[26 January 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Lance Henriksen: You know, this is my last go-round with the Alien.
Sanaa Lathan: You keep saying that, but you never know.
—Commentary, Alien vs. Predator
You want my advice? Stay on the boat.
—Alexa (Sanaa Lathan), Alien vs. Predator
“That’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman on the TV there.” Early on, Alien vs. Predator director/co-writer Paul W.S. Anderson spots one of his movie’s many tributes to its predecessors. Most of these details are inspired by Alien movies, as he informs his co-commentators, Sanaa Lathan and Lance Henriksen, who are, respectively, aghast and pleased to hear that he’s seen Ridley Scott’s original more than 100 times. “I can quote huge chunks of it,” Anderson says. At which point Lathan blurts, “Really? When do you see it? I mean, do you just go home right now and watch it?”
Such exchanges make this commentary track frank and charming, if not precisely informative. (This last function is left to a remarkably thorough second track, by visual effects supervisor Tom Bruno and creature make-up/effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, who talk about what they and others did for the project almost scene by scene: pleased with the first appearance of the Alien Queen, descending inside an Antarctic glacier, they observe, in turn: “That’s my favorite shot”; “That’s beautiful, all the ice on her”; “Yes, she’s a popsicle.”
Alternatively, Anderson and the actors tell production stories, compliment each other’s work (“YOU did great, Paul”) or note glitchy details (“There’s the [set] lights, reflected in Sanaa’s goggles,” Anderson says, but Henriksen laughs, “But you look cool!”), and recall the weather, comic-book-based storyline, and particulars of the shoot:
Lathan: “How much did it cost to make this movie?”
Henriksen: “We don’t talk about how much this one cost.”
Lathan: “But it’s on the internet, how much it cost.”
Anderson: “We did it at a very reasonable price.”
Later, Anderson breaks down some of the specific economics, noting that the sets—which do look tremendous, especially as translated to this DVD, which features colors and grades sharper than the theatrical version I saw—would have cost $20 million in L.A., $15 million in Vancouver, and only $2 million in Prague, for the same construction.
All that said (and the DVD includes other production-based extras, including a typically self-congratulatory making-of documentary, three deleted scenes, and an alternative, “extended” [by two minutes] version, with a different opening), the film’s look is only part of its obligation. As violent and derivative as its title suggests, AVP simultaneously meets and resists expectations, of comic book and video game fans, as well as viewers with any sense of mythic and cinematic history. As Anderson says, the claustrophobic spaces are designed to call up the Minotaur myth as well as the passageways in Alien and Aliens. “I’d always felt that what Cameron had done so successfully with Aliens, and it’s almost like an object lesson in how to make a sequel, is that he was following such a great movie, Ridley’s movie, that he did the sensible thing… he made a slightly different film… a big action movie as well as a scary movie, and he gave it humor as well.”
Anderson’s movie must contend with a few layers of sequels, integrating different tones and themes, citing, for instance, the nodding duck from Alien and the thermal vision from the Predator films, as well as the game dynamics, for which a group of characters follow a series of steps, dying off one by one until one survivor—with whom you are invited to identify, namely, the tough-as-nails mountain climber Alexa (Lathan)—makes a crazy escape (Lathan, while watching, is not so tough: “Eww that’s so gross,” she groans, admitting that she doesn’t “have the stomach for this stuff”).
While Anderson’s film sets up a fight between a couple of great movie monsters, it’s more interested in making weirdly compelling art of the whole business. Much like his earlier video game movies, this one is about strategy and head games, translated to stunning visual imagery (the attention paid to making seamless the distinctions between CGI and suit work is commendable). His Event Horizon (1997), Soldier (1998), and especially Resident Evil (2002) tend to treat the video game movie’s basic elements with commendable disrespect.
That’s not to say that AVP is entirely successful. But it does work a kind of cunning action and oddball characterization, especially with regard to the monsters: “I wanted to personalize the creatures in some way,” says Anderson. “The trouble with the Aliens is that they all look exactly the same.” And so, he named them and gave them particular kills, so you’d see one Alien as “the alpha Alien dog.” The humans are less interesting. Billionaire industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland (Henriksen, playing the man on whom the Bishop androids would be based) hires a motley crew to go to Antarctica, where they find a perplexing, heat-generating Cambodian-Egyptian-Aztec temple 2000 feet under the ice. Luckily, they’ve brought along someone who can read the hieroglyphics, Italian archaeologist Sebastian De Rosa (Raoul Bova), who essentially explains the plot, if only his fellow adventurers would listen. (The rest of the team is less attentive, reduced to standard slasher film victims, sent down into this slick, deep hole in the ice to be surprised and horrified by the monster below.)
Environmentalist and mountain climber Alexa is more like Ripley than her fellows, with a capacity for abstract thinking that proves very helpful once the narrative terrain is laid out. That is, the Predators, those eternally supreme and well-outfitted universal hunters, have set up a ritual for their young warriors, keeping an Alien Queen chained up in a big dark cage under Antarctica, in order to provide fresh crops of the ultimate prey every 100 years; they’ve apparently been doing this for centuries, and long ago, functioned as ancient gods for puny humans and left off some language and primitive technology for their worshippers to use (hence the Cambodian-Egyptian-Aztec writing and artifacts).
The heat Weyland’s researchers noted results from preparations for the Predators’ imminent arrival. The Alien-making process is remarkably speeded up here, with each stage allotted its own room, for instance, “sacrificial chamber” (the structure is remarkably elaborate and mobile, with ceilings and walls shifting every 10 minutes, rather like the scary place in Cube ). So, the expedition’s human victims—whose numbers include chemical engineer Miller (Ewan Bremner) and military types Stafford (Colin Salmon, Number One in Resident Evil) and Adele (Agathe De La Boulaye)—are summarily face-hugged, cocooned, and chest-exploded, all within minutes.
While AVP‘s opening was preceded by discussions about whether the Aliens or the Predators would “win,” the conclusion is rather foregone, given the film’s general adherence to the King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) model. Lizardy types just don’t generate the same kind of sympathy as monsters who appear to have more on their minds than slaughtering anything that crosses their path. The Predators have gizmos, slick helmets, wristwatch-nuclear devices, and dreadlocks. Even their de-helmeted faces, all slimy and toothy, retains a certain elasticity and expressiveness the Aliens can’t muster. While the film’s tagline holds true—“No matter who wins, we lose”—the underlying notion here, as it has been in both previous entries in the Predator franchise, is that the hunters are comprehensible. Like gamers, they measure their own prowess and keep track of their kills.
Just so, Alexa makes her own agreement with one of the Predators, named Scar (7’1” former basketball player Ian Whyte), who appreciates her nerve, her effort to communicate, and her grasp of the essential project—they have to destroy the Aliens. (She remembers too that more than once she had K-Y jelly in her mouth, owing to the drool, “the perfect amount of slime,” affected by each team of Alien-wranglers.) The film combines the heroes of the Alien flicks and Predator 2 in its smart, gutsy black girl hero, making it something of an anomaly—aside from Angela Bassett in Supernova, the pickings of black female SF heroes are slim).
Alexa’s partnership with Scar is expedient, but it has its own politics. Scar, so named in the movie’s credits for a mark on his face and a ritual he performs with her, recalls Cicatrix, the “Scar” of The Searchers (1956), one of the more complex Native American villains in U.S. movies. In AVP, villains and heroes become simultaneously concrete and abstract. They’re functions of the franchise, but also vaguely resistant, less transparent than they seem.