get out of hand, the Ziggies blow up the entire city. The Ziggies are also the ones who helped to build the giant stone structures of many different ancient civilizations. This is a species that seemed less organized to me in previous films, but whatever. I'll accept all this. I have no other recourse.
The remainder of the film is a long chase through the changing corridors of the pyramid until a single human (Lathan) and a single Ziggy are left to fight off the xenomorph critters and the newly-escaped queen xenomorph. The Ziggy makes Lathan a sword and a shield out of a xenomorph tail and head. Remember that these monsters bleed acid. It wasn't until this film that someone thought to make an acid shield out of alien skin. That seems to rob from the coolness of a being with acid for blood, but makes sense in a practical way. The Ziggy so respects Lathan, because she killed a xenomorph, that he paints her face with a symbol.
The alien queen is dumped into the ocean tied to a weight, where it will presumably drown or starve. Here's a weird thing: we've only seen the xenomorphs eat a few times over the course of these movies. I posited once that, due to their rapid growth and reduced need for food, the creatures don't live very long. Their life span still hasn't been addressed. It never will be. I choose to believe that the creatures are only capable of living for about 30-60 days before they die of natural causes. Certainly no more than a year. Just like cockroaches.
At the end of the film, Lathan is left alone in the Antarctic snow while a Ziggy ship arrives to carry away the dying Ziggy we've been following. In a pre-credits stinger, we see a xenomorph burst out of our hero Ziggy's dead chest. It has a Ziggy face. As was established in Alien³, the creatures take on the characteristics of the thing they impregnate.
Like I said, the film is dumb, cheap, but, in an odd way, serviceable. I think many people object to the film because it does nothing to expand the myth of either franchise. All it does is establish that the two alien species have had a history together, and that's not so surprising in a film called Alien vs. Predator. I can say for pretty certain that if I had never heard of either Alien or Predator, I would feel the exact same thrill watching this movie. It stands alone as a plain and just-above-mediocre sci-fi action flick. It has some neat monster action and some pretty cool visuals. Like I said: better than Van Helsing, and not as clearly a studio product.
The next film will be even cheaper and even dumber. Let's look at the nadir of all this.
AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem (dir. The Brothers Strause, 2007)
Never do this. Never make a film that requires both a colon and a hyphen in the title. Also, knock off the abbreviations. The film is called Independence Day. Only marketing gurus and filmgoing sheep refer to it as ID4. No one wants to call this film AVPR. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
In fact, just don't make Alien vs. Predator movies. 'Cause you get bland, stupid garbage like this. AVPR:AVP-R (which I like to pronounce “Av-Per Av-Per”) is a sloppy and bad-looking film that has no selling points other than the appearance of a xenomorph that gestated in a Ziggy body. Otherwise, the film is murky, difficult to see (almost all the scenes take place in gloomy darkness, sometimes in the rain), and has a stultifying plot. It's loaded with completely forgettable human characters that we spend entirely too much time filming, and the time with the creatures is so badly-filmed, I was squinting more than I was comprehending. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
I once heard that the original idea for Alien vs. Predator was a dialogue-free action flick that had no humans in it at all. That it was to follow a group of young Ziggies, learning to hunt for the first time, and encountering xenomorphs on a training exercise. That's a really cool idea, and I like the notion of an alien action film with no dialogue. Audio Visual Public Relations, sadly, takes the opposite tack, and stuffs itself with bland human characters who chatter on so long about their personal problems, you begin to forget there are two species of creature in this film. There's the blushing virgin (Johnny Lewis) who wants to bag the hot blonde (Kristen Hager, there sure are a lot of Kristens in Hollywood, aren't there?). There's the war vet (Reiko Aylseworth) who returns to her family. There's the, uh, other guy. Who's named Dallas (Steve Pasquale). Who might be related to the Dallas in Alien. There's a cop. And a little kid. Never mind. They all pretty much die, and you won't care.
The story: That Ziggy-shaped xenomorph critter causes the pod it was on to crash in the wilds of Colorado immediately following the events of AVP: Alien vs. Predator. The critter, let's call him Larry, gets loose, as do a bunch of skittering face-huggers. The free face-huggers spend no time finding innocent victims, as, since time is so compressed at this point, creatures are created pretty much instantly. There were only three or four face-huggers at the beginning of AbFabR, and they were previously only capable of creating one xenomorph per human. By this climax, there will be dozens of aliens. Indeed, Larry seems capable of repeatedly implanting people with several xenomorph embryos at a time. This seems less like an expansion of the series mythology, and more like a simple plot contrivance to get more monsters into the film.
There is a single Ziggy creature on their trail, and it has been slowly cleaning up the mess they made. This Ziggy is not so much a hunter as it is an intergalactic custodian; when it kills a beast or a human, it takes no trophy, but pours a few drops of glowing blue ooze onto the corpse, causing the body to evaporate.
