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GREY MATTERS: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR VS. ALIEN VS. PROMETHEUS

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by Ian Grey
June 8, 2012 8:55 AM
17 Comments
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Alien vs Predator 1

For months Twentieth Century Fox has been frothing us up over Sir Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien business with Prometheus. But for me, this is an occasion to not only celebrate the uncelebrated—Paul W.S. Anderson’s fantastic Alien vs. Predator—but to see through Scott’s contributions and mourn their horrible legacy.

First: Scott didn’t think up Alien’s feminist hero angle. All reports indicate that just sort of happened at the behest of producers David Giler and Walter Hill. Nor did he think up the paradigm-shifting H.G. Giger bio-mechanical alien design. Nor the story.

What he deserves credit for is saying yes to those elements.

But above and beyond that, what Scott—an ace adman whose Chanel #5 ads fused wealth, sex and property to almost pornographic levels—really brought to Alien (1979) was class. And Class.

Writing about Prometheus recently in Box Office, James Rocchi, after trashing the unimportant Alien vs. Predator (2004), just up and said it’s “nice to have Sir Ridley classing the neighborhood back up.”

Yes, ‘Sir”. As in knighted by The Queen. And “classing” things up, one assumes, like he classed up Hannibal with those splendidly art-directed, scrumptiously-lit scenes of Ray Liotta eating his own brains.

But why would you need "class" in a films about chest-bursting phallus monsters? Knowingly or not, Rocchi had used the correct verb.

Back in the late 70s, there’s no way that Scott could help but understand the discomfort we colonials felt around art and the class struggles we’re not supposed to suffer from. Watching Alien, you can see how he capitalized on that discomfort, on the way many Americans were still not quite sure how to process, say, a Bergman film. Did you act as if you got the long pauses, unfamiliar allusions, and the beauty for its own sake? Or should you just walk out, and fear being judged an idiot?

Doing what worked so well in the Chanel ads, he slathered Alien with style and class, and with the glacial pace, mood lighting, anti-hero casting, and doleful music he guessed we’d associate with "serious films." By the time the first finished print rolled through a projector with a really long, 2001-looking spaceship named after Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and Howard Hanson's august Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic") rolling over the end credits, Scott may have imagined Americans who wouldn’t be caught dead seeing low-class fare like Friday the 13th feeling downright continental about watching what Scott himself called “the Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction."

A Chain Saw, that is, about working-class stiffs deceived by an upper-class android, in which a blue-collar girl (Sigourney Weaver) kills the Giger menace.

British critics like the indispensible Kim Newman (author of Nightmare Movies) saw through the class story, seeing a pose that hid a monster/gore/Ten Little Indians hybrid whose plot required its characters to seek out dark places where they might get killed. But for Americans, that cold, humorless seriousness was the key to what made Alien so damned scary.

James Cameron understood that "serious" was a one trick pony: his war movie remix sequel, Aliens (1986), went for creature battle and feminism, blowing Scott’s pretense and future grunge chic out the air locker: the film was a huge success.

Alas, both Alien 3 (1992), wrought by the future king of high faux seriousness, David Fincher, and Alien: Resurrection (1997) both behaved as if somber, existential gloom—the Sir Ridley touch currently being pimped in the Prometheus teasers like the “Happy, Birthday, David” viral videos, which are basically ruling-class Danish modern architecture porn disguised as futurism—were the key to Alien riches. This proved incorrect.

But then came Paul W.S. Anderson, egalitarian king of deep focus mayhem and why-the-hell-not, ripping any shred of swank out of both the Alien franchise and its déclassé Predator brother, an 80s rasta hunter-monster that was either all developing-world anger-subtext or just a super bad-ass space demon, in a film that pitted one against the other to the death! Finally, some fun, for fuck’s sake!

Anderson is the creator of the terrifyingly strange Event Horizon (1997), the neo-grindhouse exploitationer Death Race (2008), and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), which proved that he demonstrably owns the most visionary sense of spatial geometry in modern cinema. He loves mixing, matching, and fusing ideas, conveys a palpable sense of sheer cinema-making glee, and most critics despise him as an aesthetically base-born, second-rate creator of vulgar garbage. 

But beyond these inaccurate judgments lie deeper, troubling, truly dispiriting things that go far beyond anything in any Alien film. I’ll get to that in a minute.

In Anderson’s alternately inspired and nutso screenplay for Alien vs. Predator (or AvP), an African American environmental scientist Alexa (Sanaa Lathan) leads a crew of experts to the Antarctic, where they discover a vast sub-glacier pyramid in which the titular Reagan-era monster icons are about to do battle.

