The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by raving (mad) Fox execs, probably the same ones who okayed Brett Ratner to direct X-Men: Last Stand.
AVPR isn’t actually unwatchable, except the action sequences, which are shrouded in darkness and beset by incomprehensible edits, but it isn’t remotely a good movie. Directors the Strauss brothers went on to make the abominable Skyline, while screenwriter Shane Salerno is helping James Cameron out with his Avatars, so there’s a wealth of talent there not made good.
The bungle of setting this instalment on present day Earth is brazen in its disregard for continuity, which is probably why it and its predecessor have been summarily ignored by the recently proprietorial Sir Ridders, but Salerno and the Strausses take irritating pains to insert set-ups for T2-esque links to the future of the budding AVP-verse (Ms Yutani shows up, taking possession of some Predator tech). Why, it’s almost as annoying as trying to join the dots in establishing who the space jockeys are, the origins of the xenomorphs and of, indeed, mankind itself…
10. AVP: Alien vs. Predator
You can rely on Paul WS Anderson to deliver the most vanilla Alien movie, and the most vanilla Predator one too, come to that. As inoffensive as its PG-13/15 rating suggests, it still manages to mess with franchise lore to the extent that the only way to see it post-Prometheus is as non-canonical (Requiem too: see above). Set in the present, on Earth, with Predators revealed as von Daniken-esque gods of men and the xenomorphs their ancient contemporaries revived periodically for young Predator rites of passage, the most solid part is actually that set up (because, if you’re going to jump through hoops to bring these elements together, it could feasibly have been much worse).
Everything else consists of tired rehashes of characters (what characters?), scenes and concepts (the life cycle of the alien is accelerated for the purposes of a 90-minute run time, so at least AVP is brief). Lead Sanaa Lathan is as forgettable as the movie itself, one where all the wrong things stick in the mind (the bodybuilder Predators, the Predalien chestburster, speed-ramping facehuggers).
And yet, it’s too bland to get irate over its indiscretions, and Anderson can at least be relied on to maintain a basic level of competence (visually rather than as multi-hyphenate scribe of the screenplay). Mostly, the takeaway from AVP is how disposable Fox now saw its once mighty franchises, in similarly exploitable fashion to the previous year’s horror match-up Freddy vs Jason. Even if he might not have got it right, the return of Ridley Scott, or someone like him – Predator has definitely lucked in more with Shane Black, who was also there at the start of that series – to at least show the intent of bringing back the series’ lustre, was very necessary.
Predators is a rock-solid case of damning a sequel with faint praise, but that’s its own fault (or rather, Robert Rodriguez’, whose 1994 screenplay was dusted off) for being so utterly “sufficient”. As imperfect as Predator 2 is, it at least fashioned a distinctive setting for its wandering hunter. Predators is set on an alien Predator planet, but it might as well be the same jungle as the original, what with the same music (although that isn’t a bad thing), the same lines, the same camouflage ruse and even rebooted scenes (having a sword fight with one of the title characters).
Still, if Adrien Brody is closer to a chicken on steroids than Arnie, he actually delivers a decent post-Bale-Batman throaty antihero growl. Predators is a movie I’d like to like more, as it doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, even if it’s additions to Predator mythology are patchy, and director Nimrod Atal does a consistently competent job. But decent is exactly what the franchise didn’t need after two decades without a proper sequel. Now, if only someone like Shane Black had taken the reins…
8. Predator 2
One of the all-time great tag lines (“He’s coming to town with a few days to kill”) sadly isn’t indicative of the quality of Stephen Hopkins’ sequel, which fails to live up to the John McTiernan and Arnold Schwarzenegger enriched original. A big factor is simply that Danny Glover is horrendously miscast, not remotely convincing as an action guy, let alone an action guy who can take on a Predator and win. I’ve never been a Steven Seagal fan (although, nothing approaching Ukraine levels of enmity), but I kind of wish Fox had insisted on foisting him on Hopkins, as the results might have been more entertaining (if perhaps not intentionally so).
Hopkins is also no McTiernan when it comes to staging, or restraint (it initially garnered a NC-17 certificate, and is still unnecessarily over the top in places). There are some competent set pieces here, but he’s unable to imbue the picture with more than a derivative flavour of the future (it’s hot in this 1997, damn hot, and the fashions, tending to zoot suits and fedoras, are much too “designed”).
