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Alien Vs. Predator

From the moment in Predator 2 that an Alien skull showed up in the background, fans of the two franchises began salivating for the match-up. Over the years, rumors circulated. Dark Horse Comics picked up the banner, releasing several mini-series detailing clashes between the two species, usually with humans caught in the middle. Even a videogame offered players the chance to see this confrontation. And the highest but perhaps most obscure honor of all - at least two separate action figure lines have been released in the last decade.

With such a cultural presence, 20th Century Fox would have been fools not to throw in the towels on the individual franchises (though Predator had been effectively and unfortunately considered dead after 2 anyway) and give the fans what they want. Since it had become a videogame and a toy line, why not hand it to a writer/director with experience at gaming, Paul W.S. Anderson?

It's a loss for the Alien franchise, but a definite charge for Predator. In order to gain the now-coveted PG-13 rating, the blood and guts have been toned down, as has the suspense. Instead, Alien Vs. Predator, or AVP, ends up a satisfying but not particularly memorable action flick.

Working from his own script, Anderson brings all his strengths to bear. Always a writer injecting a literate sensibility into pap, he carefully sets up the reasons for the humans to be caught in the middle of this battle of inscrutable killing machines. The premise involves reasonable archaeological concerns, the discovery of a pyramid combining features from three different cultures. This ur-pyramid could unlock secrets of mankind's development, except it's several hundred feet below the ice in Antarctica.

Anderson devotes at least a third of the movie to building up his characters, with occasional glimpses of the Predator ship lurking outside our atmosphere. The humans' ignorance can be forgiven; as far as expert ice climber Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) is concerned, the only dangers they face come from the environment.

But there's some awkward scripting, too, another hallmark of Anderson. If satellite imagery has picked up the sub-surface temple, why is there surprise that it lies underneath an abandoned whaling station, especially one that Woods talks about as if its abandonment is pretty famous? You see, it wasn't so much abandoned as discovered empty, almost exactly one hundred years before.

Once the team gets to the pyramid, however, all pretense of characterization goes out the window. Instead, the movie becomes a blueprint for a new videogame (or lifts sequences from the previous game - anybody played it?). Somehow, Anderson makes that not nearly as annoying as it should be.

Face-huggers leap about, a lot more mobile than in previous Alien films. Interior walls shift like a puzzle, all the better to make the hunting grounds a challenge for young predators proving their "manhood." Though charming Italian archaeologist Sebastian De Rosa (Raoul Bova) does pause to translate hieroglyphics that explain it all every now and then, these pauses only come across as cut scenes before the next action challenge.

But it's fun.

Sure, the sleek black aliens have become significantly less powerful than in the original film. Why, their acid blood only burns through one layer of Kevlar! With modern effects, though, they have become more supple. Anderson has recast them as serpents instead of the insects they always seemed before, perhaps to be less psychologically disturbing but also to cast allusions toward Biblical origins.

On the other side, the Predators remain a race shrouded in mystery. I know it shouldn't, but it always bothers me wondering how this species completely devoted to the hunt managed to become starfaring. At least Anderson retains their strange sense of honor, which provides more than one tense and cool moment.

Following the pattern established by both Alien and Chris Claremont's Deadlier of the Species mini-series, most of the human action revolves around the tough but still feminine Woods. In that role, Lathan handles the action well. She's pretty with a hard edge, and a scar that suggests that she may have had problems on the ice once or twice.

Of the rest of the cast, only Ewen Bremner and Lance Henriksen stand out as actors. Many are made visually striking, but still end up cannon fodder. (Anderson pays tribute to the comics by naming one of the crew Mark Verheiden, the writer that handled most of the Alien and AVP books, but it's impossible to figure out which character actually has the name.) With his thick Scottish brogue and boyish enthusiasm, Bremner brings humor and pathos to his scenes without betraying the tension. Henriksen, playing billionaire Charles Bishop Weyland, just commands every one of his moments.

Never mind that his appearance here begs too much coincidence that he would have a look-alike descendant in Alien 3 that would create a line of doppelganger androids named Bishop. AVP is the start of a whole new franchise, not as smart, not as scary, but definitely one to appeal to our basest desires to watch creatures beat the living snot out of each other.

That just might make it.


Derek McCaw

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