Thursday, May 8, 2008

MOVIES- Alien vs. Predator Requiem

What did the Alien movies do to David Giler and Walter Hill to cause them to crap on them this way? Besides making them rich? Predator was always just a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger to fight something as big and ugly as he is. Your typical low-brow high-concept monster movie. But the Alien movies were something more. There were enough ideas to make the initial outing more than a simple horror movie in space- spaceship refineries, labor disputes, hypersleep, the Space Jockey, androids, the Company. You got the feeling that there was a whole society behind the incidents on the Nostromo. Excellent acting and superb direction added to the film, making it an instant classic. And what can you say about H.R. Giger’s alien designs?

Aliens, the sequel, expanded the premise to include a jump 50 years further into the future, terraforming, Colonial Marines, hundreds of aliens rather than just one, and another excellent cast and young director with real talent and something to prove. Gone were most of the contrivances of the horror genre, replaced by something more akin to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The movie was called a roller coaster ride by many critics, and for good reason.

Alien 3 (Alien cubed in the actual title, an unintended pun) was when the wheels started coming off the wagon. Insider stories say that Sigourney Weaver was sold on the premise with the idea of “Ripley- bald!” and one wonders if that was the most thought that went into it. Another first time director and fine cast, but this time without the stellar results. “Aliens in prison” might have been another attempt to fuse the series with an older movie staple (women in prison films?) or was perhaps a return to the franchise’s roots by trying for a haunted house with aliens motif. Whatever the initial idea, the movie made several serious mistakes. It summarily disposed of Newt and Hicks, characters that the audience had bonded with, without even giving them a noble death. It tried to go for a less-is-more philosophy when it came to the alien, which didn’t work after the battle scenes of the second film. It tried to build suspense but only accomplished being painfully slow. And, worst of all, it wasn’t scary. The most frightening scenes in the movie involved close-ups of needles being sunk into flesh. For that kind of fright you can just hang out at the local clinic to watch the preschoolers getting their inoculations. (In fact, the heart-rending screams that accompany such an activity might actually make it better for the horror connoisseur.) There were good ideas. That the alien bonded on a genetic level with whatever host the face hugger found was one. Another one was the death of Ripley. But for the most part the inspiration was too scant.

Alien 4 was an odd duck that tried to meld both the Space Truckers idea of the first movie and the Colonial Marines of the second. It jumps 200 more years into the future and adds a few ideas of its own- cloning, more intelligent aliens, and the further evolution of the alien creature itself. Again the cast is not the problem, and in this case neither is the script or direction. But it seems like it was just too much of a good thing. Alien fatigue had set in. And what fans really wanted was for the Aliens to reach earth. It had been hinted at in an early teaser trailer for Alien 3, but the idea had been abandoned during pre-production. The readers of the Aliens comic book had seen both the aliens on earth and a real expansion of the ideas in the first and second film- a grown up Newt, Hicks dealing with PTSD and the toll of severe acid burns, who the space jockey was and why he was hauling a shipload of aliens across the universe before he crashed. None of these themes were dealt with. Instead the audience was given what amounted to just another Alien episode.

Then came Alien vs. Predator. Having missed the boat on doing what comics had done with the franchise this time the producers decided to outright steal an idea from the comics. Unfortunately, once again this was where the ideas stopped. The aliens finally reach earth but we learn that they did it thousands of years ago. So did the predators, who built a giant pyramid under the ice at the south pole. We see the founder of Weyland-Yutani, who happens to look just like the android of the second film. We take a group of disparate adventurers into the pyramid and mass carnage ensues. But again there is no real science fiction to be found. The series has degenerated to being an old fashioned monster movie. As a result Alien vs. Predator more closely resembles Frankenstein Meets Dracula than the first two movies.

So now we finally come to AVP Requiem. Now all pretense of science fiction has been abandoned. It is set in the present, the Predator ship crashes into the Rocky Mountains, it has aliens on board. That’s a complete plot synopsis, by the way. Characters are established. Some of them live, others don’t. Nobody is given anything even remotely interesting to do. Nothing is added to the cannon. The most interesting shot in the move it right at the beginning and is stolen from a McFarline toys action figure. And at the end you realize that among the casualties were two hours from your own life. Funny thing is, that isn’t the most annoying thing about the movie. The most annoying thing is that you can’t see what the hell is happening anyway. The movie is DARK. And not in a metaphorical sense. It’s just plain not lit! The whole thing seems to have been shot with only the headlights of a car for lighting. Did the cinematographer stare at the sun too long when he was a child? Are the film makers so ashamed at the lack of an interesting script that they didn’t want to show you what was (or wasn’t) happening? You can’t see the alien, the predator, anything. There’s one scene in a diner and it even it looks like it’s lit by candles. And then halfway through the movie the predator blows up the local power station and it gets even darker. At this point you’re making fun of the thing anyway so it doesn’t matter. I saw the movie on Blu-ray and even that didn’t help. I imagine on regular DVD its close to indecipherable for much of the time.

But watch the special features on the disk. The “making of” featurettes are a great piece of unintentional comedy. It’s like watching a modern Ed Wood talk about his latest masterpiece. Early on John Ortiz says “Holy shit! I’m in an alien movie” and several folks in the room shouted “A SHITTY ONE” in unison. Less than a minute later another actor says that the movie is “kind of a metaphor for… what if something awful happened in your home town?” “Like they made you watch this movie!” Honestly, this stuff writes itself. The production vignettes go on like that for almost an hour. Everybody talks like they have made a cinematic masterpiece and everybody is apparently unaware that the movie stinks. There are also TWO commentary tracks! One has the sibling directorial team, Cliff Claven Strause and his brother Henchman 23 Strause, and the other has some other accomplices to the murder of the Alien series. I didn’t listen to the commentaries since I had enough pompous self-congratulation to last me for awhile. Perhaps that was a mistake. Maybe they describe what’s happening on screen that you can’t see BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS TOO FUCKING DARK!

So, goodbye Alien franchise. Lets hope they don’t resurrect you again until Ridley Scott or James Cameron decide to come back. Hell, even Fincher has redeemed himself since his time at the helm (though he’s a little too uneven to be classed with the other two alumni). Or maybe they could get Chris Cunningham to direct. Give the guy a shot, he couldn’t do any worse.

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