There are compensations, however: Gary Busey and Bill Paxton are entertaining, Calvin Lockhart is memorable as stereotype Jamaican gangster King Willie, a punk gang on a commuter train discover every commuter is fully armed, and there’s a hilarious moment when the Predator smashes through an old couple’s apartment (“Herb, there’s somebody in the bathroom”). Alan Silvestri’s score is also as stunning as ever. Of course, Hopkins has a lot to answer for on an entirely different level, shovelling the Alien universe into Predator’s canonical connecting tissue when he had the bright idea of placing a xenomorph skull in a trophy cabinet aboard the Predator spaceship.
I suspect the Christmas release date wasn’t the wisest for the picture, but Glover’s non-star status probably hurt it more: it made less than half Predator’s gross, and effectively put an end to the franchise on the big screen for another 14 years. And, when it did return, it was, of course, as a Fox cash-grab.
A fatally compromised picture, first and foremost due to the spinelessness of producers Walter Hill, David Giler and Larry Ferguson in getting cold feet over Vincent Ward’s unique wooden spaceship take, but then as a result of the constant interference novice motion picture director David Fincher encountered in trying to bring something distinctive to the screen.
There are traces of what might have been in the final movie, much more so in The Assembly Cut, which reintegrates thematic material such as the Golic subplot and dramatically improves the front half of the picture, but it’s in no way the salvaged masterpiece some would have you believe. The latter stages still amount to a muddy, incoherent run around. There are still too many bald British thesps screaming “Fuck!” and “Wanker!” interchangeably. And the director’s key choices (a rod puppet alien, shooting the entire picture from a low angle) still often distract from the drama, while the best character (Clemens) still exits much too early.
On the positive side, the funereal atmosphere is potent, Sigourney Weaver delivers a committed performance that mostly surpasses the limitations of her dialogue and scripted motivation, Elliot Goldenthal’s score is something of a classic, and it stars Brian Glover. Brian Glover! The disposal of Hicks and Newt isn’t, in and of itself, such a loss (Newt is pretty much side-lined in most other drafts of the screenplay, so it was never going to be a happy family reunion); the problem is that not enough is brought into play either to justify the decision or support the subsequent departure of its lead character.
Fincher commented “I think audiences find it pretentious and ponderous and resent the fact that it’s not a scary movie. It’s a queasy-scare movie”. It may sound sacrilegious, but I agree with him on one level; I don’t think an Alien movie necessarily needs to be scary. It does, however, need to be compelling. Somewhere around the umpteenth identikit character being killed by a monster that doesn’t even occupy the same screen space, Alien3 stops being that.
6. Alien Resurrection
The misshapen newborn of the franchise is oft-maligned, not least by writer Joss Whedon, eager to lay all the blame at director Jeanne Pierre-Jeunet’s door. You can debate whether it was a wise move to bring back Ripley – as much as whether it was very smart to kill her off in the first place – but one of Alien Resurrection’s strengths is Weaver’s performance as a not-the-same hybrid trying to discover just what she is and what she stands for, complete with an ambivalence towards the humans who have only sought to use and abuse her. By the same token, the performance can only go so far, undercut as it is by standard Whedon trademark quipping.
A positive takeaway from this is that the first three sequels can, collectively, at least boast something more than being bog-standard cash-ins, however variable the end results are. Alien Resurrection couldn’t be further away from the grimdark tone of Fincher’s predecessor, boasting a positively goofy approach to Alien lore, replete with broad humour and slapstick violence – Dan Hedaya stares at a handful of his own brain matter, Leland Orser impales JE Freeman on his own chestburster, after we’ve been treated to a down-the-throat shot of it stirring to erupt – and a cast that’s just as colourful. Whedon opined that his script remained but the picture couldn’t have been more different to his intent; I for one am grateful we didn’t get a standard Whedon engine. I can imagine, had Paul WS Anderson helmed it (as might have happened), we’d be looking at the kind of run-of-the-mill fare the mind conjures when conjecturing a Renny Harlin Alien3. Or an Anderson AVP…
And there’s a lot to enjoy in Alien Resurrection, even though it’s nothing if not a mess. Whedon has come armed with a raft of keen ideas, from hijacking cryosleep test subjects, to a room full of horrific Ripley clone rejects, to the marvellous sequence in which the marvellous Brad Dourif (seriously, the highlight of the picture – if the whole thing had been him making kissy-kissy with the xenomorphs, this would have been an all-time classic) witnesses stunned as the aliens show how much smarts they really have by killing one of their number in order to engineer a stunning prison break. Darius Khondji’s cinematography ensures it’s one of the best looking in the series, John Frizzell’s score is suitable lush, and Bob Ringwood’s costume design (influenced by Caro) is as heightened as the characters. Additionally, the rest of the cast (a sadly out of her element Noonie excepted) make for an enjoyably ghoulish bunch of grotesques.
