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When an Alien Jumps a Shark, Who Wins?



There's a scene in Predator 2 (1990) in which the police detective played by Danny Glover rummages through the trophies of the man-killing, invisibility-cloaked hunter from space and pauses over the elongated skull of one of the beasties from the Alien franchise. I remember this only because it's pretty much the high point of that lackluster sequel to the high-functioning 1987 flick starring future governors Schwarzenegger and Ventura. For my money that brief gag sucked all the juice there was to be had out of the premise of a grudge match between the two species of extraterrestrial baddies, but then again I have no money. Aliens and Predators, it turns out, have been scrapping away very profitably for over a decade in a variety of media, including comic books, trading cards, and a series of computer games that date back to 1993 and are very well regarded among connoisseurs of the first-person-shooter genre. There obviously exists a substantial demographic for whom this movie is long overdue. I wonder if they'll like it.

I've been hearing lately that motion pictures and computer games are poised to merge into a single medium. If that's truly the case, then English director Paul W.S. Anderson stands a fair chance of entering the history books as a key transitional figure. Two of Anderson's films (Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil) were based on successful games, and the rest of what he's done for Hollywood has either spawned a new game (Soldier) or seems like it could have (Event Horizon). Some critics have praised Anderson's skill at conjuring spooky atmospheres, but I don't see anything that differentiates him from a dozen other journeymen working in a CGI-intensive action vein.

The central challenge of a project like Alien vs. Predator is, of course, finding some halfway plausible pretext for the main event: how do we maneuver Freddy and Jason (or Superman and Spider-Man, or Jesus and Mothra) into a common narrative space? The screenwriters—Anderson, Dan O'Bannon (Alien), and Ronald Shusett (Freejack)—have flagrantly blown off this part of the job. The paltry setup they offer takes place on earth, in the present, and begins with a satellite detecting a mysterious pyramid buried beneath the ice in Antarctica. (Archaeologists studying 3-D computer scans of the structure declare it to possess "Aztec, Egyptian, and Cambodian" traits, but I thought I discerned a smidgen of Moorish influence too.) Said satellite belongs to billionaire robotics manufacturer Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen), who quickly assembles an expeditionary force of scientists and mercenaries, led by a comely young lady mountaineer (Sanaa Lathan). The pyramid, the group discovers, is like an ant farm full of Aliens, maintained by the Predators, who, once a century, send their young bucks inside to test their mettle against the big bugs. The humans have been lured to the spot to serve as hosts for gut-busting Alien hatchlings. As if to maximize the randomness of the action, the pyramid itself is perpetually on the move, reconfiguring its own floor plan every ten minutes.

An odd feature of this farrago of a plot is the way it manages to muddy and degrade the narrative integrity of both originals. In Alien, for example, the commercial vessel Nostromo has—unbeknownst to its crew—been sent into deep space by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (yes, it's the very same Weyland) to bring back an Alien. Nowhere in the movie does anyone discuss the cost of space travel, but given that the Nostromo's crew is doing the suspended-animation thing, we can be sure this is at very least a time-consuming project. AVP, on the other hand, establishes that the corporation's known for aeons that the very same varmints are available right here on earth, and that a prime specimen of a queen is probably hibernating at the bottom of the ocean just off the antarctic coast. Why, you have to wonder, would Weyland-Yutani's shareholders tolerate such profligate mismanagement?

AVP has even worse implications for Predator. As far as we knew from that film, the extraterrestrial huntsman stalking Schwarzenegger and company was the biggest badass of his race. But if the hunting grounds that made earth famous are stocked with scary Aliens, then the guy bagging mere humans in the jungle starts to look like something of a pussy. Maybe he's the alien counterpart to George W. Bush: when he learns he's been scheduled for the pyramid, he uses his daddy's connections to get reassigned to softer hairless-monkey duty.

(While waiting for AVP's body count to run its course, I occupied myself with working out what I think is a better framework for getting the A's and the P's together: thousands of years into the future humankind has colonized and suburbanized the entire galaxy; Aliens and Predators are now captive species that we pit against one another in gladiatorial contests held on a Vegas-like planet of gambling and debauchery. When members of PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Aliens—disrupt the games, the monsters break loose and kill everybody. The end.)

Of course, the crap story line wouldn't really matter if AVP delivered $9 worth of thrills, chills, or laughs, but it doesn't. A few bits of business involving the moving walls gave my pulse a boost, but the rest is dead boring. The dialogue is excruciating, the action arbitrary, and the isolated stabs at humor—including a good deal of mugging and big-eyed boggling from Ewen Bremner in the thankless role of a comic Scotsman—are leaden. The Aliens themselves, so terrifying in the original, have been diminished by too many sequels, each about half as good as the last. Their messy reproductive cycle has lost all its mystery. That spring-loaded jaw-within-a-jaw thingie is starting to look kind of silly, like a stapler made of cartilage and snot. And the inconsistency with which Alien blood burns through metal and stone can no longer be excused.

The Predators have suffered fewer bad sequels, but by the end of this one their public image is basically in tatters: it turns out they're sentimental lummoxes capable of forming bonds of mutual respect and reliance with humans.

An early scene in the movie includes a gag shot of some satellite technicians watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man on TV. I guess this was supposed to be preemptively disarming, but it's pretty nervy of Anderson to invite comparisons of this expensive claptrap to that humble, honest little picture.

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