Predator (1987)

I originally came across Predator not long after I first saw Aliens. In desperate need of another edge-of-the-seat soldiers vs. monsters thrill ride, I came across a review of Arnie’s second greatest 80s sci-fi film in the Radio Times prior to an airing on ITV. It seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered: a small group of elite U.S. soldiers are picked off one by one by a malevolent extra-terrestrial. Indeed, it was released almost within a year of James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster, and it is not too difficult to imagine 20th Century Fox giving it the greenlight in order to capitalize on the success of its Alien sequel.

Schwarzenegger is Major “Dutch” Schaeffer, commander of an elite military squad, who is asked to rescue an American VIP from the clutches of South American rebels after his helicopter crashed south of the Mexican border. Joining him is a former colleague, Dillon (Carl Weathers), who now works for the CIA. As they close in on the rebels, it becomes clear Dutch’s team is not the first to attempt the rescue, and that an unseen third party is making short work of any passing combat units that happen to be in the area.

Predator is of course quite different from Aliens. It is strictly earthbound (bar the opening shot of a spaceship); it is set in the present day; and it is most assuredly an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Almost at the peak of his box-office popularity, Arnie is front-and-centre throughout the film. There are naturally a few of his trademark quips, thrown out while merrily dispatching South American rebels (“Stick around!”). But, like James Cameron before him, director John McTiernan is savvy enough to know how to use his star to best effect. Lean and mean, with only an occasional smile to acknowledge he isn’t another machine from the future, Arnie is an unquestioned leader of men, and, with rippling muscles, the very definition of Eighties Action Hero.

They may share some similarities, but it is fair to say Predator has not aged as well as Aliens. The 80s obsession with muscles and machismo is very much in evidence, as is the gung-ho American militarism of that decade. While Aliens successfully integrated themes such as motherhood and America’s failure in Vietnam in to its narrative to create a science fiction masterpiece, Predator has no such intellectual ambition. It is as narratively streamlined as possible, focusing purely on Dutch’s team and their battle for survival throughout. Dialogue is pared down to orders, quips and manly poses.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The film had the good fortune of falling in to the hands of McTiernan, who turns what might otherwise have been a routine Arnie action flick in to a thrill machine as lean and mean as its star. Predator was McTiernan’s first great film, and he would go on to direct the definitive 80s action thriller, Die Hard, the following year. His skill at generating suspense and shooting action is abundantly clear with Predator, surprisingly only his second official directing credit. Jumping effortlessly from one set-piece to the next, Predator is an object lesson in how to fashion an edge-of-the-seat entertainment with a reasonably modest budget and a star who can barely act. The explosive assault on the rebels’ camp is merely the curtain-raiser for the real action that kicks in once Arnie’s team try to return to base.

The script dispatches Dutch’s crew in a variety of entertaining ways (though not without a fight – the moment where Old Painless is unleashed never fails to raise an astonished smile) until only Arnold himself remains. The scene where a mud-covered Dutch realises the Predator is unable to see him is a great moment, and one senses McTiernan relishing the approaching showdown. It’s a genuinely suspenseful, largely dialogue-free finale that sees Dutch, armed only with a knife and his commando training, try to outwit his nemesis with a few nifty traps made from a log and some sharp sticks.

Alan Silvestri’s memorable score effectively conveys the exotic nature of the Predator’s preferred hunting ground, and also that of the alien itself. Designed by the late Stan Winston, the Predator has justly entered the Hollywood Monster Hall of Fame (should such a thing exist). While it may lack the nightmarish terror of Giger’s Alien, it makes up for it with intelligence and some cool technology. Plus it really is one ugly motherf*cker. Combined with McTiernan’s directorial intelligence, Predator can justly lay claim to be a minor genre classic.

