Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review Double Feature: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Another double feature review, this time of the two Alien vs. Predator films. Neither enjoys all that great a reputation, but has either one improved with age?

(The answer for both: Nope.)

Alien vs. Predator (2004)

Rated PG-13 for violence, language, horror images, slime and gore

"Whoever wins... we lose." That tagline describes humanity in general, caught in the middle of a fight between two alien races that view them as nobodies at best and prey at worst, but it just as easily applies to anybody watching this film. How did this happen? Alien vs. Predator had great source material to draw on, two great horror movie monsters that left a huge impact after just two movies each (yes, Alien had more than one sequel, but both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are contentious at best), and a whole line of Alien vs. Predator books, comics, and video games from the '90s that could've been used as inspiration. Instead, we got an exceptionally bland action/horror movie that doesn't do justice to either of them, let alone both. It's dragged down by uninteresting human characters that the film spends far too much time focusing on, and not enough of the xenomorphs and the Predators doing their thing.

The film follows a human research team led by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen), the wealthy, aging head of Weyland Industries, exploring an ancient pyramid discovered beneath the ice of an island off the Antarctic coast. Unbeknownst to them, it's actually full of xenomorphs, big, ugly monsters with more teeth than the Osmonds who exist to eat, breed, and kill. Furthermore, the Predators have shown up. The Predators are a race of alien warriors who relish combat, hunting and fighting other species according to a strict code of honor, and have bred the xenomorphs in order to have a source of challenging prey for their hunts. Now, the humans are trapped in the crossfire between the xenomorphs and the Predators, and the dwindling party, led by their guide Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), fight to reach the surface, ultimately finding themselves forced into an alliance with a shrinking number of Predators as they seek to stop the xenomorphs from spreading beyond the island.

Having never read any of those AvP books or comics that I mentioned up there, I can't tell you if they're any good or not, but they've got to be better than what made it to the screen here, as the characters and writing are by far the film's greatest failings. While the backstory of the xenomorphs, the Predators, and their relationship was interesting, all of the human characters were thinly-written ripoffs of characters from the Alien or Predator movies. Lance Henriksen (a veteran of the series) as Weyland was the only person who didn't come out of this looking foolish, doing his best to give his character some motivation; he's a dying man who hopes to make this discovery his legacy, and he goes out in style. Woods, meanwhile, felt like a one-note "tough girl", a pale shadow of Ellen Ripley with muddy motivations for getting involved in the expedition in the first place, and despite Sanaa Lathan's best efforts she had virtually no personality. Early on, she's skeptical about going on the trip, as she doesn't have time to train the rest of the team to explore the frigid Antarctic wastes, but this is very quickly dropped with only a bare hand-wave about her deciding to stay after all. As for everyone else, the cast is so big that none of them get any development before getting butchered, no chance to build their relationships, no time to get us to give a damn about who lives and who dies. Apparently, the makers of this film approached Sigourney Weaver about making an appearance, but she took one look at the film and decided that it was probably gonna be garbage, and that appearing in it would've been a stain on her legacy. She was probably right.

What saves this film from being totally disposable is the action, the set design, and the special effects. I spoke at length in my review of Pompeii just what I think of Paul W. S. Anderson as an action filmmaker, but here, he wisely goes for a more claustrophobic feel like in his debut Event Horizon, the only film he ever made that I will call "good" without any qualifiers. The Antarctic pyramid is filled with tight, constantly-shifting corridors where you can never quite tell what's around the next corner, the screams of the exploration team's lost members off in the distance. It made the xenomorphs and the Predators feel like very real threats, with shades of what they were like at their best in their respective films. Even when Anderson was trying to imitate the action scenes of Aliens and Predator, he didn't make a total hash of it. Maybe he's just lost his touch over the years, but the xenomorph-on-Predator fights are miles better than the woefully-shot gladiator battles in Pompeii, even with the PG-13 rating. (There is an unrated version out there that apparently adds several minutes' worth of gore, but unfortunately, I only saw the theatrical cut.) The action here isn't great, but it's stylish and thrilling, so if you're just here to see the monsters get their brawl on, you'll get what you paid for.

Score: 2 out of 5

Unfortunately, good (if unspectacular) action and some interesting crossover ideas can't redeem the terrible writing used to try and bring those ideas to life. This is only for the diehard fans of both franchises; everyone else should just watch Aliens or Predator again.


So, that's the first movie out of the way. How's the sequel?