But, in the end, Alien Resurrection sadly falls victim to devolving into an A-to-B run-around, stopping off on various levels for a bit of incident and garishness like it’s a weird Gallic video game. Added to which, it lacks a proper ending (even in the Extended Cut), isn’t especially scary (the underwater sequence is a commendable exception, marvellously executed), and its limitations are compounded by the reliance on CGI for some of the alien work. And the newborn... Yes, the newborn. Or rather, no, not the newborn.
5. Alien: Covenant
The desire to excavate the backstory of properties that weaved their magic over a previous generation, in an act of misguided pandering to nostalgia, so collapsing all that was so effective about them, is a sad inevitability by this point. What makes it even sadder is that Ridley Scott was the instigator of this, rather than, say, Renny Harlin back in ’88-89. Having taken a dump on space jockeys and connected significant dots between the xenomorph and the origins of humanity in Prometheus, Scott now lays bare the remaining territory, and it’s difficult to get too upset, as it does, at least, fit with the series new thematic range, that of the power to create, and the ability to misuse this power, and so in turn be supplanted by one’s creations. Where once it was corporate interests that dictated characters’ survival, the stakes are now philosophical, and for my part I’ve learnt to stop worrying about the decimated mystery of the space jockey and love whatever barking, logically deficient place the franchise takes us next.
Scott’s portrayal of AIs here may lack the restraint and nuance of Blade Runner, but in its own Sturm-und-Drang way, it’s just as effective, as David’s Dr Moreau unleashes his carefully nurtured creations on an unsuspecting humanity, and in so doing, in a delightfully depraved twist, interpolates himself as he series’ new ambivalent protagonist/antagonist. The downside of all this is that humanity itself gets short shrift, with daft decisions that make some of Prometheus’ sorer plot points look, relatively, entirely reasonable.
Alien: Covenant is also, at times, an uncomfortable mash-up of two different movies; sometimes the contrast works highly effectively. At others, your reminded you’re watching a by-the-numbers Aliens bug hunt (the climax), which may as well be an outtake from an AVP for all the invention involved (talking of which, David presented with a stock of human embryos provides a slightly less queasy flashback to Requiem’s maternity ward).
We’re a long, long way from the naturalism of Alien now, but for all that John Logan’s influence means Covenant succumbs to periodic laziness, there’s still the David/Walter thread elevating it, so ensuring the series remains more than just another monster movie. Of which, surprised as I am to admit this and CGI notwithstanding, the neomorphs are an admirably nasty little creation.
Ever since Alien3, the series has received wildly divergent responses, none more so than those directed towards Prometheus, where the frequent reaction from many of the would-be faithful was akin having been force-fed a bucket of cold sick, with post-mortem accusations blaming the grim menu variously on Damon Lindelof (a scapegoat, in my view) and Sir Ridders himself, due his overstuffed bag of things he wanted to say. The latter’s probably closer to the true culprit, but to counter that, he has made a frequently stunning-looking movie, and one I’m happy to take the ride with every time, even given its more egregious failings.
The most infamous of these being, understandably, Jonny “I love rocks” Harris and Rafe “You’re gorgeous” Spall as the ineptest pair of scientists in existence in any century, Palaeolithic included. Of course, the ludicrous disregard for any kind of quarantine protocols is a close runner up (and when they do consider them, burning someone to death seems as sadistic a choice as it did in Alien Resurrection). Then there’s Tom Hardy’s mystifying desire to get pissed out of his head when he discovers the engineers are dead (so he thinks), with all the scientific rigour of a petulant child. And Charlize Theron (as a much more interesting character than the somewhat wet Noome Rapace, whose performance frequently resembles that of an overwrought hamster) going to the dynamic lengths of escaping her doomed ship only to come a cropper when attempting to outrun a collapsing engineer spacecraft (run right, run left, but don’t run in a straight line). Added to which, casting Guy Pearce under layers of makeup that absolutely does not look at all good under harsh lights was a resoundingly misjudged move. I’m also not overly keen on that score, which is fine but nothing remotely approaching iconic. And “WMDs”. The protomorph is a bit crappy too (no one will ever learn not to mess with these designs, they’re always inferior, even Alien: Covenant’s actually-quite-effective neomorph).
