Review: Alien vs. Predator (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004)

Review: Alien vs. Predator (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004) August 16, 2004

Homer Simpson once declared that alcohol was the source of, and the solution to, all his problems. 20th Century Fox might have something similar to say about diehard fans of the Alien and Predator franchises, who have waited 15 years to see these sci-fi beasts duke it out onscreen, ever since the two biggest space monsters of the Reagan era were first pitted against each other in a Dark Horse comic book. Frustrated by all the delays, hardcore Alien and Predator fans have stirred up some pretty bad buzz over Alien vs. Predator, yet they are also the most likely to brave the bad buzz and check the film out for themselves.

The reason for all the bad buzz? First, fans were put off by the news that, while earlier films in the Alien series were directed by stylish innovators and technical wizards like Ridley Scott, James Cameron and David Fincher, this new film was assigned to Paul W.S. Anderson, whose best-known films to date, Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, are little more than cheesy video-game flicks. Then, fans were annoyed to learn that this film would tone down the violence — and presumably dumb down the political, sexual and philosophical subtexts of the earlier films — in order to earn a teen-friendly PG-13 rating, whereas all four Alien films and both Predator movies had been intended for adults and were given hard R ratings. And finally, the studio refused to show the film to critics before it opened last Friday, which is usually a sign that the film in question is going to stink.

Fortunately, entering a movie with low expectations sometimes makes for a better viewing experience. Alien vs. Predator is certainly not the worst movie to come out this summer — I would argue that Thunderbirds and Van Helsing were duller and more exhausting to sit through — and there are times when the new film pays just enough respect to its source material that you can almost taste the good movie that it might have been.

To bring these two franchises together, one has to somehow address the fact that the Alien films have a somewhat female identity and tend to deal primarily with feminine issues — maternal instincts, the fear of rape — while the Predator films reflect a more macho emphasis on killing for sport and being initiated into a warrior culture. The film version of Alien vs. Predator, like the original comic book, unites these sensibilities to some degree by telling the story of a woman who fights to save herself from the Aliens and, in doing so, wins the respect of the Predators.

The woman in question is Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), an intrepid mountaineer who takes satellite phone calls even when she’s dangling from an icy cliff. Alexa is one of several explorers hired by a billionaire named Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) to explore a vast, ancient pyramid with a huge, modern-style power source that his satellites have discovered under the ice in Antarctica. (“Weyland” is the name of the evil “company” that will make life difficult for Ripley years later in the Alien films, and “Bishop” is the name of the good android that Henriksen played in two of those films.) In this pyramid, the explorers discover a sacrificial chamber, where human victims used to be “impregnated” with Alien embryos every hundred years so that the Predators could begin their ritual hunt (it’s confusing; you’ll have to see the film to fully understand). And amidst the runes, symbols, and artifacts, Weyland’s team finds some rather high-tech weaponry, which prompts one man to exclaim, “This is like finding Moses’ DVD collection!”

Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, it happens to have been a hundred years since the last time the Predators visited Earth, so they must be on their way right now, and they must be preparing to thaw out the Alien Queen so that she can pop out a few more eggs and claim the humans as hosts for her children. Let the hunt resume!

Much of what follows is fairly silly, and the laughability of the film is amplified by Anderson’s video-game sensibility. The Aliens in the original films were dark and scary, always lurking in shadows or attacking their victims with lightning-fast speed, but occasionally, when a creature leaps at someone in this film, Anderson switches to slow-motion in mid-shot, thus killing what should be the terror and mystery of the moment so that he can bask in his special effects. The dialogue is also full of howlers, many of which are delivered by Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova), an Italian archaeologist whose statements tend to be embarrassingly obvious (“He’s marking himself,” he says after we see a Predator mark himself) or drawn out for embarrassingly dramatic effect (“The enemy … of my enemy … is my friend”); he also gets to explain such cheesy plot points as the fact that the pyramid’s walls and floors reconfigure themselves for no good reason “every ten minutes.”

But there are moments in this film that are pretty cool; there is a fanboy inventiveness to certain fight scenes that is impossible not to admire, such as the one where a Predator cuts off the end of an Alien’s tail and the Alien retaliates by swinging its tail and splashing everything in sight, including the Predator, with its acidic blood. And speaking as a fan of the first two Alien films, I must say that, given that the Alien franchise had become something of a joke by the time Alien Resurrection (1997) came along, and given that the original Predator (1987) was not all that different from the other gung-ho testosterone-pumped B-movies that Arnold Schwarzenegger churned out in the late 1980s, I think it’s too late to complain that a film in either of these franchises cannot be taken all that seriously.

The real problem is that Lathan, as the woman who eventually bonds with the Predators, is pretty boring; she lacks Sigourney Weaver’s strength and emotional complexity, and she lacks Schwarzenegger’s vigorous charisma. She’s easily outshone by Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner, who plays a bit of Alien bait who’s always talking about his children, and by Henriksen, who is not the heartless jerk that businessmen tend to be in these films but is actually rather human. But the film never knows what to do with these characters, and it lets them go in a disappointing fashion. So in the end, we are left with a dull woman who is surrounded by puppets and voiceless actors covered in prosthetics — and it’s never a good sign when the special effects give more memorable performances than the hero.

1.5 stars (out of 4)

Talk About It
Discussion starters

1. Why do you think the Predators treat some humans as prey while treating other humans as potential fellow hunters? How do you think Predators justify their inconsistent approach to what we might call “life issues”? Are there any parallels to this inconsistency in our own culture?

2. Some people would say there is a moral difference between Aliens, who are basically giant insects following their nature, and Predators, who are obviously intelligent creatures with some sort of moral, ethical or cultural code. Do you agree? Why or why not?

3. Is it possible that, if we found life on other planets (or if such life found us), those other species might bear the “image of God”? How would we tell?

The Family Corner
For parents to consider

Alien vs. Predator is rated PG-13 “for violence, language, horror images, slime and gore.” There is a fair bit of shooting and slashing, but most of the onscreen violence is between the space monsters (a Predator slashes an Alien’s head in two, a baby Alien bursts from a Predator’s chest, etc.), while the violence against humans tends to be suggested or kept offscreen. Similarly, most of the blood we see comes not from humans but from Aliens (and is therefore acidic) or Predators (and is therefore phosphorescent green). There is also some profanity, including one use of the F-word.

— A version of this review first appeared at Christianity Today Movies.

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