(Photo by © 20th Century Fox)
Just like you at home, we at Rotten Tomatoes – the writers and staffers who bring you the site’s original content – don’t always agree with the Tomatometer verdict. (Just check out our list of Rotten movies we love.) Enter AVP: Alien vs. Predator: The 2004 sci-fi thriller so nice they named it twice, sitting pretty with a 20% Tomatometer score and 39% Audience Score. Critics felt it was toothless and scare-free, while YOU felt it bungled the Alien franchise’s far-future continuity. And pretty much everyone thought the AVP-colon business in the title was just stupid. But, looking back – more fondly than we expected – as we near the release of Shane Black’s The Predator, we’ve come to a strange realization: AVP is actually pretty good.
No, really. AVP: Alien vs. Predator – our levels of respect are such that we will use the full name! – is almost criminally underrated. It has a great cast, a fantastic set-up, and more than enough action and fan-service for a nerdgasmic experience, if you’re a fan of either franchise. And it is, without a doubt, better than some of its contemporaries. Don’t believe us? Read on for some reasons why you should revisit it sometime.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator borrowed heavily from the Dark Horse-published comic of the same name, which featured Machiko Noguchi, human protagonist-turned-Predator protégé. She would go on to be a series staple and fan-favorite character.
Sanaa Lathan is fantastic in the film as Alexa “Lex” Woods, a mountaineer and environmental technician who is, in many ways, modeled after Noguchi. Woods is a pragmatic and resourceful guide for the Weyland Industries expedition to a Predator temple. She is the definition of “cooler heads prevailing” when among her scientist cohorts, but she has no trouble mixing it up with the Aliens and Predators – so much so that the Predator Scar takes her as an apprentice and eventually uses Alien blood to brand her with a warrior’s mark, rendering her an honorary Predator. So cool.
Lathan brings great physicality to the role, using a spear and shield crafted from an Alien’s carapace to fight an Alien Queen. More, Lathan’s screen time with Scar displays her impressive range as an actor (yes, we did just say that in a piece about Alien vs. Predator) – her initial horror develops into curiosity, admiration, empathy, compassion, and remorse in a way that others might render mawkish. She’s a fantastic character, and – attention, Shane Black, if you’re gearing up for a sequel – we’d love to see her return to the series.
In AVP, we see Lance Henriksen as Charles Bishop Weyland, CEO of the company, and are given a sense of what drives the company’s achievements in exploration, satellite communication, and robotics: legacy. Weyland is obsessed with creating something of lasting value and leaving his mark on society, a trait that would continue to define the company after its merger with the Yutani Corporation. What’s more, even though Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Alien: Covenant strip the company’s backstory from the canon, they still maintain the motivation of legacy and creation.
AVP adds a ton to the canon. The discoveries made in AVP: Alien vs. Predator explain the Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s knowledge of and interest in the Alien race. Henriksen’s casting as Weyland implies that the company used human proxies for their androids, which suggests that the second Bishop in Alien 3 is also an android and possibly an unwitting one. Where so many prequels sully the continuities with rehashed plots or silly contrivances, AVP deepens the existing lore – especially that of Weyland Industries – without detracting from previous films.
By 2004, Aliens and Predators were a pop-cultural institution, with endless comics, video games, and action figures. In effect, they’d become as recognizable as chattier horror fixtures like Freddy Krueger (the Predators even have some choice one-liners in their films). A comic book and video game enthusiast himself, director Paul W.S. Anderson played into the idea of character in AVP by enriching the warring races’ personalities.
The Predators are presented as an imperialistic race of hunters on a sacred rite of passage – and more importantly, they’re rookies: They’re reckless, arrogant, and underestimate their opponents, leading to their demise. Each Predator is given just enough personality to be distinctive: Celtic, their wizened leader; Chopper, who specializes in wrist blades; Scar, who wields a Frisbee-sized Shuriken and befriends Woods; and Elder, who demonstrates an uncharacteristic understanding and empathy for its race.
The Aliens get a special character in the form of Grid, an Alien who barely survived a Predator’s Netgun. Named for the markings left by the net, Grid becomes the Predators’ nemesis, leading a pack of Aliens on the hunt for their hunters like the head of a brutal posse. Even the Alien Queen, previously depicted as a vengeful mother in Aliens and a tender one in Alien Resurrection, is given new dimensions, coming across as starvation-maddened and berserk, bent purely on feeding.
AVP knew what it had to deliver for fans: shared continuity and a victory lap for the series, just as Freddy vs. Jason had been tasked to do earlier, and the Avengers would have to do later. The whole point of AVP is to pay off the set-ups in previous films (the Alien trophy in Predator 2 and implications of Weyland-Yutani in the Alien series), and to blend the Alien franchise’s horror with the Predator franchise’s action. It does those things and more by touching upon every previously established idea in both franchises and pushing them further. And holy nerdgasm, those fight scenes – you get your money’s worth.
More importantly, AVP knows what its audience needs. It’s a message flick – really. Its plot is about the nature of hubris: The human characters explore the Antarctic for forbidden knowledge and are slaughtered for it; the Predators are arrogant enough to believe they can control the Aliens, and things go just as well for them. Anderson presents all of these Aesopian morals without compromising his comic book-styled, action-horror adventure.
Which makes it better than Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
We know the Tomatometer would say different (AVP is Rotten, the other guys are Fresh), but hear us out.
All three films are riffs on H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, a story where humans travel to a newly discovered cradle of civilization intending to learn the secrets of the gods. There, they find that the gods fashioned and exploited a slave race, which later rose up to slay them. Humanity now must flee from the emancipated slave race. The films are, in terms of story structure, very similar.
The difference is in the execution. AVP knows that it’s a pulpy camp-fest and leans into it, reimagining Madness with fun and consistent characters, consistent tone, and clear cause-and-effect. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant want to be prestige genre pieces but are stuffed with characters whose personalities and sense of logic fluctuate from scene to scene as wildly as the film’s tone shifts from horror to camp to philosophy class. And whereas AVP gets to the action, the other flicks’ narratives spend too much time rehashing and over-explaining series elements better left to the imagination.
In embracing the schlock and horror, and eschewing any pretentions of being high art, AVP wins the battle of Aliens vs Predator vs Promethus vs Covenant.
Agree? Disagree? In space, no one can hear you scream, but we can sure hear you sound off in the comments!