But first, a whopper of a casually sacrilegious backstory posits humanity as just another race, made intelligent enough by predators to farm and worship predator gods, sacrifice themselves, and unknowingly become impregnated with aliens, assuring predators of awesome hunts. And if that doesn’t work out, they can blow up the city and start all over again a millennia later.

And then, back to the present day, amid the pyramid’s Aztec, Cambodian and Egyptian wall carvings, Alexa teams up with Predator to battle the alien queen mother, whose twice the size of either of them.

Anderson stages the main event like some Aztec SF Götterdämmerung, but it’s spiritually the original Kong v. Dinosaur with 21st century technology.

For anyone who’s loved the wonders of Willis O'Brien, Jan Švankmajer, Ray Harryhausen, the men-in-suits of Toho, or other toilers in the strange discipline of bringing the inanimate to life, AvP is like a screaming memorial to gods and monsters made of dead materials.  If Neil Gaiman had relayed this, or if Guillermo Del Toro had filmed the same story, there would be worship.

But Anderson? Too low class, honey. But like I mentioned, it’s more than director issues.

I worry that our always-coded class agita and blind reverence for high seriousness over all considerations has so mangled our appreciation of genre values that people might walk out of Mario Bava’s transcendentally gorgeous Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) or Gareth Edwards’ Lovecraft-in-the-jungle Monsters (2010), because the effects are so “unrealistic” (code-phrase for “not enough money”) and the dialogue “not good enough” (code-phrase for “not ironic, hiply detached, or displaying another luxury commodity trait prized by entitled classes”).

No doubt, Prometheus will offer the usual Scott attributes—as with Blade Runner (1982) and Alien, the out-sourcing of designs to the most exclusive and expensive creators on Earth; the ice-blood mise-en-scene; and gold standard blood and guts effects.

But Anderson? He does what only he can do: His unique mental mad lab, cutting and pasting an endless fountain of pop art, geographic, child-dream, King Kong, multi-culti-architectural, exploitation, Chariots of the Gods, and Lord knows what other fantasies. I imagine him laughing, maybe a little crazily, while the sparks fly.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

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17 Comments

  • John | September 13, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    i'm sooooo sorry i read this article. it was possibly the most pointless and uninteresting piece of crap I have ever read and i've Mit Romney's manifesto. It's time i'll never get back. do everyone favour and never wright again.

  • James La Ray | June 11, 2012 6:54 AMReply

    Monsters (2010) was good; I loved Event Horizon, I even enjoyed Resident Evil: Afterlife. AVP was terrible. Your article, besides being a bit incoherent, reminds me of AVP and Prometheus: all spark but no fire...

  • Ian Grey | June 9, 2012 12:22 PMReply

    Whoah--I totally should have seen that. Joss is so brilliant at reusing things and making them seem brilliantly new while you're first watching them--then it's such good fun seeing how they reflect off older shows.

  • Brendon | June 9, 2012 4:52 AMReply

    It's like season 6 in the sense that they are both about a hero who has come back from the dead ( in a way) but doesn't come back the same as they were before. Also, they both have sex with a monster.

  • Ian Grey | June 9, 2012 3:01 AMReply

    Irony alert! Rene Rodriguez, writing at the Miami Herald says PROMETHEUS "rips off everything from "2001: A Space Odyssey" to "Event Horizon".

    Crickets.

  • Ian Grey | June 9, 2012 2:59 AMReply

    Brendon--I actually didn't hate it when it came out. It was more like a series of rolling disappointments. And you're totally on the money about Joss' Firefly idea try-out. But season 6 of Buffy? Explain? What I mainly recall was a hangover of grungy grimness from Alien 3 mixed w/ Jeunet's quasi jauntiness and Ryder just not quite cutting it and then that Newborn montage of slime and pug-nosed hybrid woe. I'm sorry to be broken record guy, but the thing that killed the ending was the need for it To All Mean Something Important, as opposed to something explosive, romantic, incisive, etc, and that's a Scott import.

  • Brendon | June 9, 2012 2:14 AMReply

    Ian- I don't disagree that Resurrection is a complete mess, I just wouldn't call it somber. Yes, there are moments where it gets serious, but Jeunet doesn't have the patience to stay on them very long. I hated the movie when it first came out, but I rewatched it yesterday and surprisingly loved how silly and weird it is. Plus it cool to see Whedon trying out ideas he would tackle more fully later on (the plot here is basically season 6 of Buffy meets Firefly)

  • Ian Grey | June 9, 2012 1:33 AMReply

    Brendon--Notice how I skipped past Resurrection. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's tone for the first hour is all over the place, there *are* bits of Whedon's script that feel very Whedon-y but even then, Jeunet's jaunty/weird tone smashes into some bizarre-o-world brand of serious where we get the alien/hybrid birthing montage thing and, well, I haven't seen this since it came out, but wasn't it going for big time pathos when...good grief. Just typing it is sad. Anyway, it was like Jeunet was bound, under Alien Law, to get all serious and full of meaning by the end and hey! Joss got paid, we all got BUFFY, so it's all good, right?

