Prometheus is coming. It sounds so dramatic when I say it like that, a mixture of myth and anticipation that turns what is essentially just another summer movie into something magical. I might as well whisper about unicorns lurking in the woods or monsters under the bed. Sadly, Prometheus is probably not that special, but it is a surprising possible entry into a series that deserves some attention: the Alien movies.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the entire Alien quadrilogy, despite the merits of each individual film (or the films compared against each other). It is a rare franchise that had four entries by young directors, all of whom went on to do frankly amazing later work. All four are visually and tonally distinct, taking the core concept in wild, interesting directions with each new installment. Not only that, they’re all fairly worthy of examination. Love or hate the twists and turns of the series, it would be a very short-sighted person who didn’t recognize that the Alien movies make up a singularly unique franchise: one that until now has never gone back to the well.
So over the past few weeks I’ve tried to do my best to provide some thematic context for the Alien movies, particularly since I feel the upcoming Prometheus is going to only relate to those movies in terms of themes and tone, and not any sort of concrete details. It’s been fun, even if watching every movie twice for alternate cuts was something of a giant sinkhole into which I threw all my time. But now that that’s over? I figured I might as well go all the way and cover the other alien movies. You know the ones. The ones we wish didn’t exist. The really, unarguably bad ones. The vs. Predator ones. I’m sorry for subjecting you to remembering them in advance.
Alien vs Predator (2004)
The idea of pairing aliens and predators into an elaborate fight to the death isn’t a new one: interesting ideas had been dead since at least late 1989 when the first Alien vs Predator comics were published and put the idea firmly in the minds of genre fans everywhere. It didn’t help that Predator 2 went and teased the idea with an alien skull left in the background of a shot, either. And it’s kind of a natural, of stupid, idea: the only two franchised alien creature films showing up and throwing down over who is the more powerful? That’s the kind of stuff kids talk about endlessly, the source of hours of deep thought and lunchroom fisticuffs.
So a movie version was a natural extension of that, especially since Fox had been sitting on the idea since the early 90s, and as it became increasingly obvious the Alien films (and the Predator ones, too, I suppose) weren’t exactly going to be coming back anytime soon, they went ahead with developing the idea. Genre fan and successful B-movie director Paul W S Anderson, who usually manages to make money even if he doesn’t make good movies, had been thinking about what he’d do for his vision for years, and his pitch (which probably revolved around how much money they’d make) netting him the job of making the idea real.
His result is a movie that is firmly mediocre, a film that feels like the fifth entry into a franchise in just how creatively bereft of new ideas it is. It concerns the rich and influential Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henrikson, who has never ever said no to any role, so I’m not going to blame him), who discovers a heat signature deep underneath the antarctic ice and gathers a motley team of explorers to go explore it. Weyland, ailing and looking to establish a legacy, ends up stumbling upon an ancient pyramid that predates those of the Egyptians and Mayans. It also just so happens to be a Predator beacon and training ground.
You see, the idea is that every hundred years or so the Predators, who were once worshiped on Earth as gods, would land on backwater planets and sacrifice the indigenous peoples to xenomorph facehuggers they kept around to breed adult aliens, which the Predators would then use as ritual beasts for their adolescent members to hunt as a sort of right of passage. And if the Predators couldn’t cut it? They’d nuke the entire area, preventing Alien infestation and wiping out civilizations in an instant (the insinuation is this is what happened to some of Earth’s historically mysterious cultures).
Anyway, it just so happens that Weyland and his team, including their guide Alexa (Sanaa Lathan) show up to the automated summons just as a Predator ship arrives in orbit. Their investigations not only manage to wake up the xenomorphs, but they manage to find and confiscate the ritual shoulder guns the Predators were supposed to use to fight the xenomorphs, triggering the seal on the temple that locks all the humans and three Predators in. With part of the team stranded in the egg chamber, it’s only a matter of time before a bunch of xenomorphs are running around, and the body count starts rising rapidly.
The problems here are pretty readily apparent: this is a movie that’s sold on a very simple premise but ends up focusing on a group of humans that basically don’t matter. Outside of Weyland and Alexa, everyone else is entirely forgettable and expendable, and a lot of time is spent giving everyone backstories just to have them predictably killed off. In fact, the part where Aliens fight Predators is a small part of the film, a handful of scenes that don’t even start until nearly halfway into the movie. Instead, we get an also-ran set of horror victims that no amount of competent filmmaking could save.
And that’s really the big problem with Alien vs Predator: I don’t think it’s a terrible movie. Is it bad? Yes, but mostly in contrast to the franchises it represents. It’s competently shot, and there’s a reliance on mostly practical effects that really grounds the creature stuff in believability. It’s a dumb, action-heavy believability, but there are some genuinely cool bits, especially as the Predators begin to unleash their array of exotic weaponry (including a steel net that cribs almost an exact same slicing beat from Anderson’s Resident Evil) and Alexa becomes a ridiculous Alien-armored battle warrior. It’s the kind of schlocky stuff that Anderson does best (probably the only thing he’s particularly good at) and it mostly works for him.
