Much derided by most people, for me Alien vs Predator is half a guilty pleasure. By which I mean that I always really enjoy the first half and think, “This has really got something”; only to end up dismayed by the second half.
Let’s start with the good: there’s a solid premise to the whole thing with its ‘training ritual’ concept. The opening sequences have a nice, slow pace to them as an anomaly is detected in the Antarctic and a billionaire industrialist (Lance Henriksen as future synthetic, Charles Bishop Weyland) assembles a motley team of science, mining and military experts to investigate. Right through to the early scenes of the team exploring the hybrid pyramid that they find deep under the ice beneath an eerie deserted whaling station, the film has a lovely sense of pace and atmosphere as things slowly start to build up. The special effects (both practical and CGI), production and set design are all outstanding and look dazzling in this top-notch Blu-Ray transfer from Fox, and there’s plenty to marvel at.
There are even some decent character moments for the assembled team, although in truth only four really get any attention (Sanaa Lathan as goody two-shoes guide Lex, Raoul Bova as badly dubbed archeologist Sebastian, Ewen Bremner as the comedy relief engineer Graeme, and of course Henriksen as Weyland.) If the rest – including the ever-charismatic but sadly underused Colin Salmon – barely make an impression before becoming alien incubators, then it’s still as good a showing in making an interesting ensemble as the derailed and deranged Alien 3 and the surreal black humour grotesques of Alien Resurrection managed.
Unfortunately, things fall apart rapidly once the titular aliens and predators show up. It’s not that they’re badly handled or rendered – on the contrary, they look and sound top-notch. But it’s as if the director Paul W.S. Anderson is so enamoured of the shiny new toys he’s been given that he simply isn’t interested in reading the instruction manual before rushing outside to throw them all around. So there’s lots of new takes on iconic moments such as the predator’s point of view shot, the gutteral ‘clicking’ sound, the aliens dripping in gooey slime and their lip quivering before the inner mouth extends out to dispatch their latest victim; but no sense that Anderson has the slightest understanding of how the lore of the fictional universes he’s playing with actually works. How else to explain why one alien victim gives ‘birth’ to a creature about 60 seconds after infestation – so abbreviated that it’s a genuine insult to Ridley Scott’s original 1979 scene with John Hurt – while others seem to linger for hours in the larder? It’s because the action sequences that follow demand it, and that’s the end of it.
The writing breaks down completely after this: it’s hard not to suggest that the pyramid complex’s random reshaping every ten minutes isn’t some sort of mocking metaphor for the lack of any structure to the film itself. Certainly, the pyramid’s internal reconfigurations mean that anytime the film needs something to happen it can just cut to another reshuffling of brick walls rather than have to actually think about logical plot development.
Unfortunately Anderson is one of those directors who is great at putting together the individual spectacular slow-motion shot to have your jaw briefly dropping open, but actually very poor at representing on-screen action in a coherent, understandable manner. Once the action gets kinetic it simply becomes a lot of sound and fury signifying very little. To be fair, he’s not helped by his protagonists being one set of identical monsters facing off against another set, which makes keeping track difficult even for the best storytellers; and it’s also possible that like other directors in the franchise before him, he had his hands tied by studio executives in what he wanted to do and how much he could show on screen.
Less forgiveable is the way that the film bungles and underplays the entrances and exits of several of the key characters; it’s as though the film can’t wait to clear away the ‘distractions’ and get down to what must be the unlikeliest action buddy film of all time as predator and human unite to take on their common foe. But this proves less satisfying than it probably sounded in the story planning meetings, and then they can’t wait to blow the place up and get out, have the mandatory reprise face-off with the queen, and then wrap the film up as quickly as possible and be done with it, with one last painfully risible “twist” in the last scene that’s the biggest laugh of the entire po-faced film.
It really is a shame, because there’s much to like about the first half of the film. It’s never going to be a great film – it’s far too generic an action/monster B-movie to be anything close to the original Alien or Aliens classics. But considering the problems of some of the other films in the franchise and of those that followed – let’s face it, even Ridley Scott’s own encore entry with Prometheus showed how difficult it is to successfully follow up the first two films – this stood a chance of at least standing on the second tier of the franchise entries.
Until the latter half, that is. At which point, to steal the film’s own advertising strapline as the final summation of the situation: “Whoever wins, we lose.” Sadly, in this case that’s just how it ended up.