Considerably balanced against that is a superb lead character who sustains the picture through its shortcomings. This is a very different beast to Alien, which prided itself on realism and low-key dialogue; you only have to compare the blue-collar characters in both to see how “written” the lines are here (and not that well written). In contrast, as heightened as David is compared to Ash, he’s incredibly well served on that front (“Miss Vickers would like a quick word, before the adventure begins”; “He said, try harder”; “Cup of tea?”; “My, my, you’re pregnant. I didn’t think you had it in you. Sorry, poor choice of words”; “Have a good journey, Mr Weyland”) and shrewdly motivated, and one of the unarguable successes of the picture is the parallels drawn between generations of creator and created, attaining focus through his character. David’s ambivalence towards Weyland’s obsession is as engaging as is his curiosity over usurping humans’ command over him (his decision to dose Logan Marshall-Green’s Holloway is almost certainly due to the latter’s taunts: “I almost forgot, you’re not a real boy”).
And there’s the confidence of the filmmaking, the marvellous design work, the set piece moments (the surgery scene, David discovering the map room, the strangely Lovecraftian battle between engineer and tentacled monstrosity). I’m not keen on prequels generally, even less so on joining the dots and reducing the mythical elements to inevitably underwhelming visualisations, the space jockey particularly so, but for all its mishmash of high concept and low character, I’m definitely a Prometheus apologist.
“It is using the trees.” I wouldn’t seek to suggest Predator is any way the masterpiece Alien is, but both have in common making the best they possibly can of a straightforward premise thanks to the sheer acumen of their directors. In Predator’s case, John McTiernan comes on board and makes a muscular (chucklesomely so when Arnie’s Dutch and Carl Weather’s Dillon homoerotically arm wrestle) jungle movie, in which a crack team of commandos are picked off one by one by the Viet Cong – I mean, an alien (see also the next entry on the list). The material is always just one step away from self-parody (“I ain’t got time to bleed”) but its director has such a firm grip on atmosphere, pace and escalating tension that it never teeters over the brink.
Arnie is handed one of his most iconic roles, matched against a foe who could believably best him, and supported by a selection of actors with variously great chops (Carl Weathers, Bill Duke), attitude (Jesse Ventura) or quips (Shane Black, providing unofficial script doctoring and getting to see how a Joel Silver movie is made).
And props to Stan Winston for the creature design (suggested by James Cameron, no less, after the original idea, to be played by the Muscles from Brussels, went pear-shaped) and Alan Silvestri for furnishing an excellent score (even if his military eulogy theme is a little full-on for my tastes). The presence of Cameron and McTiernan on the moviemaking scene set a new bar for action in the ‘80s, making a number of the surrounding Arnie vehicles of the period seem forgettably workmanlike; there have been enough well-designed creatures in movies that have failed to guarantee franchises, but then, they didn’t have a director of this stature to make them iconic.
Pauline Kael called the return of Ripley “no more than a smart Rambo”, and if she went against the grain of the generally rapturous greeting for James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, she isn’t too far off the mark. There’s no room for subtlety in the comic book re-envisaging of this universe, filled as it is with broad dialogue, characterisation and set ups (Chekov’s power loader). In all cases, the result is that sometimes it’s great and sometimes its clunky. There’s no doubt about it, though; even with the passage of time having worn off some of its lustre, Aliens delivers.
If you’re happy to go along with the obviousness of the tropes – out-of-their-depth marines up against Viet Cong xenomorphs, bereaved parent finds motherhood once more and even a new post-nuclear family with a funny uncle – the sheer energy with which Cameron bundles the proceedings along, after a typical slow-paced build-up, is thrilling and enervating. Cameron’s a guy who wants to have his cake and eat it, so he just loves the military and fetishising the weaponry as much as he apparently wishes to critique the same, culminating in a catfight between matriarchs of the separate (predominately) male squaddies. But, of course, anyone who’s seen anything of his career knows that’s what lights his fire.
