My colleague, Eddie Feng, and I had the dubious pleasure of attending the first showing of 2004's "AVP: Alien Vs. Predator" on the day it premiered. The pleasure was in seeing one another again and going to watch the movie at San Francisco's Metreon theater complex. The "dubious" part was having to watch the movie.
Now, another eight minutes have been added to the movie's mix. Can eight minutes really make a difference? Well, if you're eight minutes late for a bus that is about to take you to an important meeting that could mean life or death to the future of the world, I suppose it could make a difference. In the case of "Alien Vs. Predator," the additional minutes are not earthshaking, but they do effect a small improvement. The movie still doesn't rise anywhere near the level of the original "Alien," "Aliens," or "Predator" films, but at least the unrated "AVP" edition is a touch more watchable now than in its theatrical form. The keep case blurb announces the new cut as having "more violence, more action," and "more intense battles," if that's your idea of a good time. I found the added character development more important than the added violence. The new edition also contains the original theatrical version of the movie for comparison purposes, and it sports a lot more extras on a second disc. At least the Fox studios didn't skimp this time.
In fairness, I remember thinking when the original picture was over that it wasn't half as bad as it could have been. Unfortunately, that was not saying much. "AVP" is like one of those video shoot-'em-ups that looks great on your computer screen but has no story to it. Once the fascination of blasting space aliens diminishes, there isn't much left. This should come as no surprise to viewers familiar with "AVP's" director, Paul W.S. Anderson, who did "Resident Evil" and "Mortal Kombat." Of course, he also did "Event Horizon," which proves he can do more than show us monsters being blown away in darkened hallways. But not here.
Be that as it may, the question is whether the extra eight minutes are worth your watching the film over again. When you're watching the extended version, you have the option of activating an added-footage marker, a little "Alien" icon that appears in the lower right of the screen showing you when the new material is running. As I say, the added minutes make an improvement, but the film continues to be a simple variation of "Doom."
For me the best added material was at the very beginning, a sequence in Antarctica, 1904, that was included as a deleted scene in the previous DVD edition. I said in my earlier review that I liked it and wished it had been included in the movie. Well, now it is. The rest of the added footage is divided among character development, continuity, and violence. The new snippets of character background and personal interaction work best, most of it coming in the first half hour. We're more likely to care about the characters with additional information about them. If we care about them, we're more likely to worry about them. If we worry about them, we're more likely to feel the tension of their circumstances and the suspense of their situations, thus making the film more than just a stalk-and-kill proposition.
At least, that's the theory. In point of fact, there isn't enough new material to make much of a dent. There are a few more shots of blood, gore, guts, and slime to spice things up, though, and tiny bits of connecting matter to help us follow the story line better, but none of it amounts to much. At least one scene is highly reminiscent of the one in "Alien" where Dallas is attacked. Another good new scene is one where we learn that the Predators are really teenagers come to Earth to earn their way into adulthood; their hunt for Alien monsters, without using guns, is their way of proving themselves. It's a kind of rite of Predatorhood thing. I hear you saying, "So what?"
Here's the problem, though: I had seen "AVP" twice before watching this extended cut, and, except for the new opening, I'm not sure I could have identified the added footage without the on-screen icon to help me. As for the "unrated" business, it simply means that the film was not submitted to the motion-picture ratings board. The theatrical version is rated PG-13, and I don't know that the brief moments of blood in the extended version would qualify it for anything more serious.
Hey, look, I know I'm sounding critical here, but it's not as though either version of "AVP" is terrible. All it needed was a script and characters, and it might have been OK. As it is, it still reminds me of a "Friday the 13th" movie where you get a group of people together for the sole purpose of watching them die. The only fun is guessing the order of their demise. Despite the small amount of new character info, the people remain generic, interchangeable, and when they die, we have little feeling for them. Besides, we know from the outset who's going to be the last man standing. It's a tradition in the "Alien" series: It's a woman.
One familiar face in the crowd is Lance Henriksen, who plays his own creator. Let me explain. The time setting for "AVP" is the present, and Henriksen plays Charles Bishop Weyland, a "pioneer of modern robotics." He's the guy for whom, many years later, the "Bishop" robots in "Aliens" and "Alien 3" would be named. And you always wondered where those robots got their name and why they looked the way they did. Now you know. It's the only clever touch in "AVP," and it's but one of a hundred other references to previous "Alien" and "Predator" movies.
Anyway, Weyland is the president of Weyland Industries, which has just located a gigantic, ancient pyramid under the ice in Antarctica. He gathers up a team of experts to go explore it, and there they find just what they were looking for: Aliens (never called "aliens" but mostly just "serpents") and Predators (simply called "hunters"). Well, it's not quite what they were looking for. It seems the Predators come back and activate the pyramid every hundred years, take the Queen Mother Alien out of the deep freeze to lay eggs, and rather quickly create some new Alien creatures to hunt and kill.
