Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Ridley Scott takes us to the prehistory of his 1979 masterpiece Alien with a certain Alien: Covenant. Not the first time we've rewound the clock in this franchise, not even the first time Scott was responsible; but I had something in mind a bit crasser than Prometheus.

For what reason, really, would it make sense that the aliens from Aliens and the predators from Predator would inhabit the same universe? For no reason at all, and yet that would hardly be enough to discourage goofball fans, which is why 1989 saw the release of Aliens versus Predator, a comic book published by Dark Horse Comics, in which aliens fight predators, on an alien planet. This triggered a goofy little cross-media franchise, with novels, video games, comic books, and a production design in-joke in the 1990 film Predator 2 all keeping the flame lit. The one thing conspicuously missing was a feature film based on the concept, not for want of trying. Still, it took 15 years from that first comic book for 20th Century Fox to finally release the movie version Alien vs. Predator in the summer of 2004.

Alien vs. Predator. Let that soak in, and keep in mind that the best-case scenario for this project was that it be spectacularly stupid in a vigorously colorful way. To that end, the producers wisely assigned screenwriting and directing duties to Paul W.S. Anderson, a man for whom "spectacularly stupid" is and was his bread and butter. I imagine that Anderson got the nod on account of his 1997 space horror picture Event Horizon (a film with an extremely evident debt to Alien), but the final version of Alien vs. Predator feels much more like he hadn't gotten his last film - the first Resident Evil, from 2002 - entirely out of his system, and wanted to rework some of its plot points and visual ideas (and simply stealing from himself without a word of apology, by "zooming out" to a wire-frame representation of the underground bunker where the action takes place, and "zooming in" to a different room. Using fast travel on a video game map, essentially). It works in that film, which is a zesty bit of trash that puts all its chips on Milla Jovovich's enormous screen presence. It works much less well in AvP, which is unabashedly intoxicated by the accumulated lore of the Alien franchise (the Predator franchise, then consisting of an Arnold Schwarzenegger picture and a sequel nobody particularly likes, had much less lore to contend with), and wants to do its very best to do good by that lore. I'm not sure if what I'm about to say is a good thing or a very bad thing, but Anderson absolutely feels like a fanboy, and he made a fanboy's movie (outside of the part where any fanboy worth their salt would have surely set this film on an extraterrestrial planet), complete with a fanboy's infatuation with little dumb details.

So the film opens - depending on which cut you're watching (the unrated version that premiered on DVD is incrementally better than the theatrical cut, with clearer exposition and more emphatic violence, but it's not a film-saving revision) - in 2004, where a strange thermal event has been found under the Antarctic ice by researchers in the employ of the Weyland Corporation, owned and founded by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen). See, that kind of fanboying: why not have the actor who played Bishop the android in Aliens and Alien³ play Bishop's namesake and designer, and why not also have him be the owner of Weyland-Yutani before the Yutani merger? I kind of dig it, actually, and I would be so bold as to claim that it makes for a more sensible prequel to the first four Alien movies than anything in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Anyway, Weyland is very interested in this heat signature, and so he Jurassic Parks together a team of experts in various fields: Italian archaeologist Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova), an expert in Mesoamerican pyramid-building cultures; British chemical engineer Graeme Miller (Ewen Bremner); a chunk of mercenaries, of whom only Mark Verheiden (Tommy Flanagan) really matters once the going gets tough; and a few more or less nameless scientists. Most important of everybody, though, is Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), a veteran guide of expeditions in extreme weather conditions, who will emerge quite early on as the only person who doesn't have a brainpan full of leftover oatmeal once the team arrives at an Antarctic whaling station abandoned exactly 100 years ago, and Weyland announces that they've come to excavate what appears to be a high-tech pyramid buried far underground.

Everything up to this point could not conceivably be any more generic: "mad genius industrialist billionaire hires a team to enter a horror movie deathtrap in an isolated location" is the scenario that fueled a thousand shitty sci-fi films in the '90s and '00s. Henriksen and Lathan are pretty much the only thing keeping Alien vs. Predator afloat until we finally enter that pyramid, and things get a bit dumb (it is important to know about this film that it grows progressively more enjoyable as it grows progressively dumber). This is where the film goes full Resident Evil, with the plot almost entirely transforming into a completely arbitrary adventure through a space designed with no rational function. At least AvP intends for that to be the case: we'll eventually learn that the pyramid is an ancient training ground, and its tendency to swivel around like a monumental Rubik's Cube for no good goddamn reason is specifically to disorient the adolescent space warriors who come to fight monsters there.