[xrr rating=4/5]

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Alien vs Predator (2004)

Last year, in a fit of unabashed love for my favourite film series, I reviewed all four Alien movies. I don’t normally write reviews on my blog, having neither the requisite skills nor time to do so on a regular basis, but this franchise is a big part of my movie DNA and a personal write-up extolling their virtues seemed long overdue. The Alien franchise consists of four films, but the Aliens themselves proved to be too big for one franchise and they managed to appear in two further movies: a spin-off series co-starring another monstrous intergalactic species of the cinema – the Predator. Yes my friends, I’m talking about the oft-maligned Alien(s) vs Predator, and for the sake of completeness I’m going to review them both. Strap yourselves in, because we’re on an express elevator to Hell.

After Alien: Resurrection’s mediocre financial and critical reception, a fifth entry seemed to be an increasingly remote proposition. Sigourney Weaver’s fee alone was probably a major part of the financial headache, even if a satisfactory storyline could be hammered out, which apparently it couldn’t. Years went by, but fan interest in a new chapter remained steady. Somewhere along the line original Alien director Ridley Scott started to circle a new instalment, raising the hopes of many a sci-fi fan. His story preference was to visit the Alien homeworld, a quite daring idea which would demand a director of his vision and calibre to deliver a film that could live up to the fanbase’s high expectations. Aliens director James Cameron was also reported to have joined the effort in a writing and/or producing capacity, to try and move the franchise forward. Surely with these two Alien alumni onboard, the next chapter was a surefire winner?

Well, 20th Century Fox obviously didn’t think so, because it was abandoned in favour of their long-gestating crossover concept, Alien vs. Predator (commonly shortened to AvP). AvP started out as a comic book series in 1990 (titled Aliens vs Predator, as Cameron’s film was by far the more popular of the two flicks at the time) and was famously suggested in the same year’s Predator 2 when Danny Glover’s character examined a Predator’s hunting trophy case, among whose contents was a very familiar looking elongated skull. The popularity of the idea did not go unnoticed by the studio and they bought Peter Brigg’s initial treatment in 1991. But Weaver dismissed the idea as terrible and, unable to finalise a satisfactory script, it was shelved.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, when the Alien series seemed to be without life (as did the Predator – a third film was in development for much of the early 90s, but failed to progress). Pitches for an AvP movie had come and gone with no success. Then in 2002, seemingly out of nowhere, the project was greenlit. Cue much rejoicing… until, that is, it was revealed the man into whose hands the long-cherished project had fallen was none other than Paul W.S. Anderson.

To say there was disappointment would be to understate the reaction. Anderson was by and large loathed by the genre community. His adaptation of hit video game Resident Evil (2002) was met with derision by fans, while his earlier Soldier (1998) starring Kurt Russell was universally agreed upon as a complete waste of money and talent, despite the original script receiving strong reviews. The previous year’s Sam Neill/Laurence Fishburne starrer Event Horizon had appeared to show some promise, though it failed to live up to its pre-release hype as the scariest sci-fi horror since Alien.

Hopes had been dashed, expectations cruelly slashed, skinned and strung up like a victim of the Predator itself. Two franchises with strong fanbases felt betrayed. Not even the casting of Aliens veteran Lance Henriksen could lift the general air of gloom about the project. The problem was that Anderson was (and is) a hack, a director who does enough to make a decent-enough looking film, but no more. We were treated in the past to some great directors of vision and true craftsmanship. Anderson is neither; prone to MTV-style editing and effects, and shameless in his ransacking of older, better movies, his films lack any memorable, outstanding or original moments. They totally fail to conjure any sort of tangible atmosphere, and the less said about his writing, the better – the word “cliché” apparently does not exist in Anderson’s book. I won’t go so far as to say he cannot direct at all, as his career clearly shows that he has managed to; but no discernible talent has yet been displayed, so quite how he manages to continue bagging top Hollywood directing gigs is beyond me.

