When word trickled out in recent weeks that Fox's long-aborning creature feature franchise faceoff Alien vs. Predator was not only being released with a tame PG-13 rating, but also without any major advance screenings for press or otherwise--even the grand Hollywood red carpet premiere was cancelled--critics and fans alike started sharpening their knives. But the once-promising project was doomed to disaster for far longer, going back to the very moment Paul W.S. Anderson was awarded directing and screenwriting duties.
AvP (as the film's Melrose Place-like onscreen logo abbreviates the title) is, in all fairness, a step up of sorts for überhack Anderson as this film, unlike such execrable previous efforts as Soldier and Event Horizon, leans more toward the mediocre than the terrible. It certainly helps that he has two of the most iconic screen monsters at his disposal, and when the two finally face off, toothed tongue to tusk, there is a certain jolt of fanboy-fueled electricity. This first one-on-one tussle may not exactly live up to the years of anticipation, but witnessing on the big screen what had heretofore been confined to the comic book page and the video game monitor holds an undeniable novelty.
And therein lies the problem: Anderson never treats the basic concept, let alone the film, as little more than a novelty. It's no surprise that such a film gives its token human characters the short shrift (even more so given who is at the helm), but he pays little regard to the established mythology of the creatures. The Alien's development from egg to facehugger to chestburster to adult is wildly accelerated, hence removing a sorely-needed source of suspense and dread for the film. The Predator, an intelligent killer whose mindgames were as dangerous as its high-tech weaponry, has here been reduced to a generically kill-happy monster. These may seem like nitpicks, but details such as these are what made the creatures such popular screen villains, not simply their menacing looks. But leave it to Anderson to be satisfied with placing the the creatures--or, rather, guys in Alien and Predator costumes, for nothing beyond their surface appearances feel true to their histories--into the same frame.
While its title alone is the recipe for a summer blockbuster, in more creative hands, Alien vs. Predator could have been more than a throwaway thrill. The two creatures' behavior patterns are as different as their appearances, and the film could have more deeply explored the conflict between the Alien's instinctual killer impulse versus the Predator's more methodical hunt. But such an is unsurprisingly outside the grasp of Anderson, who misses an even greater opportunity to flesh out the fill in narrative holes in the franchises, particularly that of the Alien, since this film, by virtue of taking place in 2004, pre-dates the previous four films. Anderson makes a nod by casting Lance Henriksen--Bishop of the second and third films--as Charles Weyland, billionaire head of Weyland Industries, the direct precursor to that monolith of corporate evil Weyland-Yutani. But what could have been an interesting idea ultimately amounts to little more than a half-assed, tossed-off bone to the fandom that is neither thought through nor makes any real sense in continuity; based on Weyland's behavior and ultimate fate in this film, why exactly does the future Weyland-Yutani become so pathologically obsessed with the creature? That's a question Anderson never bothers asking himself, thinking that audiences will be too blindsided by his pursuit of that throwaway thrill.
Note that I said "pursuit" and not "achievement," for aside from that fleeting jolt of amusement stemming from the sight of the Alien and the Predator meeting up for the first time, AvP is shockingly dull. The dullness of the opening half hour is perhaps somewhat to be expected since there has to be some excuse to bring together the two species and the humans (for the record, they are an expedition team investigating a mysterious pyramid/energy source in Antarctica--in which sleeps an Alien Queen), but it's made all the more tedious to sit through thanks to Anderson's predictable, laughable fake-out horror stings and uninteresting human characters. Sanaa Lathan shows traces of spunk as the nominal Ripley stand-in Alexa Woods, but she, like the rest of the cast, are straightjacketed by Anderson's barely-there characterization; he even resorts to the desperate device of having a couple of characters mopily discuss their families to manufacture sympathy. But even after the initial creature meet and mayhem takes over the show, none of the action scenes are neither memorable nor particularly exciting; that one's dominating thought during the climactic chase/confrontation is how Alexa can survive freezing Antarctic temperatures sans parka says it all.
AvP, like most other Paul W.S. Anderson movies, not so much ends than walks directly into a hypothetical follow-up. Given the loud groans that met the final "twist"--I won't divulge it here, but the fact that Anderson plays an anticipated plot development that is clearly set up about midway through as a surprise is especially insulting--I don't think many moviegoers will be clamoring for a rematch.