Some of the effects work here is undeniably shonky, HD being especially unforgiving, and the xenomorphs themselves are, for all their numbers, reduced to little more than slavering cannon fodder, like storm troopers with the occasional acid arterial spray, something of a climb down form the invincible force Scott gave us. So too, Cameron heads in a direction that fundamentally conflicts with the cold, unforgiving universe of Scott’s picture, offering its protagonist the comfort of family and an end to the nightmares.
As such, there’s a diminishing of Scott’s star beast on a number of levels, the uncanny reconfigured as a shoot ‘em up and the Company’s machinations becoming personified by an ‘80s suit (however enjoyably played by Paul Reiser). And yet, it’s very difficult to be churlish about this, particularly with such finely devised action sequences (the power station, the lab, the extraordinarily sustained escalation when the xenomorphs break through the barriers) and such memorable characters (take a bow Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen and the late, great Bill Paxton). Nevertheless, there isn’t room in this universe for happy endings. Something had to give…
Perhaps the most striking point to identify itself on revisiting the Alien series is how fundamentally they all diverge from Ridley Scott’s aesthetic in one key aspect: character. Even Alien3, which attempts to wrestle with the heavy mortal themes of its lead’s passing, is subjected to broad, movie, evidently scripted dialogue and motivation. Prometheus, Scott’s return to the series, is almost flippant in its disdain for anything approaching realistic decision making or language (fine when it’s Fassbender’s David, less so when its human characters says stupid things, philosophically or scientifically).
Which isn’t to suggest the series ought to steer towards a singular template or method in order to succeed, but it may be telling that its first and best entry does indeed adopt a restrained, naturalistic approach. With Scott, it’s always more likely that the stylistic informs the approach to performance, whatever he may say about it being the story that comes first (if it was, his filmography wouldn’t be littered with such an abundance of half-baked pictures), and so it is that this designed but entirely tangible, lived-in, used future is inhabited by entirely tangible, unshowy, flawed, believable characters (alternatively, as the original Variety review put it, “a generally good cast in cardboard roles”). Even the android has an understated cool, calculated bent.
I’m not sure that approach would work now – its character and tone is very much informed by the preceding decade, one that shook up traditional Hollywood filmmaking and then reverted to type – and whether audiences would accept it in an age where the knowing, post-modern, self-referential – or just plain shoddily written – is accepted and encouraged. I can’t think of a big science fiction movie since that, for all Alien’s legendary influence, embraces the same approach (its closest antecedent might be The Andromeda Strain, nearly a decade earlier).
All of which is to say, Alien’s enduring power derives from the immediacy and coherence of its environment. Scott invoked Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an influence, a movie I’m no great fan of and one it might take a few sideways looks at too see the relationship, but aside from the gulf in artistry, they both share a similarly visceral quality. Alien treats the science fiction and horror as authentic and so achieves something approaching perfection in both genres. While sympathies may be due other entries in the series for coming up short, absolutely none are required here.
And what next for the Predalien-verse?
The Predator opens summer 2018, moved back from February. Fortunately, it isn’t the last week of August (being the dumpster for dreck studios have essentially written off). Hopefully then, that’s a cause for optimism, and hopefully Shane Black can get something special from his cast (Boyd Holbrook’s a relatively untested big screen lead, but Thomas Jane can surely do no wrong, except when matched against the antagonist). On paper at least, it’s the most hopeful the franchise has looked in thirty years…
And, assuming Alien: Covenant makes enough dough (and the less than universal adoration for Prometheus looks to have taken a chunk out of its potential grosses, set against Ridley bringing it in cheap, estimates varying from $90m to his own $111m), the director has promised Alien: Awakening in the next year or two. He’ll inevitably become distracted, just as he has talked up various numbers of sequel-prequels (I think one more’s quite enough, then leap post-Resurrection, least we are forever stuck in a Star Trek void of failing to go boldly), but he’s clearly left a big gap he intends to fill between Covenant and Alien. The latter’s derelict can only be the same as the one in Covenant if it somehow finds its way back to David and he fills it full of eggs (alternatively, he returns to the unnamed planet, which seems a tad unlikely). So did he entirely “expire” Walter? Could Walter repair the ship with his decade-plus superior android knowhow? I’m just keen to see Walter again, truth be told.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.