Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien vs. Predator' (2004)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

Originally, I hadn't planned to include the two Alien vs. Predator movies in this look back at the Alien franchise -- to be honest, I had totally forgotten about them. But after my friend and fellow critic Jacob Tiranno of Chasing Cinema asked me whether I would be covering them, I realized that it only made sense not to leave them out. Theoretically, they take place within the continuity of the other movies, and they probably fit about as well as Prometheus does (which is to say, only if you allow for a bit of fudging of timelines). Alien vs. Predator even features a major role for Lance Henriksen as Charles Bishop Weyland, head of the corporation that would presumably eventually become the evil Weyland-Yutani, and presumably also the template for the later Bishop android (and also the ancestor of Henriksen's human character in Alien 3). It's a nice callback that unfortunately doesn't amount to much, and really Henriksen could have been traded out for any actor playing any generic rich industrialist.

That generic feel extends to the entire cast, which is led by Sanaa Lathan as an outdoor adventure guide recruited by Weyland to help explore a newly discovered ancient pyramid thousands of feet below the Antarctic ice. The typical team of experts and security personnel enters the pyramid only to discover that they've placed themselves in the middle of a centuries-old ritual combat between aliens and predators. Yes, director and co-writer Paul W.S. Anderson uses the meme-friendly "ancient aliens" theory to connect the aliens and predators to human history, and it's actually a pretty ingenious way of bringing the battle between two extraterrestrial species to present-day Earth. Anderson has said that he wanted to respect the franchise continuity, and since Ripley and her crew had never heard about the aliens in the far future, it makes sense to tie them to an easily discredited crackpot theory (and also to make sure that they all die by the end of the movie, along with all but one of the human characters who could report their existence to the outside world).

That's about all Anderson has to offer when it comes to big ideas, though, and once the characters end up inside the pyramid, the movie focuses entirely on action. Anderson has a weirdly dedicated following among a certain subset of cinephiles for his populist action movies, including the Resident Evil series, Pompeii and the cult classic Event Horizon, but I find most of his work pretty unremarkable, and even if he knows how to stage competent action scenes, he has very little skill for storytelling or dialogue or character development. The action scenes in AVP, especially once the title characters start fighting each other, are actually pretty solid, and the maze-like pyramid, with its constantly shifting corridors, is a decent setting for a movie about running and fighting. For viewers who just wanted to finally see the aliens and predators fight onscreen, this was probably good enough. (I said as much in my initial review, which was a bit more positive than my reaction upon rewatching the movie this week.)

Everything else is pretty weak, though. Lathan is an underrated actress, but her character is kind of a pale imitation of Ripley, the hyper-competent woman who ends up rallying her colleagues and figuring out how to defeat the monsters, even as everyone is dying around her. She gets one bit of back story, which is more than any of the other characters get, and the group dynamics don't have much time to develop before people start getting killed off. Henriksen's presence is the biggest missed opportunity, and his performance lacks the spark of his previous work as Bishop. Possibly my favorite thing in the movie is the background joke of characters watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man on TV -- in reference to James Cameron's derisive remarks about the prospect of this movie (although he later admitted to liking it). Taken in the spirit of that Universal monster schlock-fest, AVP is not a bad time.

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