Thursday, September 30, 2004

Alien vs. Predator / * (2004)

The creature in John McTiernan's "Predator" was a hunter for sport, preying on anything and anyone with the chutzpah to put up a commendable fight, but to see "Alien vs. Predator" tell it, they were also revered as Gods by ancient Earth civilizations, and were directly responsible for teaching our ancestors how to build great structures like the pyramids. Quite remarkable, if you think about it - in one fell swoop, a screenplay not only manages to build back-story on a famous movie villain, but also solve one of the biggest mysteries of our planet's historical past. If you think that's amazing, then just imagine the surprise of several of the movie's characters, who are recruited at the beginning of the film to be the first men and women to explore the ruins of a newly-discovered multi-cultural pyramid buried beneath hundreds of feet of ice in Antarctica. Some are ecstatic, others are bewildered; but none of them, needless to say, are aware that this hidden fortress is actually an active hunting ground for the Predators themselves, who revive it every hundred years and engage in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with humans as the puppets. How fortunate for the film to make this great discovery just as the fortress is being revived for another round of bloodshed.

This is not the viable focus or even the basic idea for another "Predator" vehicle, but rather a concept born from a video game in which the hunters face off against both humans and the creatures from the "Alien" franchise. Now those pixilated beast wars make the screen transition in what is perhaps the most insulting pool of cinematic ideas you will see all year: a ludicrous and second-rate mish-mash that abandons familiar values in exchange for synthetic action sequences that seem like they've been ripped from demo screens that play in the backdrop of a computer game. A fan of either the "Alien" or the "Predator" sagas would know better than to voluntarily observe a concept as ill-fated as this to begin with, but alas we are not living in times when such a notion is as widespread. We are co-existing amongst a generation of filmgoers who were never around to witness the sheer terror of Ridley Scott's first "Alien" film or get a twisted satisfaction from watching McTiernan's original "Predator" - the blatant assault on the viewer here seems less obvious to the target audience because they are not experts in the field of these notorious sci-fi villains.

I approach this premise with unflinching cynicism, not just because I love both individual franchises, but also because there is simply no other way to look at it. Inside, outside, top and bottom, "Alien vs. Predator" is a brainless, clueless concept. And it's not even a fun one, either - rather, it exudes the notion that its director/screenwriter put little thought or enthusiasm into each action sequence and visual effects shot. As the movie opens, we meet Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), a mountain climber, I guess, who has been contacted by the infamous Weyland and Yutani Corporation for a potential job opportunity: assisting in an underground expedition planned in Antarctica, where a vast pyramid buried beneath hundreds of feet of ice has been discovered. Such a finding isn't exactly accidental, either; in fact, the only reason anyone knows about it is because of heat detectors picking up hints of activity from down inside. What they don't realize at the time, of course, is that the pyramid's renewed activity is caused by the Predators, who have taken a preserved Alien queen off of ice down inside in preparation for their next big Earth-bound hunt. But how does a group of beasts like this actually get down to a pyramid buried beneath so much hard ice to begin with? Simple: they hover in their spacecraft over the proper location and zap the ice shelf with a laser so that it leaves a sizeable opening for them to get through. An idea for the plotline of "Aliens vs. Predator 2" - humans discover that these hunters also inhabited Atlantis, but the island sank into the sea when one of their own hit the wrong button in the control room of their space vessel.

That the movie spends so much energy on putting together this premise is quite ill-advised, because for the remaining hour of film, all you see are quick glimpses of dimwitted men and woman traipsing up and down dark corridors, calling each other's names and occasionally letting out a scream or two when they cross the path of a Predator or (heaven forbid) a vengeful Xenomorph. Those who actually survive long enough get to witness a little more, at least: the pyramid interiors changing and readjusting themselves every few minutes (making navigation quite problematic), and a "torture room" of sorts in which all the alien's eggs are laid and human victims cocooned in preparation for being hosts. I dare not bother to explain the complex biology of these things to the casual observer, either, because to do so would be to give the impression that this feature cares or depends on past histories for its thrills. Admittedly, though, the prospect of reading up on a long essay at some "Alien" series web site is a lot more enticing than coming up with the words to describe this time-wasting mess that is "Alien vs. Predator."

What is perhaps most discouraging about the picture (at least apart from most of the major narrative and visual shortcomings) is that it uselessly tosses around implication; that is, the suggestion that what you are seeing is directly related to events that may (or may not) have happened in the pre-existing films that have led to this merger. Lance Henriksen (better known as "Bishop" in the "Alien" films) even shows up here as the fearless leader of the Weyland and Yutani establishment, as if to suggest to certain viewers that the universe in which these films take place must be driven by either coincidence or just plain luck (what are the odds that an android can show up as a human being on two separate occasions in two seemingly different time periods?). Frankly, though, no one cares because the in-joke does not arise from an endeavor inspired enough to deserve a morsel of analysis. This thing is more like one of those excessive jokes without a punch line.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action (US); 2004; Rated PG-13 for violence, language, horror images, slime and gore; Running Time: 86 Minutes

Sanaa Lathan: Alexa Woods
Raoul Bova: Sebastian de Rosa
Lance Henriksen: Charles Bishop Weyland
Ewen Bremner: Graeme Miller
Colin Salmon: Maxwell Stafford
Tommy Flanagan: Mark Verheiden
Joseph Rye: Joe Connors

Produced by Gordon Carroll, John Davis, David Giler, Wyck Godfrey, Lawrence Gordon, Thomas M. Hammel, Walter Hill, David Minkowski, Henning Molfenter, Mike Richardson, Matthew Stillman and Chris Symes; Directed and written by Paul W.S. Anderson

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