AHHHHHOOOOOO! That my friends, is a howl of protest. Just one of the many being heard around the world at the moment. This isn't so much a review as a requiem. A mourning for the desecration of not one but two science fiction monster monoliths.
I knew AVP (Alien vs. Predator) was supposed to be bad even before I set foot in the theatre. Twentieth Century Fox didn't even hold advance press screenings and the fan boys have been buzzing for months about how drecky it might get be. And yes, it's true. It's bad. But not merely bad, worse than that, it's disrespectful: to its audience, to its source material, and to the craft of movie making. It assumes we're idiots (and maybe we are) but still we deserve better than this.
Andrew O'Hagan, the film critic for the Telegraph newspaper in London recently resigned his post and wrote a piece about it called "My Years in the Dark." It's
a compelling article and when I was saw AVP, I thought about some of the things Mr. O'Hagan said. Here's one: "When people made terrible movies I'd try to remember the great difficulties involved, the economics of the thing, the good intentions and even the hunger for art that must have existed at the beginning of so many of those projects. How did it go wrong? I wondered about charisma, nationality, storytelling, nostalgia: what rich failures made those movies turn out so bad, and what cultural moment were we living through that made the badness so familiar?"
Makes Van Helsing seem to sing
It's been a bad summer, starting off with Van Helsing, The Chronicles of Riddick and now this.
The first 40 minutes of the film are incredibly dull, and when the action finally starts, if happens so fast and furiously that you aren't even given sufficient time to register what's going on. When a mysterious heat bloom is discovered under the ice in the Antarctica, Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) assembles a team of crack scientists and experts to go see what gives. Sanaa Lathan, who plays Alexa Woods, is supposed to be the expedition's leader and she's really the only person who gets to do much of anything. The rest of the ensemble cast are ciphers, faceless and completely devoid of personality, except for Ewen Bremner (who previously played Spud in Train Spotting). Whenever he opened his mouth what issued forth was a Scottish brogue so thick it needed subtitles. The team arrives on site and quickly find themselves in the middle of a war between two distinctly unfriendly foreigners. Cue the gunfire, explosions and endless running around.
Despite the noise, or maybe because of it, there is a strange emptiness at the heart of this movie. A hollow place where real feeling should dwell. Even the actors seem to be sleep walking. They're as uniformly good looking as soap opera thesps and as paper thin. They exist just for a body count. If you're going to build a film around an ensemble cast, you should actually spend some time giving people names, jobs, and personalities so that when they bite it, we feel a little sad. This lack of even a passing interest in character development made me miss James Cameron and I don't even particularly like James Cameron. But the United States Colonial Marine Corp in Aliens -- Vasquez and Hudson and Hicks -- they were real people, reacting like real people would, scared shitless and blubbering hysterically.
Anyone actually breathing?
But perhaps the worst thing, the thing that made me angry, is the lack of attention to detail. This is the type of film that could make you burst a blood vessel if you think too much about it, because obviously no else was thinking much at all. There are too many examples to list so here is just a sampling...
The action takes place in the deepest darkest heart of Antarctica but it doesn't actually appear to be cold. Whenever anyone speaks you can't see their breath. It looks as if they're standing a warm room talking comfortably with each other. Which in fact, they probably are. Unlike John Carpenter's The Thing, another film set in the Antarctic where the killing cold is as much as threat as the monstrous Thing itself, this movie doesn't even have the grace to maintain its own illusions.
When the team finds the ancient Cambodian/Aztec/Egyptian Pyramid, there are what looks like spider webs strung through its interior despite the fact that it's buried 2000 feet under the ice. So where the heck are these spiders coming from?
Those lovely originals
Dialogue that could make you weep and tear your hair: "The enemy of my enemy is my enema." Who did they pay to write this stuff, and where can I find him and beat him until I feel some satisfaction? Mr. Anderson is responsible for both the story and the screenplay and he throws the logic of the first films out the window. The notion that the Aliens grow over a period of time, shedding their skins and getting bigger and more ferocious is completely gone. As is the idea that the Predators kill humans, not befriend them. But more importantly, where's the menace, the fear, the creeping dread, the thing that makes us feel anything?
Here's something else Mr. O'Hagan said: "I think it's quite important sometimes to hate things, not be amused by them, or loftily tolerant of them, but to want to cut off their oxygen supply and mash them into the ground, thereafter to plant something lovely in their place." More than anything this film made me miss the
originals, lovely as they are. Ridley Scott film birthed this dark baby with Alien (1979), James Cameron gave it a good smack on the ass to start it howling with Aliens (1986) and even David Fincher's version Alien3 (1992) has grown on me over the years. But the French and their yogurt covered Alien, dealt the bugs a blow. Alien: Resurrection (1997) directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet gave us an alien so unfrightening that when it cooed its bilious baby talk at Ripley what could you do but laugh. The Queen was dead.
There's nothing new about sequels going bad. Look at the path from Jaws to Jaws: the Revenge. What can you say really? But product placement and the impact of video games (Mr. Anderson has directed two video game films Mortal Combat and Resident Evil) have also taken their toll on the art of cinema. Certainly movies are products, shilled endlessly. Van Helsing packed in the punters with a promotional budget that rivaled the film itself and didn't bother to deliver anything coherent on screen. This film is no different really. Its PG-13 rating is meant in part to entice a younger audience. Pity the poor kiddies, if this is what they think science fiction is all about.
Andrew O'Hagan quit his job because he'd started to hate movies and I can see what drove him there, the magic goes replaced by shoddy shades of what it used to be. We go to movies because we want to feel something, and all too often all we feel is cheated.
Dwelling on things of course, doesn't change the movie or how much money it will make, but AVP might spell the end of these two franchises. And maybe that's for the best. Like Mr. O'Hagan says "Movies are a kind of poetry. I felt that very strongly watching Jaws, the only time my father took me to the pictures."
I have a special place in my heart for Aliens (xenomorphs to their friends of which they don't have very many.) I saw the original when I was quite young, and ever since then they've lived in my head. I have dreams about them, dreams far more terrifying than than anything Paul W.S. Anderson puts up on screen. I'd like them to stay there, dark and teeming and ultimately mysterious in their purposes.
Dorothy Woodend reviews film for The Tyee every Friday.