Eventually the Ziggy janitor and Larry will have a battle royale with all our human characters looking on. The creatures, however, look so similar, and the film is lit so dimly, that I can't even get excited about the rubbery monster fight scene. If you're gonna have two guys put on giant slimy rubbery monster suits and wail on each other for 20 minutes straight, they had better be well-lit on a miniature Toho set. I'll take any kaiju film over this garglemesh.
There's also a twist about the Weyland group (or at least a Mrs. Yutani) wanting to look into Ziggy weapons. Whatever. Here's another joke about the title: It looks like it came from a spam e-mail. Like it's being eaten by some Linux or something. The entire film could have used a junk mail filter.
I have nothing more to say about this film. I don't want to recount more details. I don't want to think about it. If you must see it, do so at your own risk.
Predators (dir. Nimród Antal, 2010)
I like Predators. It's a neat idea, it's a cool little film, and it's exciting to watch. It's capably directed by someone who knows how to shoot an action scene, and it utilizes its monsters well. Predators is an exciting B-movie. It stands far away from the AVP movies, and feels more like a proper successor to Predator than the next towering chapter in a crossover mythology. Many people didn't like this movie, and indeed, few saw it; it tanked at the box office. I think many fans objected to the film's staunch refusal to expand the Predator myth in any significant way (it’s a pattern). Again, we learn nothing of the Ziggy culture, do not spend any time in their society, and continue to see only the corner of their civilization that is solely interested in hunting. There is nothing new here. But what we do get is an efficient and entertaining sci-fi film with a cool idea. It's certainly way better than either of the AVP movies, and is maybe more fun than Alien: Resurrection.
The conceit: A bunch of evil criminals, gangsters, and soldiers, each with a checkered criminal past of murder and violence, is transported against their will – and with no memory of the event – to a distant planet. The first shot of the film is the lead character Royce (Adrien Brody) plummeting through the air with a parachute on his back and a gun in his hands. He doesn't know how he got there. Good opening. On the planet’s surface, this ragtag bunch of violent misfits must eventually unite to survive a hunting exercise conducted by the invisible Ziggies. They learn they are in some sort of extraterrestrial hunting compound, and they even meet a nutty human survivor (Laurence Fishburne) who has been there for years. Eventually, the remaining survivors must infiltrate a Ziggy camp and fight them off. There's a twist along the way that one of the humans was working for the Ziggies this whole time (or something like that), but it's not that shocking a twist, which is why I don't feel so bad about giving it away.
Amongst the criminals are a Russian mafia guy (Oleg Taktarov), a yakuza guy (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a serial killer (Topher Grace), a Latina freedom fighter (Alice Braga, who had her stomach wound fisted in Repo Men), and Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo). Since they are all criminals and antisocial types, they fight frequently, and disagree often. The group dynamic makes sense for a bunch of killers and criminals. Royce only becomes our hero by default, as he is the most levelheaded guy in the group, even though he is still decidedly unbalanced.
L.A. natives may recall a brief time in 2010 when Predators released a viral marketing campaign. At least I think it was. I began seeing guerrilla street posters of Adrien Brody, in stylized black-and-white, showing off his incredibly cut physique. The caption read merely “BRODY.” Does anyone else remember this? Was this a viral ad campaign for Predators, or was this just another guerrilla artist making a man for themselves (or for Adrien Brody)?
Anything else to share about Predators? I suppose not. It's a simple little movie, and fun to watch. Criminals vs. creatures on a distant planet. No big story twists. No expansion. Not all sequels need it, especially since the last film in the solo series was 20 years previous. If there is ever a fourth Predator movie, maybe then we can expand. The third will do fine just to point out to audiences that the Predator franchise is still alive and well, and also violent and R-rated and made with a certain degree of quality. The manliness has returned where it started. Standing next to vagina-faced monsters.
And now we come to the final film in this two-series two-fer, out today.
Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)
SPOILERS abound. Read at your own risk.
I love Prometheus. I love it almost as much as Alien. It's one of the best films of 2012.
The AVP films were so concerned with expanding the mechanics of the film's critters that it didn't bother to bring up bigger questions about them. Like where they came from, or what their function is. Prometheus, a direct prequel to Alien, and one that largely ignores the events of the previous two Alien films, contains none of the same creatures, and takes us back to the original source of the creatures in the first film. Namely, the craft where the leathery eggs first appeared. We learn, a little bit more explicitly, the function of these crafts, and who built them, although we get no sense as to why. I like that: Prometheus, in a canonical sense, answers some questions we had about the series, but does it in such a fashion that it brings up new, bigger questions. This is the ideal way to make any sequel.
It also ties in with the grand themes of the movie, which brings up the function of the quest for knowledge, matters of religious faith, and seems to possess no small amount of awe and mystery. After a long series of action films and tragedies, the original auteur behind the original film returns to make something that, finally, makes space seem vast and grand. Prometheus is a film with large ideas.