When the film opened in 2004, it was met with predictable criticism. The usual Anderson trademarks were on display: little-to-no characterisation; awful dialogue; no atmosphere; gaping plot holes; silly SFX scenes; and the overall pervading air of desperation and eagerness-to-please. Of all the crimes committed in this film, the bullet-time shot of a facehugger flying through the air is about the worst, though I’m sure everyone could list their own personal ‘favourite’. In particular, the decision to aim for a PG-13 rating in the States was singled out as a chief flaw, though I doubt a bloodier version of the same film would have improved matters much.

For non-fans it seemed to be an acceptable enough 90 minutes of sci-fi action, and to be fair it is competent studio product, but for me that’s the point: the other Alien films were much more than just product. They were ‘real’ films, born of a director’s vision – even Alien 3 was such, despite its infamous history of studio interference. Anderson is not a visionary like Scott, Cameron, Fincher or Jeunet, and unless something spectacular happens, he is unlikely to become so. That Fox considered hiring him at all to bring this film to the screen was a crime against cinema.

So what of the film itself? Well, despite all the above, there are one or two positive aspects to it. The seeds of a good story are in evidence: elements of the comic-book are mixed up with ‘Chariots of the Gods’-style historical fantasy, the film positing that Predators have been visiting Earth for thousands of years, worshipped as gods as they used humans and Aliens to establish a rites-of-passage challenge for their young. Interestingly it tries to position itself as a prequel to the first Alien movie: Henriksen’s character, Charles Weyland, is a nod to his earlier portrayal of the android Bishop in Aliens, evidently designed in tribute to the co-founder of the Company.

To his credit Anderson does try and build up atmosphere by concentrating on the human characters to begin with, delaying the onscreen introduction of the two monsters for a good while. And if the film had to be set on Earth (which it didn’t), then Antarctica is a good location choice – the inhospitable environment has the makings of a very alien setting (and of course it was mentioned at the start of the first Alien film). The pyramid under the ice set looks fantastic, and the first time an Alien comes face-to-face with a Predator is the closest the film comes to being genuinely exciting.

Sadly, Anderson squanders it all by failing to make any of the human characters interesting or the action thrilling. The aforementioned bullet-time facehugger is a classic head-slapper, but there are many others, like the opening lines of the dire dialogue: “Where’s the signal coming from?” “Sector 14.” “But there isn’t anything in Sector 14.” “There is now…” Ooooooh, scary. Actually, no it isn’t – it’s risible.

Plot holes abound: if Predators visit this pyramid every 100 years to hunt Aliens, then how the hell did the Aliens hatch in 1804, 1704, etc. when no humans were on the continent to act as incubators? Did they just turn around in their spaceship and fly home, grumbling to themselves about coming all this way for nothing? Why on earth would Weyland’s team bring that much firepower to an archaeological expedition? And the Alien lifecycle seems to have been sped up significantly for the convenience of the plot…

It’s all very frustrating, because with a director of just a bit more talent, a half-decent film could probably have been churned out. As it is, it’s not even half-decent. The sense of disappointment considering its enormous potential means it will forever be a rather sad experience for this fan. That said, it looks pretty good (at least the production values are easy to admire) and there are one or two potentially cool moments, which makes it better than some of the direct-to-dvd dreck you might otherwise encounter. So if you do find yourself watching it for whatever reason, then just remember to tell yourself: it’s a comic-book spin-off, not a real Alien movie. It helps lessen the pain, and who knows? You might even not hate it.

[xrr rating=2/5]

Aliens (1986)

Continuing my series of Alien movie reviews, we come to the second entry, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens. This was actually the first Alien movie I ever watched, and fortunately it was the 1992 Special Edition director’s cut (rented out from the local video shop – remember them?). I therefore have a tremendous amount of affection for it, even whilst admitting that the original is probably the superior piece overall. Not to slight Cameron’s work, however; he crafted a technically brilliant and highly influential film in its own right, and it’s extremely doubtful the Alien mythos would have survived and thrived as much as it has were it not for his work here.

