Almost exactly one year after Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees finally clashed up on the big screen, director Paul W.S. Anderson brought together the two heavyweights of sci-fi/horror for a similar battle to the death. Like Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator was foretold by clues that dated back many years prior, namely a comic book mash-up, an action figure two-pack, and of course, an Easter egg in Predator 2 that made a truly awesome promise: these two ugly motherfuckers exist in the same universe, y’all!
Released in 2004, Alien vs. Predator made a killing at the box office but didn’t quite do so well with critics or even hardcore fans of the two franchises. Most felt at the time that both franchises deserved better, and even all these years later, Alien vs. Predator is looked back on as a disappointing misfire that did no favors to either the Xenomorphs or the Predators. Mind you, it’s not nearly as hated by fans as follow-up film Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, but you’d be hard pressed to find too many glowing reviews out there on the internet.
My personal opinion? I revisited Alien vs. Predator last night for the first time in 13 years. And it was way better than I remembered it being. Hell, I feel no guilt in saying that I kind of love it.
How do you bring together the villains from two entirely different franchises? Many different writers attempted to crack the code over the years, but it was Paul W.S. Anderson (along with Shane Salerno) who came up with a pitch that won 20th Century Fox over. Anderson’s concept, which managed to make sense of the aforementioned Predator 2 Easter egg, was actually quite inspired.
Anderson’s story, which plays out like a big budget fan film, imagines that the Aliens and Predators have been locked in battle for centuries. Every 100 years, young Predators hunt the Xenomorphs for sport as a means to prove themselves worthy to their elders, with the battle highlighted in Alien vs. Predator taking place in 2004. Set deep beneath an island off the coast of Antarctica, the fight is kick-started when the Predators trick a group of lowly humans (including Lance Henriksen, brilliantly cast as the man the Alien franchise’s Bishop android was based on!) into entering the battleground so that they can be impregnated by the Face Huggers they’re literally forcing the Alien Queen to give birth to. After all, you need to first create Xenomorphs before you can hunt them.
It’s a bonkers premise, and one could argue that a franchise vs. franchise fight flick requires one of those. The film paints the Predators as weirdly benevolent Gods that humans used to worship, while it presents the Xenomorphs as so-called “serpents” that must never make their way into the general populace – in a stunning flashback sequence set atop a pyramid, we learn that the Predators have been trained to literally level entire civilizations in the event that the Xenomorphs start winning any given fight. They don’t want to destroy humanity, you see. They just need to use us as a means to carry out their ritualistic battle. The Xenomorphs, however, want to kill us and they want to kill us all.
When you buy a ticket to see a movie titled Alien vs. Predator, you’re dropping that money to see two horror icons fight rather than watch a group of boring characters talk, and AvP no doubt suffers from a setup that can best be described as lackluster. Before we get to the good stuff, Anderson sets the stage in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching a Syfy original picture rather than a $60 million collision between two mega popular horror franchises – but have no fear, because it soon becomes evident that Anderson was smartly ensuring he’d have money to spend on the good stuff.
And oh boy is the good stuff, well, good!
Once we get deep underground, the production values increase significantly; even those who hated Alien vs. Predator back in 2004 couldn’t help but praise the lavish sets and the decidedly incredible practical effects work. The film’s wrestling ring, so to speak, is an ancient pyramid with an internal structure that completely changes every 10 minutes, making for some fun sequences that evolve the environment in increasingly threatening ways. Ornate artwork depicting the various iconic figures in both the Alien and Predator franchises gives the sets a nice sense of history, effectively conveying the core idea of the mash-up film: these two species have a long history we sure as hell never knew about.
And then there’s the effects, which I was shocked to discover on my re-watch last night are almost entirely practical – according to Wikipedia, the dudes behind Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated practically created an impressive 70% of the monster action on screen. Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. and the ADI team created suits, miniatures and puppets to bring the various Xenomorphs to life (Woodruff Jr. himself played the film’s standout “Grid Alien”), while actor Ian Whyte was tasked with playing all of the Predators. And it all looks damn good, both for the time and still to this day.
But where AvP really excels in the effects department is in the inclusion of the Queen Alien, introduced in James Cameron’s Aliens prior to being prominently featured in Paul W.S. Anderson’s monster mash. A blend of practical effects and CGI, the visually stunning Queen is initially shackled up in the underground pyramid like a slave, but eventually breaks free (with a little help from her babies) to go on a rampage that takes AvP to a whole new level of cool. Watching the Queen run after the film’s final girl, smashing through a massive whale skeleton along the way, is one hell of a visual that makes a pretty good case for Anderson being the right guy to have helmed this particular ship. And goddamn did ADI go above and beyond on this one, bucking effects trends of the time in favor of old school-style work that did both franchises prouder than anything else on display in their big budget team-up film.
Of course, Alien vs. Predator has its downsides. For starters, the well documented PG-13 rating makes zero sense when you consider that every film in both franchises had been rated R up to that point, and the rating rears its ugly head a handful of times throughout – much of the monster-on-human carnage takes place off screen, robbing us of the “money shots” that would’ve really put the film over the top. But even with a PG-13 rating, the fight sequences between the warring species’ are a total delight to watch, if not a bit too over-edited – and since both monsters bleed colors other than red, the MPAA thankfully let a whole lot slide.
There’s a part of me that hates, or at least wants to hate Alien vs. Predator for reducing the Xenomorphs to Predator fodder and also for making the Predators out to be the heroes (the final act’s teamwork between the Scar Predator and final girl Alexa is as silly as anything you’ll ever see in the horror genre), but there’s just so much more to love about AvP than there is to hate. With expectations in check and properly calibrated, my 13-years-later revisit made me realize that it was every bit the fun spectacle everyone in their right mind should’ve gone into the theater expecting in the summer of 2004.
There’s just something great about a movie that fully embraces its own absurdity.
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