It's also a pretty scary movie. The first Alien was, if you'll recall, something of a horror movie. It wasn't until Aliens that the series became associated with action and machismo. Prometheus, along the same lines as the original, moves slowly, and is about the slow discovery of inscrutable and strange things on an alien world. The characters are not gung-ho badasses, but frightened scientists on a mission of discovery. They think they may have found an origin to life on Earth. The audience knows they'll eventually find something dark and perhaps horrific, but Prometheus doesn't bank on it, or elicit suspense from the eventual massacre. It unfolds in a fascinating way.
The story: A series of cave painting found throughout Earth in AD 2089 leads to a 2093 mission of scientists to a planet called Zeta 2 Reticuli. To orient you, Alien took place in 2122. The mission is being led by the skittish Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who is thrilled to find origins of life. She is dating a fellow named Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) who pokes at her faith. The ship, named the “Prometheus,”is captained by a guy named Janke (Idris Elba), who starts out a working-class man, but will eventually realize the grandeur of the things around him. The Weyland company is represented by the icy and remote Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron), who lives in a posh condo-like room aboard the ship. As the crew sleeps in hypersleep (remember hypersleep?), the ship is looked after by the calm and slightly terrifying android David (Michael Fassbender), who has been catching up on his old movies, and who is particularly obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia.
Seriously. Some spoilers.
When they arrive at their destination, they find a mysterious structure, abandoned, and containing a breathable atmosphere. Hmm… they map the place (and I like the flying mapping robots) and discover the corpses of some white-skinned nine-foot-tall alien beings who have the exact same DNA as humans. The structure also contains thousands of amphorae that eventually begin bleeding a black ooze, as well as some dangerous eel-like things. What's going on here? David seems to know something, and we see him wandering off down corridors and activating machines by himself. Eventually, as in Alien, a character will become impregnated by a creature, although this is not the same creature as in Alien. This is decidedly different. They do incubate inside people like in the other films, but these creatures are squid-like rather than cockroachian. There's a rather wrenching and gross scene wherein said character must use a medical machine to remove the creature from their body.
The corridors, by the way, are of H.R. Giger's original designs from the 1979 film, and fans of the series will recognize the interiors as the original spaceship carrying the alien eggs. It turns out the giant white beings are alive, and have a sinister plan of inscrutable origin for the ships carrying dangerous killer creatures. Hm… I don't want to give too much more away, as the surprises are shocking and awesome.
The film ends on a melancholy but determined note, and, like I said, brings in question the very notion of the pursuit of knowledge. It's grandiose in a way few sci-fi films are, and a way I adored.
Not everything about Prometheus is perfect. There's a subplot, for instance, about Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in age makeup) who has funded the mission for unknown reasons, and whose small storyline closely resembles that of Lance Henrickson's in Alien vs. Predator. This storyline makes sense, I suppose, but it's largely unneeded.
The ships are cavernous and cool-looking. After so many films of dwindling budgets and ideas, how grand, how awesome, that we should be treated to Prometheus. It's a great film.
The Alien series went from a) horror to b) action to c) tragedy to 4) bonkers to 5) grand. And while the tone was a bit dour throughout, the series about strong women fighting odd penis-shaped monsters (oh yes, there was a lot of sexual imagery) managed to end on a high and hopeful note. And by answering questions in a prequel, Scott seems to have been smart about tying off the series entirely. I will be fine if there are no more Alien movies. We have two great ones, one kick-ass one, and two that, despite their problems, are still interesting to look at. On average, we're way ahead.
The Predator series, about burly men fighting off monsters with vaginas on their faces, was far less ambitious, opting instead for a series of nice action flicks rather than anything profound. In the first movie, the creature was strange. Odd that the creature should become a badass icon in itself. I guess we never saw the creatures doing anything other than causing violence. The first Predator was cool and ultra-masculine, and the two follow-ups weren't bad either, and also had their share of male posturing. On average, they're pretty good.
The crossover movies were just fanboy service. No mystery, and not a lot of maleness. They were low-budget excuses to see the monsters on screen together, and never mind the narrative calisthenics needed to get them together. And while fanboy service can be fun, and fans can love a good effort (see: The Avengers), more often than not it feels like placating. In many ways, these imaginary fights are more fun in our heads. Fan fiction of Freddy fighting Jason is more fun to read than the actual movie. As much fun as it is to discuss James Bond squaring off against Indiana Jones, I don't ever want to see a movie with both of them in it. Alien vs. Predator is more fun as an intellectual exercise than it was a movie.
Between the two series, and their crossovers, though, the Alien/Predator movies actually have something for every sci-fi fan out there. Really. It's amazing how holistic they are. If you're a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek: The Motion Picture, you might like Alien and Prometheus. If you like Robocop, you'll like Predator 2. If you like The Terminator, you'll love Aliens. Mystery, monsters and bullets. It's why we go to the movies. The only sci-fi subgenre neither of the series covered was the Space Nudie. This may be the only time I ever type this sentence, but in the case of Alien and Predator, it's true: breasts were not required.