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Rated R for violence, gore and language (unrated version reviewed)

The first Alien vs. Predator movie was a disappointment, yes, but it wasn't the godawful atrocity that some Alien and Predator fans have made out to be. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, on the other hand, seems to have emerged as a dare, a response to the first film's critics, telling them "you thought AvP was bad? Wait 'til you see how far down we can really go!" Whereas the first film had merely boring human characters, the sequel has a main cast that's actively unlikable, and the solid action that redeemed the original is replaced with some of the worst-shot action sequences I've seen in a long time. Yes, the gore was nice, but I could get graphic sci-fi violence in many far superior action and horror films -- including from the two franchises that led to these films.

The film picks up right where the first one left off, with the last surviving Predator being picked up by his buddies and departing Earth. Unfortunately, he was infected with a xenomorph larva, and proceeds to give "birth" to it aboard the Predators' ship. The resulting "Pred-alien" (xenomorphs take on features of their hosts) matures rapidly and goes on a rampage aboard the ship, forcing them to return to Earth, whereupon they crash-land outside the small town of Gunnison, British Colum... sorry, Colorado. (The location scouts must have thought that the unmistakable greenery of the Pacific Northwest could double for the rugged brush of Colorado... it doesn't.) As the Pred-alien starts infesting the town with xenomorphs, another Predator, a "cleaner" of sorts who's nicknamed Wolf, comes to Earth to contain and cover up the infestation and prevent the humans from getting their hands on alien technology. Meanwhile, the townsfolk struggle to survive as they get caught in the crossfire between the xenomorphs and the Predator.

I'd list them here, but to be honest, the only one who really mattered was Kelly O'Brien (played by Reiko Aylesworth from 24), this film's version of Ripley. She's a military helicopter pilot on leave who's come home to visit her husband Tim and daughter Molly, in an obvious attempt to recreate the dynamic that Ripley and Newt had in Aliens. It actually works occasionally, and it keeps Kelly from being as one-note as Woods was in the first film, giving her a motivation beyond just "get the hell out of here". Sure, it does little interesting that wasn't already done with Ripley and Newt, but it's still better than any of the other characters get. Most of them are a bunch of dumb teenagers who seem to have wandered in from the set of the latest Final Destination movie, and whose sole purpose was clearly to get splattered. And to be honest, even the ones we were supposed to be rooting for grated on me enough that I couldn't wait for them to bite it. Their "CW teen drama" relationships and backstories were irritating as hell, taking away time that could've been dedicated to other characters like the sheriff and the ex-convict, who, in lieu of any real development, come off as one-note ciphers.

At least most of them died graphically. Whereas one of the biggest criticisms of the first movie was how it was edited down to get a PG-13 rating, here there is no such worry. This film is not shy with the gore, with chestbursters doing what they do best, the xenomorphs' acid blood making a mess of anyone unlucky enough to touch it, the Predator's laser cannons blowing people's heads off, and one especially disturbing scene in a hospital maternity ward. Requiem is gory to the level of an exploitation film or a Saw sequel, which makes it that much more puzzling why I could barely see any of it. The graphic violence isn't the only thing dark about this movie; it was also so poorly-lit that I couldn't make heads or tails of what was happening half the time. Most of the action scenes are just forms moving in the shadows and running into each other while loud shrieks and crashing noises give us barely any indication of who's hitting who at the moment. Paul W. S. Anderson, you're forgiven for every bad movie you've made, because if I was a producer, I'd have hired you for this film in a heartbeat over the hacks who directed this. The Strause Brothers' day job is apparently running a visual effects company, so they had no excuse for allowing such ugly action scenes to pass muster.

If I were to give this film credit for one thing, it would be the Predator. I didn't mention it in my review of the first film, but I will here: overall, I thought that the Predators came off looking pretty weak in that film. Between some mediocre makeup effects, the high rate at which they're dispatched by the xenomorphs, and a third-act twist where they're forced to team up with the humans in order to get out, they didn't feel like the ultimate hunters that they had been built up as, by both that film and by the original Predator movies. In Requiem, however, the Predator is as much a force of nature as the xenomorphs are, operating on Earth for reasons completely alien to us, and kicking our asses if we get in its way. It's smart, it's tough, and whenever it's on screen, you know shit's about to go down, even if you can't see a damn thing.

Score: 1 out of 5

This movie fixes very few of the first film's problems and introduces a whole raft of new ones. Easily the worst film in either the Alien or Predator franchises, and not recommended even for the super-fans.

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