Weyland's team consists of a dozen or more people, most important of whom are Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), a mountain climber and guide; Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova), an archaeologist; Graeme Miller (Ewen Bremner), a Scottish chemical engineer; Maxwell Stafford (Colin Salmon), Weyland's right-hand man; Adele Russeau (Agathe De La Boulaye); and Thomas Parks (Sam Troughton). The others, frankly, I didn't notice and can't remember even after three viewings. Moreover, the movie continues to be too short to be so cluttered with so many characters, none of them developed enough, even with the added minutes, to care about.
"AVP" is a good looking film, even if there isn't a lot of thought to go with it. Indeed, the one response the film evoked from me in the movie theater was toward the end when Sebastian says to Alexa, "It's starting to make sense." Well, maybe for him it was, but not for me. It's one of the silliest, most senseless plots imaginable, and I couldn't help chuckling out loud at Sebastian's remark. Still, as unintentional as my response was, at least it was something.
Here's an example of the intelligence level of the film. While exploring an old, abandoned whaling station above the pyramid, Alexa and Sebastian pass by what is clearly the skeleton of a whale. (I think it's supposed to remind us of the interior of the deserted space ship at the beginning of "Alien.") As they pass the skeleton, Sebastian asks in all sincerity, "What are these?" Alexa answers, "Whale bones." Now, think about that for half a second. They're in an old whaling station. They pass a huge rib cage lying on the ice. "What are these?" He's an archaeologist?
The film's graphics are dark and foreboding, and the music is mostly soft and eerie, reminiscent of the earlier "Alien" films. The pyramid is impressively constructed, like a giant puzzle box with endless corridors for the crew to get lost in. Remember, the movie is really nothing more than a glorified computer game with mazes and monsters. The Alien and Predator creatures are pretty much as we remember them, too, although now they are created on the screen by a combination of live actors in costume, animatronics, and CGI. Actually, I thought they looked less frightening in this latest venture than ever before, the Predators especially seeming less detailed, but that is my biased reaction.
As in all B-movie horror flicks, upon entering any building, the characters immediately spread out and go their separate ways. Then they creep around in the dark until something scares them. Too bad nothing scares the audience. A penguin replaces the ever-present cat from "Alien," but the hanging chains we became so acquainted with are still around to remind us of former glories.
As I mentioned above, I was more than a little surprised to find the Aliens reproducing so quickly. The Queen lays her eggs, the eggs hatch the facehuggers, the facehuggers attach themselves to a host and incubate, the little Alien creatures spring out of the midsection, and then they grow to maturity; all in about the time it took me to type this sentence. Nobody in the film comments on the impossibility of this feat, an amazing generative process even for fictional space monsters.
I kept waiting for something, anything, frightening to occur in the extended version that didn't happen in the theatrical edition. It doesn't happen. Instead, we get the same events and the same creatures we saw before. There's still nothing unforeseen, there's still little tension or suspense, and there's still no action that isn't unrealistic and unbelievable even by bad sci-fi/fantasy standards. Think of a woman being thrown the length of a room against a stone wall and sustaining zero damage, or people falling from ten-foot ledges onto granite floors and bouncing back up again. If this were done tongue-in-cheek, a la "Indiana Jones," it might have been fun. Here, it's just dumb.
Colin Salmon has the one good line in the film; it's a variation of a comment in a Bond film, "Tomorrow Never Dies," where he played M's assistant. When asked in "AVP" what he's doing pulling out a gun, he answers, "My job." Again, it's something, even if it's only a little something.
Once the action starts, director Anderson keeps it moving at a steady pace. Unfortunately, it's such predictable action, there isn't room for much serious excitement. The Alien-Predator battles, which are what the film is supposed to be about, are so frenzied and fast edited you can hardly tell what's going on. The mass battle between the two species is shown only in a flashback glimpse from the distant past. Now, that might have been the basis for a far better movie, with no humans at all, just the Aliens fighting it out with the Predator warriors. Oh, well....
It was only for a moment toward the end of the story that I became involved at all. The climax is the best part of the show, and while it is still routine, it had a touching scene in it. So, what'll they think of next? I hope it doesn't include another twelve minutes worth of closing credits. Not that Anderson's direction should be held totally accountable for "AVP's" deficiencies, by the way. He's a capable action-movie director and does what he can with a mediocre, hackneyed script (that he cowrote, in any case) to which the addition of a mere eight minutes hardly matters.
Two trivia notes before leaving: The theatrical version of "AVP" was the first "Alien" or "Predator" movie not to be rated R. "AVP's" original PG-13 rating was occasioned by its relative absence of blood and violence, a tiny bit more of which does help to liven up the new, unrated version. And "AVP" is the first "Alien" film not to star Sigourney Weaver, who is reported to have said the idea of combining the two different creatures "sounded awful." Why doesn't anybody ever listen?
