Movie Review: AvP

“Well, it looked good on paper.” Have you ever heard that phrase used to describe something that sounded like a good idea, but didn’t quite live up to its potential when the idea was executed? Combat between the titular creatures from the Alien and Predator franchises has literally been looking good on paper for years. Comic book paper, that is. For more than a decade, Dark Horse Comics has turned some of the industry’s hottest talent toward numerous Alien vs. Predator one-shots and miniseries, with spectacular results. What’s not to love? The galaxy’s most perfect killing machines, being tracked and engaged in battle — and sometimes even bred for battle — by the galaxy’s most perfect hunters? Hollywood has long loved such match-ups; how many times did Dracula and the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster cross paths in the good old days of Universal’s first monster movies? Alien vs. Predator comics, cards and video games have been around for years. A movie was the next logical step.

Alien, from director Ridley Scott, combined smart science fiction with classic horror in 1979. It made Sigourney Weaver a star and Ellen Ripley an icon. But it was the 1986 sequel Aliens, directed by James Cameron, that really clicked with audiences. Aliens is one of the great horror films of all time. It’s one of the great science fiction films of all time. It’s one of the great action films of all time. No matter how you look at it, Aliens is as good as it gets. Dark Horse Comics soon released an Aliens comic book series that carried on the story of survivors Hicks and Newt. The fans loved it. But then David Fincher’s Alien 3 came out, and the very first thing it did was tell us that Hicks and Newt were dead. (Those original Aliens comics have since been released again in new “remastered” editions that changed the names of Hicks and Newt to other people. Totally asinine.) Alien 3 was a creepy film with a great creature (that was smaller and moved differently because it hatched out of a dog rather than a human) and an awesome supporting performance by Charles S. Dutton, but at the end Ripley killed herself (and the alien queen growing inside of her) and fans were left scratching their heads. Alien: Resurrection was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who apparently has some kind of liquid fetish because the aliens were always dripping and pus was always oozing and gross liquid was all over everything. But the film looked fantastic, and featured an amazing supporting cast (including Hellboy‘s Ron Perlman and Gary Dourdan from CSI). Even though the alien/human hybrid of the film’s finale looked ridiculous, the movie bolstered the action levels. (Buffy architect Joss Whedon wrote the script, which features a decent dose of dark humor.)

Predator came out in 1987, and I think a lot of you will agree that it’s quite possibly Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best film. Predator 2 doesn’t have as many fans, but I for one loved it. And it was during the finale of Predator 2 that the first seeds for an Alien vs. Predator showdown were sewn — as Danny Glover’s character searches for his predatory opponent in the buried spaceship, he comes across a trophy wall that includes … an Alien skull! It was the skull that launched a thousand imaginations, and the rest is history.

An Alien vs. Predator script was considered in the early 1990s but disappeared faster than Hudson’s nerve in Aliens. (“Game over, man! Game over!”) Fox opted instead to do Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, while a proposed Predator 3 by Robert Rodriguez never came to fruition.

And now, finally, we have AvP: Alien vs. Predator. Does it live up to the hype? No. Was it worth the wait? No. It looks rushed. It feels rushed. Like a lot of you, I’ve been itching to see an Alien vs. Predator film ever since my 15-year-old brain tried desperately to wrap itself around the implications of that Alien skull in Predator 2 all those years ago. This film, unfortunately, just doesn’t cut it.

AvP was written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. (Not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson, who did Boogie Nights and Magnolia.) Anderson directed the first Mortal Kombat, which remains a fun, stylish action film with cool martial arts and effects. Event Horizon had its creepy moments, Soldier was only so-so and Resident Evil (which Anderson also wrote) is a lot of fun for what it is. I promise that this isn’t an insult to Anderson, but I’m calling it like I see it; he bit off more than he could chew with this one. When the film franchises have been as dormant for as long as these two have been, and when both franchises have rich back-stories and well-loved comic incarnations and fans that are really going to be paying attention, you don’t approach such material lightly. You don’t just crap out a movie for the sake of crapping out a movie. And I’m not saying that Anderson crapped this thing out. I am saying that it happened too fast, and the result is unfortunately underwhelming.

AvP takes place in October of this year. A satellite owned by the Weyland corporation picks up a huge heat bloom under the ice of Antarctica. (The Weyland corporation, of course, is just half of what will eventually become the Weyland-Yutani corporation, which is better known in the Alien films as “The Company,” which is ruled by some bad, bad people.) Head honcho Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) — who played the android Bishop in Aliens and another Bishop (who was presumably an android?) in Alien 3 — assembles a crack team of scientists and adventurers to go below the ice and find out what’s going on down there.

Bishop, we have a problem. Think about the marines in Aliens. Hicks. Hudson. Vasquez. Apone. And Drake and Frost and Spunkmeyer and Gorman, etc. Every single one of those characters had a distinct identity that was defined almost immediately by several factors: good actors, a strong script and a director who was one hell of a storyteller. You knew who each character was and you liked them because each was so well defined. Let’s hop over to the first Predator. Dutch. Blain. Billy. Mac. Poncho. Hawkins. Dillon. Again, every member of that team had a distinct personality and function. Aliens and Predator knew how to create memorable individuals; AvP never figures it out.

In AvP, these world-class scientists are no more individual or interesting than random teens who get slaughtered in their sleeping bags by the likes of Freddy or Jason. It’s not the fault of the actors. They’re simply reduced to a bunch of faces that have little in common past proximity.

One actress does rise above the pack. The lead character here is Alexa Woods, played by Sanaa Lathan. She is absolutely beautiful. She’s tough. Lathan played Wesley’s doomed mother in Blade and has twice starred opposite Denzel. But the scripting and storytelling here rob Lathan of her chance to become another Ripley, and it’s a shame. I’d put the scene where Woods and Weyland are talking about his mortality and her father against any scene in any previous film from either franchise and I think it would hold its own. Unfortunately, it’s the only scene in the film with any kind of real emotional impact.

The team finds a pyramid beneath the ice, and half of them become hosts for Aliens that bust free to start killing the other half. And into the middle of this come the Predators, who set this into motion centuries ago. I won’t ruin the rest. There are some cool ideas, but plot holes galore sink the ship.

Poorly created characters are the first nail in the coffin. The other big problem here is the PG-13 rating. The previous Predator films had the hunters skinning their victims and ripping out their spines and blowing massive holes into heads and chests. The Alien films are famous for nasty little devils that burst out of your chest in a sick spray of blood and tissue before growing into monsters that use their inner-mouth apparatuses to knock holes through your skull or burn you to death with their acid blood if you’re (un)lucky enough to wound one. This film is devoid of any such brutality, even when the Predators and Aliens battle each other. You don’t see any of the good stuff that you’ve come to expect from these films. It’s as if the interest here is in selling popcorn to teenagers rather than creating something that’s worthy of following two powerhouse franchises. And finally, the creatures were not done by Stan Winston’s creature shop. The Aliens generally look fine, but the Predators seem too bulky and exaggerated. Though Predator actor Kevin Peter Hall was huge and powerful, he also possessed lean, mean grace and agility. These Predators seem like bodybuilders trapped under too much padding.

AvP has its moments, and it’s always fun to see these creatures in action on the big screen. But this film is just too weak and watered down in terms of action, scares and characters. Whatever comes next — be it an Alien film, a Predator film or another amalgam of the two — needs to remember that characters and story are the first and best elements of any good film. The best entries in the individual franchises knew this, and that’s why they make this film look weak in comparison.