Every one wants to see champions fight. When the best of the best meet, it makes perfect sense to assume that the violence they perpetrate against one another will be extraordinary in some way. This is the lie that primary mixed martial arts organisations the UFC and Bellator have traded off for years. Remember ten years ago when these two guys fought!! Well now they’re older, need the money and they’re going to do it again! Time and again, competency (and often safety in MMA’s case) are compromised in return for spectacle and Box Office. That’s not quite the case with Aliens Vs Predator.
Written and directed by Paul WS Anderson, AvP borrows heavily from both franchises and a lot of the early tie in material. A heat bloom 2000 feet beneath a remote area of the Arctic comes to the attention of Charles Bishop Weyland, who assembles a ragtag team of scientists and mercenaries to go and poke it and see what it does. This includes wilderness survival specialist Lex (Sanaa Lathan), archaeologist Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova) and Graham Miller, a Scottish geologist played with visible relish by Ewan Bremner. In short order they discover three things; the pyramid is a Predator hunting site, the Predators are on their way and this isn’t one of those movies where most people survive.
AvP gets a lousy rep and the theatrical cut, well, kind of deserves it. For a movie that mixes two franchises best known for their gore, it’s remarkably bloodless. The unrated cut deals with that quite nicely and while the blood is digitally generated it’s still more in keeping with the subject matter.
The thing is though, even taking into account the punches that get pulled AvP is, like most of Anderson’s movies, a good time. He knows how to put together a thoroughly competent, enjoyable action movie and while this never quite reaches the batshit lunacy invention of the Resident Evil movies (Semi-automatic ribbon dancing! The Legion of Jovovich!) its still got some nice touches. Lex is a welcome heroine who honestly plays as a little before her time and Lathan does great work here. It’s also nice to see a female character who doesn’t, by and large, have an emotional arc that’s defined by angst. Lex is a vastly competent survival professional in over her depth, who adapts. She’s refreshing precisely because of how little of a victim she is. Because that was still revolutionary. In 2004.
Like it is now.
Aside from the crushing depression at realising that ‘women…should they be a thing?’ Is still a conversation people seem to think we should have there’s a lot to enjoy here. The cast is full of familiar faces, all of whom do good work and the thing has precisely zero time to slow down. Plus, Anderson’s favorite tic (here’s a giant map of the area which we’ll show one character looking at and then zoom in to another character through the map!) works really well in this context. He’s got a good eye for scale too. There’s an especially well done sequence where the survey team find that someone has dug the 2000 feet to the pyramid for them. Instantly. And apparently from orbit…
What’s really weird is that the set up here is basically Prometheus, a decade plus early and executed far more successfully. There’s a big weird building full of death, there’s a surprising amount of cosmology and an eminently disposable group of scientists. The good news is that people understand how possible it is to run in multiple axes of movement and absolutely none of this movie features the world’s least well advised Guy Pearce cameo in some of the worst old age make up I’ve ever seen.
But what really works here, for maybe the first time in the series, is the Predators themselves. They don’t just feel like a culture they have an actual coherent physical presence. The hunting party that arrive are all massive and they move and act with a burly determination that’s a stark contrast to the frail meatsacks on the human team. The relationship between Scar, the last Yautja standing, and Lex is also especially good and is based on the exact sort of pragmatism that so many of these movies play with but never quite commit to.
Even better, while there’s some life cycle fudging, the two cosmologies fit together delightfully. The idea that the predators taught us tool building and language in return for regular sacrifices and once a century hunting jollies is both absolutely in keep with their ridiculous machismo and cleverly re-frames the aliens and Weyland’s ancestors’ obsession with them.
So AvP is slick as Hell but, unfortunately, not much more. If there’s an issue here, its that the big thematic muscles of the two individual franchises just aren’t present. No PTSD, no personal stories playing out against the Cthonic background of an uncaring cosmos and only the barest foundations of the corporate intrigue that would drive the Alien movies from Aliens on. It’s slick and fun and a great way to pass 90 minutes but it’s an amusement park ride not a thesis. Which is both a bad thing and a good one. Not essential by any means, but a good time in a pair of series that desperately needed it at that point.