A sequel to Alien could have gone in numerous directions, but it eventually landed in the lap of Cameron, having proved his talents on low-budget hit The Terminator (1984). Coming a full seven years after the original, and working from a story by himself and producers David Giler and Walter Hill, Aliens gave the director the first real opportunity to stretch his skills on a proper budget (though certainly not huge for the time – around $20m). Rather than simply retelling the same story, Cameron sensibly raises the stakes in several ways. Firstly, there is now more than one Alien, as the title implies – in fact there are LOTS more. Necessarily this does take away some of the sheer terror that Ridley Scott’s original developed. There we saw how just a single creature almost supernaturally stalked and killed Ripley’s entire crew. By having hundreds of the creatures on the loose, thereby giving them the advantage, the terror should conversely be greatly diminished. Thankfully this is not the case, for two reasons: firstly, H.R. Giger’s creations are so superbly nightmare-ish that being afraid is still the only option; and secondly, James Cameron turned out to be one of the finest action directors Hollywood had ever produced. The tension and adrenaline he succeeds in generating through set-piece after set-piece is phenomenal by anyone’s standards, and certainly overcomes any loss of mystery and suspense that sequels usually suffer. This is a different terror from the original movie: this is no longer a haunted house in space; this time it’s war.

The term ‘rollercoaster ride’ might have been invented to describe the film’s story. The happy ending from the first movie (well, hopeful rather than happy, perhaps) turned out to be not-so-happy, as the movie picks up 57 years later, with Ripley’s family having died in the interim, and worse still, the planet that Ripley’s ship landed on is now colonised. Ripley is coerced into revisiting the planet with a platoon of hi-tech colonial marines when contact with said colony is lost.

Cameron’s certainly a much better director than he is writer (see Titanic for proof of that), but I would argue he did some of his best ever writing here. Ripley’s character is much beefed up, with a psychology and history that adds depth and intelligently builds on what we learnt from the original film. Sigourney Weaver takes the script and delivers a powerful performance, and, astonishingly for a genre film (and a sequel to boot), won an Oscar nod for her trouble. The stakes are raised for Ripley too – her maternal relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn – never seen onscreen again since), the girl who miracualously survived the slaughter of the colony, is key to the film’s emotional wallop. Were it not for this beautifully-judged and handled plot thread, the subsequent action scenes would lose their resonance, and this is what separates it from the imitators and rip-offs that followed.

But that’s obviously not what makes the film so cool to a teenage boy – that would be the action scenes. The film delivers in spades here. The initial investigation in to the abandoned colony buildings, the devastating first encounter with the Xenomorphs, the subsequent desperate defense against the unstoppable foe and the final running battles – it’s brilliant, relentless, buttock-clenching stuff. Making the most of his mere six Alien costumes, Cameron offers a deft lesson in how to make less appear more. Yes, the film lacks the subtlety of its predecessor, but when the replacement is this much fun, who cares? Chock full of memorable moments (the attack underneath the cooling towers, with Gorman watching his monitors helplessly while his troops are wiped out; the auto-sentries; the moment where Hicks discovers how the Aliens have evaded their defences (ripped off wholesale in 2005’s Doom); Ripley’s descent to rescue Newt), Cameron’s inventiveness and ease at shooting action is quite evident to see.

Coupled with that is the instantly quotable dialogue – especially from Bill Paxton’s panicky Private Hudson:

“We’re on an express elevator to Hell – going down!”

“I am the ultimate badass! State of the badass art!”

“Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.”

“Yeah man, but it’s a dry heat!”

“They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!”

“That’s it man, game over man, game over!”

“What do you mean, “they cut the power”? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!”

“You’re dog-meat, pal!”

Ever since this film, as far I’m concerned, Paxton can do no wrong.  The rest of the cast are also excellent, led of course by the often-underrated Michael Biehn as the quietly resourceful Cpl. Hicks, Paul Reiser as corporate slimeball Carter Burke, and the ever-reliable Lance Henricksen as android Bishop. The rest of the cast play their roles with equal conviction and, as with Alien, are far more memorable than usual in films of this ilk. Indeed, one feels greatly saddened when they are whittled down to the final survivors.