  • Bruce Reid | June 9, 2012 12:39 AMReply

    That's fair, Ian. The critical opposition thing's always rubbed me the wrong way, even when it's a legitimate line of reasoning. And along the lines of your argument, I expect some incredulous condescension when I talk to my film-loving friends about how I really did enjoy Prometheus--but it won't be anything like the stink-eyes I got when I praised Three Musketeers.

  • Brendon | June 8, 2012 11:22 PMReply

    I would hardly call Resurrection somber. With its more slimy than usual Aliens, broad acting, Firefly like group of smugglers (no suprise given who wrote the script), underwater action scene, and whatever the hell that Newborn thing is, Resurrection is the most comedic film in the series. Yes, even more so than Alien vs Predator.

  • Ian Grey | June 8, 2012 10:06 PMReply

    Hi Bruce. And I'm so happy reading someone summing up in a sentence what it took me an article to say what's great about Anderson.:) But I'm not denigrating Scott's impressive skill set. I'm questioning the halo of dubious things surrounding the end product and the trickle down of the seriousness he employs to sell his simplex SF tends to downgrade the way people experience genre as a whole. I also enjoy Fincher and Nolan on a film-by-film basis, so I'm not really putting them down either except for that relentless seriousness that's really just a lack of humor.

  • Bruce Reid | June 8, 2012 9:29 PMReply

    Never understood why so much criticism involves creating an opposition then denigrating one half the equation formed in the critic's head. I'm actually 100% on your side about Anderson, who's managed to flip what should be a chronic weakness--an utter indifference to narrative coherence--into a great, constantly sizzling pop sensibility. His films don't hang together, they swing blind from one fragile purchase to the next, always pulling off the momentum even if at any given moment you look back and can't figure out how they got where they are right now. I even concur about the central issue of class (both senses) keeping him from serious consideration. But I like Scott too, with his glum, flinty professionalism always sidling up to outrageousness, and don't think it's because I like feeling superior to other viewers. Well, other than those unable to appreciate Bava on the level you and I can, I suppose.

  • ian Grey | June 8, 2012 7:57 PMReply

    The first battles of RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE are without peer. It's like math--you can't argue their precision, you can't say, Well, when Anderson says two+two equals four it equals five.

    I'm not at all a contrarian. I've not at all said Scott is a bad filmmaker or anything like that. I'm looking for core things. Why has Scott gotten away with a filmography rife with mediocrity, racism and grotesque cruelty? I think it's fair to try and see what he offers people that so makes them want to forget all that. And I think it has to do with the promise of being better than other filmgoers, while Anderson offers film-watchers the joy he's feeling. Which certain critics hate. Which I think is...weird.

  • Sir Colin of Hunt | June 8, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    "most critics despise him as an aesthetically base-born, second-rate creator of vulgar garbage". There's a very simple reason for that: he is exactly that.

  • Ju28 | June 8, 2012 7:25 PMReply

    This guy is like Armond White Jr.

  • Stephen Phelan | June 8, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    Woohoo! This is nonsense!

  • raff | June 9, 2012 12:37 PM

    Indeed, This is nonsense! A lot of action fans might not like the slow boil of unease created while developing characters in Alien but the last hour is fast paced, relentless horror. Ridley Scott made 2 of the best sci-fi films of the '80s and then made a bunch of turds but at least he is a connection to the beginning of the series. The making of docs and commentaries spell out a lot of films (Planet Of the Vampires) that influenced the script so no one said Scott was an original apart from his dark meticulous take on a '50s alien invasion (replacing a Communist take over theme with an evil corporation) elevates the genre by making it realistic. The used look of technology was fashionable because Star Wars was a huge hit that also elevated the genre. Sadly CGI has replaced realistic lived in looking special effects (also thanks to George Lucas)
    To call James Cameron's Aliens feminism when it reduces the lead female role of Ripley to babysitting while Reagan era tough guy/lesbian marines bark out lines and fire machine guns is sad. The pretense you sense could be your own insecurities about being judged for liking trashy comic book spin offs of 2 pop culture films of the '80s. I like serious art films and trashy films and Alien is both. Aliens is a fast paced, high body count movie but there isn't a character I like or care about and I can't tell you how anyone dies in it (unlike the 1st film) because there is no time to mourn or build suspense. PROMETHEUS is an ok movie written by a TV hack who thinks religious overtones makes a drama deep (LOST finale).

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