The problems, then, are all mostly conceptual. The story not only focuses too much on too lame a group of humans, but it’s heavily weighted in terms of the Predators. They’re the instigators of everything, the bad ass heroes who show up to save the day, and the ultimate protagonists of the movie. This annoys me on multiple levels, the first of which is that is basically casts the xenomorphs as dumb beasts the Predators breed and play with for their violent amusement, and the movie does little to dissuade that idea, even managing to turn the alien queen into a big, stupid raging bull set piece.
But even more fundamental than that, if the Predators are the good guys, why aren’t they the main characters? They don’t speak, they don’t have names, and they mostly just show up at opportune moments of the plot when the humans are doomed. Would it have been more ridiculous to have named, speaking Predators talking in some crazy Predator language (that would probably get turned to English instead of subtitled, I’m not that crazy)? Yeah, sure. But you’ve already got a movie about two famous alien races fighting each other, I see no reason to pull punches now. Who goes into these movies saying “Well, I don’t like Aliens OR Predators, but I hope to see some good acting and character bits?” I would assume nobody.
Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007)
Apparently I assumed wrong, because the first Alien vs Predator made over $150 million at the box office, ensuring that they’d poop out another one. And boy did they ever. Deciding to jettison Paul W S Anderson (who undoubtedly was off continuing his Milla Jovovich vs Zombies operatic cycle) they hired first-time directors Greg and Colin Strause. These brothers were special effects guys on a bunch of middling-to-okay 90s and early 00s action films, and later went on to direct the groundbreakingly bad Skyline, so you can imagine how this is going to go.
I want to be short with this one, because this article is running long but also because this movie is poop from a butt. No, seriously, it’s gross and awful in all the worst ways. I don’t particularly like Alien vs Predator, but Requiem makes it look like high cinema in comparison. Maybe it’s the meandering set of human characters, or the utter disregard for any of the parts of both franchises, or the low-budget, CG heavy approach to the film that makes it come off looking like a SyFy original movie. Whatever it is, Requiem is a rancid film, and I wouldn’t even recommend it to people who (stupidly,) like me, insist on watching it for completion’s sake.
Picking up where the last film ended, the last Predator initiate from the first film is taken away by his Predator brethren, only to burst an Alien/Predator hybrid on board and cause chaos that crashes the ship on Earth. The Predalien (apparently the official term?) ends up in the American southwest somewhere, and starts being a total murdering jerk while a lone Predator observer comes to Earth to hunt it down before it can cause the end of humanity or something. I don’t know. The motivations are dim.
The problems with this movie are many, but in reality it boils down to one simple fact: nobody involved gave a single shit about these creatures and their legacies. The movie plays out like a simple slasher, with a bunch of really insufferable, poorly acted humans getting involved in a bunch of Z-grade melodrama before they’re killed off one by one. And not even in a good, fun way: the movie is rife with CG heavy kills, many of them too dark or too poorly shot to be interesting even from an effects or gorehound perspective. Though that’s not surprising, given that the film is a nightmare of post-processing. Every color is too dark and too saturated, making the movie look like your TV has poorly adjusted color. It reminds me of watching movies on my grandmother’s old wood paneled CRT, a monstrosity bigger than a man and as old than I am now even in the 90s.
And mechanical complaints aside, the main creature simply doesn’t work. The Predalien is a stupid costume, a giant hulking thing that is more silly than threatening, managing none of the Predator’s macho menace and none of the Alien’s Giger animal mystery. And it absolutely negates every worthwhile thing about xenomorphs by bypassing their entire egg > facehugger > chestburster cycle by simplying conveniencing them away. Instead, the Predalien goes around implanting chestbursters directly into the wombs of pregnant women (how is never explained) which then burst out in a tangled mess.
Not only is that dumb escalation of the idea, but it takes away all the creepiest, most enjoyable body horror aspects of the xenomorphs. I really do feel the facehuggers are key to the experience, and replacing them with a giant rape monster is the laziest choice. And replacing it with a bunch of really, terribly poor CG chestbursters is the final slap in the face. They can’t even be bothered to do the minimal creature work right, how can anyone expect to care about anything else their movie is supposedly aiming to tackle?
The one interesting bit, before I give up in disgust, is that technically I suppose Requiem is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a Prometheus prequel. At the end of the movie, with the Predalien and the Predator dead, all that’s left is the one Predator gun that has been going around the whole movie, passing from character to character. It’s brought to a woman identified as a Ms. Yutani, supposedly of future Weyland-Yutani mergers. So now we know the secret as to why Guy Pearce wants to go into space in the first place: Predator gun. And you thought Prometheus was going to be where mysteries were solved. Nope, Requiem‘s already got you covered.