AVP: Alien Vs Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004)
A team of archaeologists, scientists and a few bad-asses put together by billionaire Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen), head of the Weyland Corporation (the real villain of the Alien franchise – well, up until this film anyway), is led to Antarctica where they end up trapped in an underground pyramid and caught in a deadly war between the two titular alien species.
The family-friendly PG-13 rating alone should have tipped me off (oh, that and the fact that it was directed by the empty-minded slick visualist Paul WS Anderson); as flawed as some of them were, it’s still a long, far ways from the dark, moody, auteur-driven, (blessedly) R-rated and generally philosophical approach of the original four “Alien” films to the anti-intellectual, consumerist mediocrity (and I mean ‘mediocrity’ as the worst of crimes, in that it inspires to have no meaning or resonance beyond the attempted visual thrills that want to keep the viewers in a continued comforting state of the video game experience or that of the of status quo belief system) that is this film. Anderson as a filmmaker has no identity. His direction is simple Cover and Cut – cover the scene from a number of angles and cut a lot to make sure, specifically, that interest doesn’t wane and, generally, to enable the audience’s ADD leanings (all in the name of creating better consumers desperately in need of constant and new stimuli, of course!).
The problem with so many of these CGI heavy ‘spectacles’, directed by modern filmmakers like Anderson (and JJ Abrams) is, as much as they cram images onto the screen, they don’t really understand how to create that sense of awe and wonder so necessary to truly appreciate the experience. It’s like they’ve spent their entire formative years locked inside their parents’ basements with their heads buried in video games and don’t have any sense of the tremendous vastness of space or the wonder of distance. Just look at the breathtakingly inspiring opening of Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), where the wonderful enormity of the Enterprise (as well as the vastness of space around it), docked in orbit, is presented and compare it with any of the over-stuffed computer imagery of the space battles in the J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” films and the difference becomes immediately apparent. With the opening scenes of “AVP”, as the story tries to impress us by taking us all around the globe to collect our various key players, never for a moment do we feel the bitter cold or epic quality of the what-should-have-felt massive ice rock face Alexa Wood (Sanaa Lathan) is scaling, or experience the sweltering heat and blinding dust of the Mexican archaeologist site that another of our characters is working in (if you want to see a real director, with a genuine connection to life experience, create an authentically realized, almost otherworldly, view of a dig in a vast foreign desert, check out the opening of William Friedkin’s original The Exorcist).
The large military ship the expedition travels on to get Antarctica, breaking through layers of ice as it moves, should be impressive, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s just another CGI-enhanced (or, in this case, I’m quite sure it’s a full CGI-created) image. And the massive concluding explosion even has little impact when you consider how large it’s supposed to be. Anderson simply looks to feed the audience constant (empty) stimulation. In other words, he’s the perfect corporate- and consumer-friendly filmmaker for the studios to move into the aughts with Lathan, playing the new version of super-bitch Alien-enemy Ripley, is good looking in an empty, bland LA sort of way and has none of the heft, acting chops maturity of Sigourney Weaver (of course not, true to the modern Anderson perspective, it’s youth and blank beauty that’s celebrated and worshiped and presented as our saviour, not experience, age or wisdom). The second lead, the Mexican archaeologist is equally as bland. Overall, the dialogue is so trite and convenient (with unforgivably contrived moments of attempted pathos in an attempt to ‘create’ insta-emotion for characters just before they die) that it makes even the good actors, like Henriksen and that impressive black British actor from the Bond films, Colin Salmon, look unimpressive.
Even worse is that the first 40 minutes or so of the film is spent following these trite characters as they explore this deadly pyramid that acts as a video game-style haunted house, with lots of dark corridors to travel through, suddenly shifting and contracting walls, floors and ceilings and trap doors that drop unsuspecting folks through to then close behind them, with only the intermittent semi-translucent predator attack to raise our interest. The first full grown phallic-headed Giger alien, as cool as it is (and those Kubrick-style close-up shots, with its gooey saliva dripping out of its hissing mouth, may be repetitive, but they’re never not effective) doesn’t even show up until the halfway point of the film. I had the same problem here as I had with 2010’s Predators in that, chances are, if we’ve taken this journey, we’ve seen all the films (or most of them, anyway… the seminal original ones, let’s say) so we know the creatures. Making us wait before we get to them doing their nasty things creates antipathy, not anticipation, especially when you have to slog through it with uninteresting and disingenuously created characters and convenient plot events (and silly moving walls). As with the 2010 Predators, we have a character, the good looking (in that empty LA way) Latin accented archaeologist who flirts with Alexa (in some particularly witless and unsexy dialogue) and who seems close to shacking up with (and – who knows? – would have ended up creating some beautiful yet very dull children) who is able to figure out just about everything for us, such as the entire long ago history of the predators and aliens on Earth, which apparently is written in Latin (Anderson loves conveniently throwing in those characters fully literate in Latin) on the floor of the pyramid, detailing the final destruction of the early human ancestors (even though, as the story goes, they would have been dead by alien/predator genocide, so I’m not sure how they wrote it post-death).
There are some cool set pieces along the way, such as the room of alien eggs, for instance, but they’re mostly cribbed from the imagery that’s come from the films before. Even the protracted Alien vs. Predator fight (the one that I guess is supposed to be the film’s money shot scene), while being fairly well staged (if filled with too much disorientating quick cutting and shot with that obvious — and at this point no longer particularly inspired — shutter angle effect, as well as too much CGI), just doesn’t end up being particularly captivating. Other than I guess the nerds arguing heatedly in comic book shops over which creature would take which – does it really matter who wins? Certainly not to the narrative of the tale, at least at the moment the fight happens.
Also, I don’t think it was just me but… the predators in this one have an oddly stocky look to them, as if they’re being played by magnified dwarfs in predator costumes. Not that I have anything at all against little people, but… I don’t think it’s quite the impressively physiqued vision the filmmakers had in mind somehow.
Ultimately, and sadly, it’s a film that reflects the movement away from the questioning of the norm and the challenge to the status quo that so much of the films of the political 70’s, and even into the 80’s, presented, and towards the corporate establishment apolitical conformity that exists today. Perhaps the most telling sign of this in “AVP” is how the cold monolithic militaristic Weyland Corporation, presented as the true underlying villain of all four previous Alien films, herein is given the face of a corporate originator Bishop Weyland who, okay, may be a bit greedy and egomaniacal, but down deep is a softie with a heart of gold, even willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Given what we know, that the unaccountable and sociopathic greed of, and wilful exploitation of the underprivileged by, the corporate military machine has almost single-handedly driven us to the very real brink of nuclear annihilation and climate change disaster, is it any wonder that filmmakers like Anderson and Abrams, whose films continue the infantilization of their audiences and to celebrate conformity, are the successful ones?