King of the video game movies, director Paul W.S. Anderson continues to meet and resist expectations with his latest, Alien vs. Predator. Taking its cue less from the movies that introduced its grisly stars than the games that guaranteed its semi-triumphant opening weekend (earning a “truly monstrous” $38,291,056, before plummeting to $12.5 million in the second week), the film features a game’s dynamics: a group of characters follow a series of steps, dying off one by one until one survivor — with whom you have been invited to identify from square one, namely, the lovely, tough-as-nails Alexa (Sanaa Lathan) — makes a crazy escape and the film ends, leaving open the possibility of Version 2.0.
That is, while it sets up a fight between a couple of great movie monsters, it’s actually less interested in the Aliens and Predators than the player moves necessary to avoid extinction, and, more importantly, making artsy murk of the whole business. That is, much like Anderson’s earlier video game movies, it is about strategy and skill. It’s about getting over. While one might contend that his first entry into the genre, 1995’s Mortal Kombat, only reinforces the worst stereotypes about such movies (they are merely plotless exercises in character underdevelopment), it’s also arguable that his subsequent films — including 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 Alien vs. Predator — which appears to take place before the futurized Alien movies and who knows when in relation to the Predator — is entirely or even mostly successful. It’s often bewildering, literally hard to read, and just plain silly. Its set-up is mundane: billionaire industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen, a.k.a. Bishop) hires himself 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.
Alas, the rest of the team is less attentive, for their own reasons (these aren’t always easy to figure out, given their general motivational skimpiness). They can’t know, of course, that they’re standard slasher film victims, sent off down this slick, deep hole in the ice to be surprised and horrified by the monster below; the sheer descent recalls Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) sublime line in Alien3, explaining that when she says the monster is in the basement, “It’s a metaphor.” Aside from Ripley, slasher victims don’t usually understand this concept (though Danny Glover in Predator 2 might give her a run for her money, emerging as he does, from the final explosion, in whiteface). Instead, they tend to believe that they can understand their surroundings or control their fates. Ha.
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 Alien vs. Predator‘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 affection and sympathy as monsters who walk upright and 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 sort of 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. That the film combines the heroes of the Alien flicks and Predator 2 in its smart, gutsy black girl hero makes it something of an anomaly (how many black female SF-adventure-horror-video-game movie heroes can you name?).
Her 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 Alexa, recalls Cicatrix, the “Scar” of The Searchers (1956), one of the more complex Native American villains in U.S. movies. In Alien vs. Predator, villains and heroes become simultaneously concrete and abstract: they’re functions of the game, the franchise, and the broader commercial and moral marketplace, yes, but they’re also vaguely resistant, less transparent than they seem.