With the release of the non-so-great Alien: Covenant hitting a theater near you this Friday, we thought we’d take a look back at the absolute worst thing the Xenomorphs have ever been involved with. That’s right: This is an article about revisiting the Alien vs. Predator series, the mid-aughts’ mini-franchise where Fox basically stepped back and openly admitted that they had absolutely no idea what in the fuck they were doing with their creative properties.
Yet they’re undeniably a big part in why Sir Ridley Scott came back to the franchise, even though he “couldn’t bring himself to watch them,” and therefore are essential viewing in order to understand where the modern Alien film comes from. And, to be perfectly frank, the films of these two series share a great deal in common with each other at a second glance.
Of the two, the first, AVP: Alien vs. Predator is the most like its franchise-starting counterpart, 2012’s Prometheus, and the similarities between the two run pretty deep. But back in 2002, unsure where the hell to go with both the Alien and Predator franchises after terrible sequels killed any interest in continuations of either, Fox turned back to a pitch they received from screenwriter Peter Briggs in 1991, who essentially adapted the Alien vs. Predator series of comics published by Dark Horse Comics a few years earlier.
This kind of crossover stuff is common amongst comic publishers who have rights to similar characters (for instance, Marvel Comics put in-universe characters like SHIELD agent Dum Dum Dugan in their Transformers book), but took on a different dimension when directly alluded to in Predator 2, in the ending sequence when Danny Glover stalks the Predator back the trophy room on his ship and there’s a Xenomorph skull mounted on the wall. So, looking for a new direction, Fox revived the project in the new century, and took in an Earth-set pitch from journeyman director Paul W. S. Anderson, which they liked quite a bit, and eventually greenlit for release in the fall of 2004.
Story-wise, the comparisons to Prometheus begin to invite themselves once Charles Weyland (Lance Henriksen, we couldn’t believe it either!) begins to assemble himself a team of specialists to go exploring. Weyland’s dying, much like his Guy Pierce-starring descendent Peter in the 2012 movie, and shit’s on a clock here. Instead of Shaw and her beau looking through hieroglyphs in the Scottish Highlands, we’re treated to “guide” Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) making her way up the face of a cliff, where Weyland, through his right-hand man makes her an offer that she can’t refuse. The team then assembles, and they’re briefed about the exotic locations that they’re going to by the Weylands in each version, in some sort of cargo room or hanger. The first acts of both films owe just a tiny debt to Jurassic Park, though neither can come close to equaling the fun that Sam Neill has in scaring the shit out of that one kid who doubts how scary and deadly raptors were.
Both groups head on out on their quests, and find themselves trapped in the middle of empty expanses with alien structures at their hearts: the dirty and dusty Engineer homeworld in Prometheus, and Anderson’s clumsy echo of Carpenter’s The Thing and it’s Arctic setting. The two films owe a heavy debt to Lovecraft’s In the Mountains of Madness — Prometheus enough so that it killed a long gestating Guillermo Del Toro-directed adaptation of that seminal horror tome — but it’s the former film that uses its setting to the fullest, an easy task when you have a fellow like Sir Ridley Scott behind the camera. And of course, said humans find themselves at the mercy of an ancient alien race that had something to do with our upbringing in the universe — in AVP, that’s revealed to be the Predators themselves who gave the Aztecs pyramids in exchange for human sacrifices (fair trade), and in Prometheus’ it’s the Space Jockeys, who added the baking soda to the fertile Earth’s vinegar. The latter’s ancient astronaut theory is beautifully shot and significantly less racist than the former’s, but it still comes from a similar and dumb place. Oh, also, both Weylands get killed in horrifically stupid ways by members of the ancient Alien race. You know, like one does.
AVP is significantly less fun than we make it sound, but it’s competent as a painfully dumb action movie. The characters are a mess, and somehow Anderson manages to make the first honest-to-christ meeting between these two characters feel kind of… boring. It’s hard to understand how a director squanders that premise (though if you’d shelled out the ten bucks to see Freddy vs. Jason a year earlier or Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice 12 years later, you could see how this might go poorly), but it’s not a total wash. It’s edited well, and you can tell what’s going on a good ninety percent of the time, which is already better than many of 2004’s other releases.
But it’s completely bloodless and utterly stilted by it’s hewing to the PG-13 line — Anderson’s one good horror movie, Event Horizon, used the R-rating to the fullest, and his Resident Evil movies showed he could do decent action when given that leeway — but Fox though they’d made a significantly larger amount of money from a more inclusive rating. And they did alright enough with its take, as it nearly tripled its budget. However, the ending left a big door open: The Pred-Alien hybrid, which chestburst (chestbursted?) out of the main Predator right before the credits started to roll; and fans spent several years bitching about the rating and the violence. As always, the studio misunderstood these concerns, and Fox set to work on a sequel.
That movie, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (what is it with this series and dumb after-colon titles?) is widely regarded as the lowest point in the history of both franchises, and we’re not going to convince you otherwise. For whatever reason (probably budgetary), Fox turned to two unknown directors, the Brothers Strause, to help the project. The two had done some incredible VFX work in the past, and owned their own hyper-successful effects studio, Hydraulx, which, after its inception in 2002, went on to do work on films like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Day After Tomorrow, and 300. There is, of course, a history of studios tapping their best effects people as directors; one only need to observe the career of Douglas Trumbull in order to make that connection, but the Strauses lacked that je ne sais quoi and the talent needed to help such a large production look competent.
