Please be cautioned that this essay contains some minor spoilers.
The film started to roll, with the letters and words of the credits coalescing out of that distinctive red Predator script, and I could still hardly believe that I was finally seeing it.
I saw the first "Alien" film in the theater on a double date when I was in high school. I was among the fanboys who immediately noticed the Alien skull in the trophy case in "Predator II." I have a pile of Dark Horse comics that pit Predators against Tarzan and Batman, and Aliens against Superman, and Aliens against Predators. I have heaps of old Kenner Alien and Predator toys, including Alien vs. Predator sets from about 1995. Over the many years of waiting and rumors, I'd reached the point of "I'll believe it when I see it" when it came to the prospect of an Aliens vs. Predator movie.
As Friday neared, I engaged in fretful conversations with my office friends about whether "AVP" would be any good. The third Alien movie was perhaps the worst science fiction movie ever, rivaling only "Highlander 2" for its spot at the bottom of the barrel. Clearly, it's possible for Hollywood to take a good idea and screw it up completely. But when the time came, I decided I had to go see it on opening day, regardless if it's good or bad. I've been waiting for too long to pass it up.
Besides that, I reasoned hopefully, even if this one is terrible, maybe if it does well at the box office, they'll make a sequel that will be better, like a Star Trek movie. So my ticket would be an investment in a better movie to come later. As my friend Joe Crowe said as he contemplated going to see "Catwoman" at the theater, sometimes we just have to support the genre.
At first the story drags a bit. As the characters in "AvP" set about to find this unlikely pyramid under the ice, we're ready to get on with it. Everybody knows the humans in this movie are in the way. Even the characters know it. They're just chum for aliens. But then we get tantalizing glimpses of the approaching Predators, which send ripples of excitement through the audience. We see an armored Predator mask, and my son and I nudge each other, whispering "WHOA! Cool!" to each other, exchanging wide-eyed grins.
Borrowing from the Best
The new film's contemporary setting makes it more an heir of the Predator series than the Alien series. As the setup unfolds, it makes sense and even ties in with the plot of the first Predator movie, when the South American characters speak in hushed terror about the ancient demon of the jungle. The back story is ancient, which lends a mythic dimension to the story.
"AVP" has lots of cool moments. For example, while a man guards the expedition, the Predator spaceship whispers by over his head, unseen like a black cat in the dark. The coolest moment of the entire movie is when a Predator whips out his wrist knives and beheads an Alien that's stalking him. Another thrill ripples through the audience at this stunning move. "Now HE is a BAD ASS," I whisper before I can stop myself. My son's nine and he isn't allowed to say "bad ass," but now he knows what one is.
The Aliens and Predators are done right. The Aliens are grotesque, vicious, relentless and terrifying. Without question, though, the stars of the movie are the Predators. They are the ultimate warriors, graceful and powerful and fierce. They are the fighters we aspire to be. They're like Navy SEALs from another planet.
I thought the best Aliens vs. Predator story line was "The Deadliest of the Species" in the Dark Horse comics. In that story, an Asian woman gets drawn into the Predator culture, basically becoming a Predator who joins the fierce clans in hunting Aliens. She wears Predator armor with a thong, and kicks ass. Without giving away too much of the movie, it's fair to say that "AVP" seems to borrow a few ideas and some imagery from "The Deadliest of the Species," and this is good. In fact, the best Aliens vs. Predator movie I could think of would be if they simply adapted a screenplay from that story.
Another check in the "coolness" column for "AVP" is the ritual way the Predator marks himself after he kills an Alien. It will probably prompt some overenthusiastic fanboys to get new tattoos.
Inevitably, "AVP" leaves some disappointment. The biggest problem: There aren't enough Predators. Two of the Predators get picked off entirely too quickly. I want to see them doing more of that Predator stuff. And the Predator who emerges as a hero doesn't quite make it in the end, which is disappointing. The end plays out way too much like "Predator II," which was OK, but it's been done. And the heroine is good, but I don't quite believe she could pull off what she accomplishes. She's a little like Predator II's Danny Glover in this regard: A good actor, but miscast. Not ferocious enough.
I'm conflicted about AVP's PG-13 rating. The movie wasn't nearly as gory as it could have been. In fact there's very little gore, and very little bad language. As a dad, this pleases me, because it means I can take my 9-year-old son to see the movie without it damaging his mind too much. I can share my sci-fi passion with him, and mold him as a fanboy in my own image. Yet, as a grown-up fanboy myself, I must admit to some secret disappointment that the movie wasn't more visceral.
The biggest letdown in this vein is when the heroine gets some acidic Alien blood splashed on her coat, and she starts shucking her clothes off as it burns through the cloth. I had a Quagmire moment, like the character in "Family Guy," thinking, "Allllll-right! Now we're going to see her topless!" ... Now, from a fanboy point of view, it just doesn't get any better than a topless babe, standing beside a Predator, fighting an alien. Put a beer in my hand at this point and I'm in heaven.... But no, I observe bitterly, she's wearing a T-shirt, and the fabric is apparently some sort of advanced "GORE"-Tex that is impervious to alien blood. I shake my fist at this T-shirt.... So you see my conflict. As a dad, I'm saying "Whew." As a fanboy, I'm thinking "Damn!"
Where are the Toys?!
The movie company apparently didn't have much confidence in the film. They didn't screen the movie for critics before its release, and there isn't any merchandising. Where are the toys? This is the only movie in history where all the toys came out 10 years before the movie did. There are some new McFarlane toys that look good on the shelf, but they're made of soft plastic like paraffin that disintegrates as soon as you try to actually play with them. Kenner was bought out by Hasbro, so we need some more good quality 12-inch aliens and Predators to mix it up with the G.I. Joes in the living room. And this time, give them good G.I. Joe articulation, with removable Predator masks and armor and weapons, not just sculpted vinyl figures with one pose. The McFarlane toys are the wrong scale to fight G.I. Joes, and they're too delicate. You can tie string and a bandana to a G.I. Joe and throw him off your deck like a paratrooper, and he'll survive a bad landing in the driveway. Predators should be that tough.
Kenner Predator and alien toys from 1995. The pale Predator at left was packaged with the alien in an Alien vs. Predator set. The brown Predator, right, was packaged individually. All are 1/6-scale vinyl figures. The Predators are articulated only at the shoulders. The alien has moveable legs, arms and head, and its tail has a flexible wire core.
Merchandising gripes aside, the bottom line on AVP is that I was prepared for the movie to be bad, but it's a lot better than I expected. Sure, it's not the movie I would have made myself, and I think it could have been a lot better. But I'm willing to be entertained. I approach a movie like this looking for a reason to like it, not looking for every little reason to hate it. It would have to be really awful for me to hate it like I loathed "Alien 3," "Highlander 2," and "Star Trek: Nemesis."
"AVP" might not be good enough to please a lot of mainstream moviegoers, which is bad, because box office success would ensure a sequel. On the other hand, IT'S PREDATORS, MAN! We've been waiting for this for way too long. There are more than enough good images and thrills on the screen to earn tickets from us fans.
I'll be buying the DVD when it comes out, for sure. As a fanboy, I'm secretly hoping there will be a director's cut DVD in which that Alien blood does more damage to the heroine's parka and causes a wardrobe malfunction. Then I'll be saying, "Alllll-right!"