At risk of giving away the whole ball of wax in the first paragraph of my review, I can say this: I’ve now seen Alien vs. Predator four times and I can safely say it’s not a good movie. It is, however, a better movie than I gave it credit for the first time I watched it, which is saying something.
It all started with Dark Horse Comics. Looking for a comic idea with crossover potential with another company (like Hulk versus Superman or something like that), they decided to mix two of their own licenses to create something excellent. See my review of the Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus, Vol. 1 for more on that. The idea was carried forward on the set of Predator 2, when an alien skull was placed among the trophies aboard the Predator ship at the climax of the picture. With the success of the Aliens vs. Predator comics, it would seem natural that Hollywood would take an interest.
What’s surprising is how long it took for 20th Century Fox to do a film take on the pairing. The ball started rolling with screenwriter Peter Briggs’ adaptation of the original Aliens vs. Predator miniseries. The screenplay was really quite good, but I think Fox wanted to go cheaper and thus began a process whereby more than 40 different filmmakers and screenwriters pitched their ideas. The winning bid was placed by writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson, who’d made Resident Evil, among other things.
Anderson’s idea put the action on contemporary Earth, not a distant space colony, and involved just a handful of Aliens, humans and Predators. It could all be done on a budget smaller than the one for Alien 3. Set in an underground pyramid in Antarctica (don’t ask), Alien vs. Predator promised and delivered Alien-on-Predator action.
Interestingly enough, the bulk of the movie is taken up by its human characters — including Sanaa Lathan, who’s our Ripley stand-in — and Lance Henriksen. An expedition is geared up to head under the ice to this mysterious pyramid and we spend probably half the film just getting to know the various people involved. These aren’t deep characterizations by any means, but they do demonstrate a willingness to give the human dimension a go before piling on the aliens and slime.
When we do get to the aliens and slime my nerd radar goes off and I begin nitpicking the picture. Despite the bloody heritage of both franchises, Alien vs. Predator is rated PG-13 and that means little to no gore. When you have things bursting out of people’s chests that’s a noticeable shift in tone. Further, Anderson chose to compress the life-cycle of the Aliens such that the time elapsed between impregnation by a facehugger and full growth into an Alien warrior takes something on the order of an hour.
Like I said, these are nerdy complaints, but since the movie is made for nerds they’re enough to impinge upon my enjoyment of the picture. And, frankly, I can’t help but be disappointed by the film’s biggest sin: it’s not an adaptation of the original Aliens vs. Predator comic. Sure, there’s some cool stuff in the movie to go with its weak elements — characterization goes out the window once the body count begins to rise — but it’s not epic the way such a clash ought to be. As I say, there’s Alien-on-Predator action, but it’s small-scale stuff and never rises to the appropriate level.
So Alien vs. Predator isn’t a good movie. But it’s not a bad movie. It inhabits a curious middle zone where I can admire those things that were done right (or at least earnestly attempted), but am still hung up on its shortcomings, some of which are the same as its strengths. Paul W.S. Anderson was given the mandate to create a monstrous clash on a budget and he succeeded, but it could have been so much more.