Another key element in the mix is James Horner’s score, which is both suitably atmospheric and heart-poundingly exciting when necessary. The production design is also noteworthy, building on Scott’s original whilst updating it too. As with Alien, very little of it has dated, and I would go so far as to say that it is still being imitated today; again, only the computers have aged. And the sets and photography are terrific: I swear there are times you can feel the chill air, damp with the smell of hot gunmetal and sweat, blowing off the screen. Hats off to the late, great Adrian Biddle, who struck gold on his first outing as Director of Photography.

The main point of contention that seems to divide fans of Scott’s and Cameron’s films is the Alien Queen. This is understandable, as it does remove a lot of the mystery that surrounded the origins of the Aliens, and how those eggs came to be in the wrecked spaceship of the first movie. It also added some confusion about the Alien’s lifecycle, conflicting with the excised scene in the first movie where Ripley discovers the fate of Dallas. Cameron’s modification to the lifecycle does at least make sense, and undoubtedly makes for a thrilling showdown, though the point about demystification is well made.

All in all, it’s an excellent film, and a most worthy follow-up to Alien. The 1992 special edition is the superior version, without question – it adds about 17 minutes more, including a good deal more action and backstory for Ripley and Newt, whilst never feeling overlong. One suspects this was the version Cameron would have preferred to originally release in cinemas, but was overruled by the studio (I’ve not read this anywhere, but it sounds plausible). It was that rare beast: a sequel that could legitimately claim to be the equal of its predecessor.

One final note of praise: I love the sound effects in this film. Kudos to whoever came up with the sound for the pulse rifles and the motion trackers – just fantastic!

[xrr rating=5/5]

Alien (1979)

At long lost I have got around to writing a review of probably my favourite film – Ridley Scott’s Alien. Long time readers will be well aware of the enormous affection and esteem in which I hold this sci-fi horror masterpiece, and I know I’m not alone. Far from it – such is the quality of the movie that it probably has far more fans now than ever before. I obviously can’t compete with all the professional criticism out there that has dissected the film far more thoroughly, so these are just some of my own thoughts.

Part of Alien’s enduring appeal is of course the titular creature itself, which I’ll talk about later on. Firstly I want to discuss the film in its own right, because it is easy to overlook everything else in the movie that works so perfectly. The sequels and rip-offs that followed have helped to obscure the level of thought, detail and sheer artistry that constitutes this milestone in film-making.

Let’s start, as all films must do, with the script. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s writing here was never going to win any awards, but then it didn’t need to. What they did do, with hindsight very cleverly, was to resurrect a successful formula from the 1950s (monsters from outer space picking off helpless humans) and mash it up with a gritty 1970s sensibility. The dialogue for the first part of the story concerns itself with the humdrum work of a ship’s crew, consisting of conversations that could be transplanted in to any other social context and still work. Gripes about pay, bitching about work-provided facilities, jokes at the expense of senior personnel – for a movie supposedly about a lethal extra-terrestrial, this is pretty soft stuff. No ‘Jaws’-like kick-off here that instantly makes clear the impending threat; instead the audience is drawn gently in to a mystery about why a deep-space mining ship’s crew on their way home has been awoken early, after having been diverted off course. The dialogue and characterization is unusually intelligent for a film of its genre. Restricting the crew to seven was a wise move; this allows each character in the script to ‘breathe’ a bit more than normal, whilst making the inevitable death scenes to come more intense and gut-wrenching. There’s also a nice line of subtle humour running through the film that is easy to overlook – it certainly adds a dimension to the characters’ relationships.

