Ridley Scott’s original Alien is one of the most effective and influential horror films ever made, and a personal favorite of mine, with no apologies. Its art direction and visual aesthetic were so far ahead of their time that pretty much only the haircuts have dated, but the real keys to its longevity are its brains and depth of substance. No doubt there have since been dozens of dissertations on its gender themes and often overtly sexualized imagery designed by biomechanical artist H.R. Giger. Once you realize the portal to the crashed spacecraft is a giant vagina and the Alien’s head is an erect penis, you will never be able to un-see it.
But Alien’s most unfortunate legacy is that it has forever melded the science fiction and horror genres in moviegoers’ expectations. Aside from the odd exceptions to the rule ranging from the parable-for-all-ages E.T. to the gut-wrenching social critique Children of Men, we now can’t have a horror film without a rubbery alien or a sci-fi film without eviscerations and gore.
Worst of all, the Alien franchise has been cursed with diminishing returns. Probably but not necessarily by design, James Cameron’s vapid sequel Aliens completely drained the core themes and subtexts from the original in favor of the mere spectacle of spaceships and bullets. Subsequent sequels achieved the rare feats of being by far the worst films of two extraordinarily talented directors: David Fincher’s compromised Alien3 (the only installment with the traditional numeral in the title) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bizarre-but-not-in-a-good-way Alien: Resurrection.
Part of the problem is that there can be only a limited set of variations on the core premise. The original Alien found the right recipe on its first try: lone but nearly invincible creature vs. unarmed bunch of humans in claustrophobic environment = teh awesome. Most sequels multiplied the number of aliens only to find that their collective dramatic impact was lessened when all it took was a futuristic Colonial Space Marine’s rifle to dispatch one.
Meanwhile, the less ambitious Predator franchise managed to only rack up a meager two installments. Perhaps their lesser appeal is attributable to what the Alien films got right; the “aliens” are not intelligent members of a society like the Predators, whose entire culture is based upon the concept of ritualistic hunting. Aliens are instinctual beasts that live to eat and (especially) to breed, so savage and animalistic that their species doesn’t even have a name.
The two spent properties found a new life together in the unholy crossover marriage “Alien vs. Predator” that began as comics and video games. Inevitably, they found their way back to cinemas as Hollywood attempted to reboot the cash flow with the first Alien vs. Predator film in 2004. But this “new” series has already run out of variations on the core premise in only its second installment.
Believe it or not, AVP:R is the first Alien film set not only in the present day, but also actually on Earth. This time around we have a single Predator vs multiple aliens, with a variety of helpless human bystanders caught in the crossfire. Basically, the Predators screw up and accidentally seed Earth with a batch of aliens they had intended to breed as hunting stock. A lone Predator, perhaps fancying himself a sort of space age Mr. Fixit, attempts to whitewash his colleagues’ mess. He’s no sympathetic hero, however, for he doesn’t hesitate to take the pelt of a human as a trophy when the opportunity arises.
To go back to the aforementioned variety of helpless human bystanders: any decent screenwriter or producer (or, hell, anyone who’s seen a couple of movies) should have realized that there are three problems with this scenario: “variety,” “helpless,” and “bystanders.” The huge cast of human characters all remain underdeveloped. The lamest thread involves a bunch of so-called teenagers, obviously written by a screenwriter that was never actually a teenager. The only recognizable face (to this blogger, at least) is Reiko Aylesworth from 24, miscast as an Army soldier on leave. Her only purposes in the story seem to be to instruct the audience that guns work better if you shout while shooting, and to have someone on hand who might plausibly know how to fly a helicopter.
AVP:R is so divorced from the six prior Alien films that there are only two tenuous continuity threads to link them. A Mrs. Yutani appears, presumably of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that, in the future, has the secret agenda of locating more aliens as it strip mines the galaxy for fossil fuels. But perhaps the one true link to the original Alien film from 1979 is a sequence involving a chick stripping down to her skivvies. In the original, the truly badass Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deservedly kicks back her heels and gets ready for a suspended-animation nap in her undies, but here all we get is a bland “hottie” stripping for her unlikely dweeb crush (an incidence of nerd wish-fulfillment that speaks volumes as to the maturity and life experiences of the filmmakers).
What should have been another major screenwriting red flag is the hugely unsatisfying ending. When the Predator, the closest thing the film has to a hero or protagonist, finally closes in on his prey, they go at it looking for all the world like two pro wrestlers in rubber suits. And then immediately… they’re both obliterated by a nuke. A small handful of the humans are only barely proactive and manage to survive untraumatized despite having watched all their families and loved ones killed.
So why do I keep punishing myself by watching each Alien sequel? I don’t ever again expect something as multilayered as the original Alien, but I do keep thinking that these kinds of movies are supposed to be at best entertaining and at worst a little fun, and yet they always turn out torturously awful. AVP:R’s best quality is its brisk 86 minute running time, even in its unrated extended DVD cut.