That, by the way, is what pissed me off the most about AvP when it was new, by far. It presents a completely artificial reason for the predators to fight the aliens: a coming-of-age ceremony held on Earth for foggy reasons (Anderson suggests, madly, that the predator species played gods for ancient humans, Chariots of the Gods-style, but this has nothing actually to do with dropping a massive space pyramid underneath Antarctica), in which the xenomorph aliens have been placed deliberately for one-off purposes. There are no stakes: the "stop the aliens from escaping the pyramid" final act doesn't get us there, not as well as having both the predators and the xenomorphs converge on a human settlement would have. Then, three years later, the wretched Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem came along to quite thoroughly disabuse me of the notion that a human settlement, by itself, could have improved this scenario. Alien vs. Predator does a lot of things wrong, and much of its first half is deathly boring - but dear sweet Christ, it's never as bad as Requiem.

Credit where it's due, the film earns its title: what little scraps of plot have managed to survive into the second hour are completely abandoned for a whole bunch of scenes of three predators, but mostly one with a distinctive scar on its helmet (Ian Whyte), hunt and are hunted by a mess of largely CGI xenomorphs, but mostly one with a distinctive scar on its head (Tom Woodruff, Jr.). Anderson well understands the cool quotient of his material, and the very first face-to-face meeting of an alien and a predator is staged as a big push-in to a self-consciously iconic two-shot in profile that could not possibly have gotten the point across better: it's 1988, we're all 11 years old, and it's the school playground during recess. That being said, the title bouts tend towards a very samey feeling, and the sense of random battles being strung out for no reason other than the most banally mercenary creeps in fast and never goes away.

The thing is, for all that the film plays like an Alien film with predators in it, it's actually a much better Predator film. Anderson quickly runs out of things to do with the xenomorphs, which look like shit this time around: we see too much of them, in too much lighting, and between the inconsistent CGI (which gets particularly dreadful during some full-body shots of the alien queen in the last quarter of the film), and the street-brawl quality of the fight choreography, H.R. Giger's magnificent creation looks as threadbare here as I think it ever has. The predators, meanwhile retain their implacable presence, and the limitations of the action setpieces much favor them. Besides, the plot very decisively commits to the predators' side, when Alexa (the last survivor, as is eminently predictable from pretty early on) forms a partnership with the scarred predator.

This is also the point at which Alien vs. Predator actually starts to become wonderful, not coincidentally. Lathan is much better than the material needs, asks for, or deserves, all throughout the movie, but it's only when things start going completely apeshit that her tough grounding presence starts to really thrive. My Little Predator is self-evidently completely apeshit, and so finally, when she is the last human being onscreen, we're finally able to thoroughly enjoy Alexa's company. More to the point, the whole point of this exercise was ever only to bask in some unapologetic trash, and there's simply not enough of that during the boilerplate exposition grind of the opening, or the one-size-fits-all fight scenes of the middle. This does mean that the great majority of Alien vs. Predator isn't much fun at all, except to the most feverish Lance Henriksen cultists (he's also much better than the material deserves, but when isn't he?), but once it gets cooking in the end, and loses its mind completely, it manages to be the garish exercise in brazen stupidity that the title promised. This is a strictly fans-only proposition, and it does many things that could only possibly piss fans right the hell off, but I myself don't regret the slog through crappy sci-fi boilerplate for the payoff of those last 25 minutes.

Reviews in this series
Alien (Scott, 1979)
Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
Predator (McTiernan, 1987)
Alien³ (Fincher, 1992)
Alien Resurrection (Jeunet, 1997)
Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (The Brothers Strause, 2007)
Predators (Antal, 2010)
Prometheus (Scott, 2012)
Alien: Covenant (Scott, 2017)
The Predator (Black, 2018)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
Predator 2 (Hopkins, 1990)