The transfer of the unrated edition is the same as before, Fox engineers continuing their laudable efforts to reproduce the best possible picture quality, utilizing a high bit rate and an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Eat your heart out, Sony Superbit.
The picture size extends to a ratio approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen HD television. It is just short of its announced 2.35:1 theatrical-release aspect ratio, but it is fairly common for a 2.35:1 image to show up on disc in this slightly less-wide size, probably due to some small transfer loss and some TV overscanning. In any case, it's wide enough to display almost everything that showed up on the big theater screen. Most scenes, especially outdoor ones, look excellent. A few other scenes, particularly indoors ones, are very slightly blurred. Colors are realistic, never too bright or too dull. Black levels are strong and solid, nicely setting off the other hues. Grain, halos, and moiré effects are also minimal or nonexistent. A good job.
The audio also remains the same, available in Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1. The DD 5.1 that I listened to was even better than the video. Naturally, we expect good sound from a modern action thriller, and "AVP" delivers the goods. There is an abundance of side and rear-channel information sent clearly and discretely to each of the speakers. Surround effects like musical ambience, monster noises, crashes, splashes, storms, footsteps, gunshots, and the like are all reproduced vividly around the listening area. The bass is sufficient for the occasion, and the dynamic impact is sometimes startling. It's all very impressive. Now, if only the sound had a story to go with it, it might have meant something.
Disc one of this two-disc set contains both the original theatrical version and the unrated, extended version of the movie. For the theatrical version only, you get the two audio commentaries that were included in the regular edition. The first is with director Paul W.S. Anderson and actors Lance Henriksen and Sanaa Lathan; the second is with visual effects supervisor John Bruno and creature effects designers/creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. I can't imagine anyone choosing to sit through the film two more times, but from the few minutes I listened to last time, I thought the second commentary was the more informative. In addition, you get the optional added-footage marker I alluded to earlier; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles. The theatrical cut has twenty-eight scene selections; the extended cut thirty-two. However, the people at Fox continue to omit a chapter insert, and they did not provide the glossy, embossed slipcover that came with the previous single-disc edition.
The many extras on disc two are divided into five categories. First, there's "Pre-Production," which includes "AVP: The Beginning," a twenty-five-minute featurette, with additional branching material, that examines the background of the movie. I especially liked looking at all the models and miniatures they show. "Pre-Production" also includes a a seven-minute "ADI Workshop" featurette that shows us some tests of the Facehugger apparatus; a storyboard gallery; and a concept art gallery.
Second, there's "Production," which includes the main "AVP Production" documentary at over sixty minutes, again with branching video. This gives us quite a comprehensive view of the making of the film, with a good deal of behind-the-scenes information. In addition, "Production" includes three making-of featurettes: "Miniature Whaling Station," six minutes; "Facehuggers and Eggs," fourteen minutes; and "Trouble at the Mouth of the Tunnel," three minutes.
Third is "Post Production." Here we find a thirty-minute "Visual Effects Breakdown" segment, going over some of the same material covered previously but, nevertheless, fun; and three brief deleted scenes with optional commentary by the director and one of the stars, Lance Henriksen. The scenes are called "The Sister," "Miller Gets Caught," and "Love Scene."
Fourth is "Licensing the Franchise," which includes an eleven-minute "Aliens vs. Predator the Comic Book" featurette, again going over some of the same material touched on in the previous documentaries but in greater detail; and "Monsters in Miniature by Todd McFarlane," a fourteen-minute featurette with the founder of McFarland Toys, creators of figures in all genres--film, gaming, sports, and music.
The final bonus section is called "Marketing," and it includes a twelve-minute "AVP" HBO Special, a promo, really; and a selection of trailers: three in widescreen for "AVP," one in fullscreen for "Alien Quadrilogy," and another in fullscreen for the 35th Anniversary issue of "Planet of the Apes."
When the old Universal monsters of the thirties started declining in popularity, the studio began bunching them up in the same movies, things like "House of Frankenstein" and "House of Dracula." To put the final nail in their coffin, Universal parodied the whole genre in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." I wonder if Fox is considering such a move here. I mean, they've already teamed up their two biggest monsters in "AVP"; how long will it be before Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and company start spoofing the Aliens and Predators?
The fact is, "AVP: Alien Vs. Predator," be it the regular theatrical version or the new extended version, seems to have been designed solely for die-hard fans of these creature movies or for people looking to fill a few vacant minutes of their lives with mindless violence. They could do worse. However, as one who loved the first two "Alien" films and the first "Predator," I find it disheartening to see these franchises in such decline. It's like the last gasp of an over-the-hill concept, but maybe it's the natural order of things.
The value of the new special edition lies in its second disc of bonus materials, which are quite extensive. The extra few minutes of playing time in the movie do, indeed, improve it marginally, but not to such an extent that I would be willing to change my initial film rating.