When Good Series Go Bad
I watched Alien Vs Predator: Requiem this weekend on DVD. Sigh. Has there ever been a franchise that started off as incredible, and then became so abysmal, as the Alien and Predator series?
(A certain series about a family named Skywalker does come to mind, although I consider the prequels to be apocryphal thus allowing the Original Trilogy to maintain its luster in my mind…)
The first Alien was a ground-breaking work. H.R. Giger’s creature design was a marvel of originality – truly unlike anything that had ever been seen before. The script was smart, the cast was terrific, and director Ridley Scott created a compelling, fully-realized world for his characters to inhabit. The “look” of Alien is imitated almost as much as Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. The visual effects hold up and the film remains a white-knuckle suspense roller-coaster even today – a pretty stunning feat for a movie made in 1979.
The sequel, Aliens, was directed by another visionary – James Cameron. He wisely avoided creating a simple retread of the first movie. Instead, he made a balls-to-the-wall action movie that is intense, exciting, and scary from the first scene to the last. But what makes the action work is the great screenplay and attention to character development. Cameron, aided by a terrific ensemble of actors (Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and a star-making performance from Bill Paxton – “maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, man!”) created a group of distinct, interesting characters that are enormous fun to watch. These characters aren’t stereotypes – they all (at least, the ones who survive – and even many of the ones who don’t) grow and change as the film moves forward. The relationship between Ripley and the little girl Newt is the heart of the movie. When bad things start to happen (and they do), this makes all the action that much more gripping. And the action and (pre-CGI) visual effects are spectacular.
Then there’s Predator. Gone With The Wind this ain’t, but it is a staggeringly entertaining action film. As with Alien and Aliens, part of the magic of this film is the way the combination of script, director, and actors creates a group of characters that are extraordinarily watchable. That’s the key to a good they’re-gonna-die-one-by-one sort of movie – the viewer really needs to invest in the ensemble of characters. And what an ensemble we have here: Arnold Schwarzenegger at his ripped-bicep monosyllabic best; Carl Weathers at HIS ripped-bicep monosyllabic best; Bill Duke and his intense eyes; and Jesse “The Body” Ventura chewing his cigar and all the scenery. Fine actors they aren’t – but they’re just so much FUN to watch. And the Predator design is, in many ways, as original and ground-breaking as Giger’s Alien. It’s all put together by the great John McTiernan (Die Hard), who directs action like no one else.
Those are three GREAT films. But then what happened???
Alien 3: Here’s an idea – let’s take all the beloved characters from Aliens and kill them off before the opening credits are finished. Then have Ripley commit suicide at the end. THAT’s the way to extend a successful franchise! (Actually, of all the bad Alien and Predator sequels, this one has aged the best. I still think it was a bone-headed direction to go with the series, and my goodness is this a downbeat film – but once I accept that I can enjoy, upon repeat viewings, David Fincher’s directing and the great performances of Charles S. Dutton, Pete Postlethwaite, Charles Dance, and Lance Henriksen.)
Alien Resurrection: Ripley comes back to life as a half-Alien clone, then has sex with the Alien Queen who gives birth to a monstrous human-alien hybrid. I am not kidding.
Predator 2: Arnold Schwarzenegger is replaced by Danny Glover, who wastes no time getting all Martin Riggs on the Predator in future LA. Oh, and it also stars Gary Busey.
Alien Versus Predator: I don’t understand how you can have a movie called Alien Versus Predator and only have like five minutes of Alien versus Predator action. And don’t get me started on the notion that Predators built the Mayan pyramids.
Alien Versus Predator Requiem: Why is this movie called “Requiem”? Can anyone tell me? OK, there’s a lot of Alien versus Predator action in this one (which puts it a step above the 1 st AVP) but holy cow is this film a mess. Every one of the characters introduced is flat and uninteresting. I cannot (even though I just watched this yesterday) recall a single one of their names. The action geography of the story is utterly incomprehensible – the Predator will be in one part of the town in one scene, and then cut to the next scene in another part of town and suddenly its there too…and throughout the second half of the film characters keep randomly running right into one another for no other reason than the plot demands it (example: a group of characters hide out in a gun shop, and then two other characters who are running from a different Alien attack just happen to run into that same gun shop even though it was established earlier in the movie that they lived in a totally different part of the town). As with Alien Resurrection, the filmmakers feel the need to muck with the iconic Alien and Predator designs by introducing another hybrid character – in this case, a Predalien. Ugh.
But probably the worst sin of AVPR (I feel really silly typing that ridiculous acronym) is that, by setting the story in present-day (and in a small town in Colorado), it just makes the Predator and Alien monsters seem so…pedestrian. The early films in these franchises all took place in incredibly exotic locales – the deep space freighter Nostromo in Alien…the brutal colony world LV-427 in Aliens…even the deep Central American jungles of Predator. I’m sure the filmmakers thought they were putting a fresh new spin on things by taking these creatures and putting them in the middle of “Anytown, USA” but all they do is make these incredible movie monsters seem like they’re in just another run-of-the-mill teen horror movie. How boring.
Here’s hoping that May 22’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t make me want to that great franchise to this category of Good Series Gone Bad!