As a result, it is one ugly motherfucker.
There are times in Requiem when the film acutely resembles something you’d watch on the Sci-Fi Channel at three in the morning, but without the sort of knowing fun that comes with that territory. Most of it is oddly focused — so much of the frame is in focus that it’s kind of disorienting when the characters walk towards the camera — and that look gives it a second-semester film school look, which is incredibly difficult to look at without wondering if the whole movie was shot in front of a green screen, just like most of Zach Snyder’s movies. To complicate matters, Requiem is dark, literally and metaphorically. Almost every scene of the film’s action is set in dimly-lit black-on-grey interiors (lots and lots of concrete walls), which makes it nearly impossible to understand what the hell is going on at any moment. Yes, that’s right, the much-vaunted Pred-Alien is almost totally obscured by the scenery, and whatever cool design work that went into making it is for the screen is rendered completely and totally moot. The Predators look better and significantly less cheap than in the previous installment, but that might be because there’s only one of them on screen this time around.
It’s story, as well, is so utterly and stupidly bleak that the film’s best laugh comes early on when a little kid gets face-hugged as a jump scare. By the time the Pred-Alien is seeding pregnant ladies in a hospital with eggs, we were ready to jump ship almost completely (which is not pearl-clutching: It’s just significantly icky that the Alien franchise’s attempts at making men understand the trauma of rape is applied to these women in this fashion). We might have been compelled if there were other worthwhile aspects, but there’s not a single character one can really attach themselves to. Our “main” characters are horrible: One is an asshole ex-con with a bullied brother whom he feels some sort of attachment to, and the other is a soldier mom, having just returned home from the battlefield, whose unappreciative daughter is forced to watch everyone around her get slaughtered in order for her to respect her mom. Other characters occasionally try to make their mark, but they’re either murdered by one or two of the warring extraterrestrials or obliterated by the nuclear blast that the military resorts to after sending in a single battalion of the National Guard to fight a potentially world-ending threat.
Yep, that’s right. The film does its best to get away with the kind of hyper-dark and political ending that something like Night of the Living Dead absolutely and totally nails, but the metaphor is half-baked here, the whole of the injustice of it all forgotten by the fact that our four characters escape with their lives. It also stops short of any real political impact by having the soldier-mom present throughout the story, and by the time a Spec Ops member tells her, of the nuclear blast, “we were just following orders,” it’s hard to keep a totally straight face.
In some ways, Requiem is a shitty manifestation of the cynicism of that era in popular culture, when, in the heart of the Iraq quagmire, our escapist media manifested itself in a cloak of cynicism until Marvel Studios and the Obama era eventually broke it down. There’s very little redeemable about it — not a single performance or a fight scene or an interesting shot to write home about — and almost any other horror film from that year is worth viewing about instead (especially the remake of The Crazies).
That said, it does share a few and remarkable similarities with Covenant, which we’ll vaguely allude so as to preserve your virgin eyes for the theater, spoilerphobes. They’re quite similar in mood, and though people might refer to Alien 3 as Covenant’s direct tonal ancestor, there’s a grand aspect to these new films that is never found in the small-scale and wounded 1991 film. There’s also specific callbacks to throat-related grossness that happens in the film, and all of the human characters are as thinly-written and stupid as the ones in Requiem, though much better actors get to spit out those awful lines in Covenant. Much of the action takes place in the concrete and cavernous trappings of a city, and the dark color palettes in both can occasionally difficult to watch. Of course, Covenant is the better film — that isn’t a hard feat to accomplish — but both are underwhelming R-rated reactionary counterparts to their predecessors, which fans felt betrayed the point of the series by not properly capturing the brutality within their premise. They’re over-corrections instead of lateral moves, which is typically how good sequels to these properties work (see the transition from Alien to Aliens). But Requiem’s failure killed the pairing of the two, and Fox looked to correct the course of both series by splitting them up again.
An epilogue: As it stands, the Alien vs. Predator series made money for Fox, but when imagining the amount of money that quality films based on these premises could have brought in, it’s hard to view them as successes. The legacies of the filmmakers are just as empty: Once-promising director Anderson went on to have a career solely composed of remakes and sequels, though he is married to his Resident Evil lead Milla Jovovich and is quite handsome, so it’s hard to argue he didn’t come out ahead in all this. The Brothers Strause returned to the multiplex in 2010 with their passion project Skyline, which flopped at the box office but found a decent enough home video afterlife to justify the filming of a sequel, Beyond Skyline, that is still currently in post-production hell without an announced release date. Robert Rodriguez directed the underperforming third film in the Predator franchise, 2010’s Predators, and that did poorly enough that the franchise was put on ice for a while, until Fox gave the reins to director and writer Shane Black (who also appeared in the first Predator) for a new film to be released next year.
And, finally, Covenant looks like it might unseat Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend, and it’s tracking at a $40 to 50 million opening weekend and will likely hit $400 million by the end of its run, numbers that the AVP series could never quite equal even in its prime (the original made just over $38.2 in its opening weekend and bottomed out at $172 million overall), which just speaks to their continual failure.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.