How much of the end-product was down to the writers is arguable, given that the unquestionable driving force behind the quality of the film was director Ridley Scott. Certainly the earlier drafts of the script (titled “Starbeast”), whilst structurally similar, hewed far closer to genre conventions and lacked the wit and sheen of the final piece. In another director’s hands, the same lines and actions would likely have had far less impact. All the myths that have built up around the movie’s production usually involve Scott to some extent, adding to the sense that this is less a studio product and more the vision of an auteur. There is of course the famous/infamous anecdote about John Hurt’s chestburster scene, and how the other cast members were unaware of what was going to happen (apparently this is mostly true – they knew something was going to happen, but the details were left deliberately vague).

It was Scott’s attention to detail however that paid off in spades. To its credit, very little in the film has dated, which only further confirms Scott’s status as a visionary director. So much 1970s sci-fi succumbed to prevailing fads and fashions (made worse by the 70s fashions themselves) that within a decade, they were hopelessly dated – just look at Logan’s Run, which came out three years earlier in 1976, but in terms of design is practically prehistoric. Alien on the other hand almost completely evaded these pratfalls. Beyond the inevitable computer displays, the only elements that could be easily traced to the 70s are the computer control room (lots of pretty but meaningless blinking lights) and perhaps the odd pastelly uniform, though according to another story Scott himself rejected the original outfits as being far too naff and ordered more practical and realistic ones to be made instead. Regarding the computer displays, yes they are dated, but part of me still thinks that when mankind does finally explore the outer edges of space, they will be using software and hardware that looks and works just like these computers do – they somehow seem harder and more “sciencey” than Windows or a Mac. That’s probably more to do with my age, though.

Scott’s direction is practically faultless. From the moody establishing shots of the distant sun and empty vastness of outer space, to the ominous quiet of the Nostromo’s corridors, to the bitter inhospitality of the strange planet, to the utterly alien extra-terrestrial shipwreck, to the gripping onboard battle with the monster itself, Scott builds tension like a pro, despite it being only his second outing. Like all great horror, the viewer never quite knows what’s going to happen next. Scott’s camera lingers on little details around the ship, allowing us to become familiar with its vast empty corridors and throbbing engines. And when the action does come, it’s gripping, sweaty-palmed stuff, especially when Ripley makes her last attempt at an escape from the doomed vessel.

The production design is just superb – the sets are fantastically otherworldly. The gothic gloom of the Nostromo is suitably spooky by itself, but the alien planet and its foreign shipwreck is something else altogether. Certainly prior to 1979 there was little else to match it.

And now of course we come to pay homage to the other instrumental force behind the film: H.R.Giger, the Swiss artist who designed the Alien itself. An utterly terrifying mixture of the organic and mechanic, the best description one can make is to quote Ash from the film: “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”  The sleek, steely exterior is bad enough, but then there’s the huge head, within which are its salivating jaws – both of them. I’ve no idea what nightmare this thing came from, but I’m glad I didn’t dream it myself. Possessed of a terrifyingly deadly intelligence and intent, this demon instantly became a classic movie monster, and remains there to this day.

Finally, there’s the cast. Of course Sigourney Weaver shines in her star-making role: she invests Ripley with a guts and intelligence that just allows her to scrape through to the film’s end. Crucially though, she remains resolutely a woman (female action heroines being fairly uncommon at the time, especially in a genre that was – and arguably still is – male-dominated); this was something James Cameron’s sequel developed further seven years later. The rest of the cast are just as good though, all inhabiting their roles so well that they feel totally real from the moment they appear onscreen. I could heap praise on each individual cast member, but it’s not really necessary – if you’re read this far, you’ll know yourself how good each performance is.

I can tell this review is fast turning in to a love letter, so I’ll conclude by simply saying that Alien is undoubtedly a classic work of science-fiction horror, building a wholly credible universe in the distant future, and then terrifying the poop out of us. Thanks to the minds of two geniuses (Scott and Giger), it remains entirely convincing and relentlessly entertaining.

[xrr rating=5/5]