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This Week in Genre History: Alien vs. Predator came out 16 years ago, and the loser was us
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
It is human nature — though, to be fair, foremost the nature of 12-year-old prepubescent boys — to see two formidable figures and immediately think, “Let’s make them fight!”
Two titans facing off has been a staple of genre filmmaking for decades; King Kong was fighting Godzilla in the early 1960s and Universal was pitting its classic monsters against one another two decades before that. But, this trend of pitting monsters and bad guys against each other couldn’t help but supersize in the world of internet fandom, where everybody’s inherent polarized nature has them lining up in the corners declaring that their guy is better than your guy. Eventually, Freddy was fighting Jason and Batman was fighting Superman and it was mass chaos. Last time I looked, Mike Tyson was fighting a darned shark.
The apex of this trend, or its nadir, depending on your perspective, is 2004’s Alien vs. Predator, which, in many ways, feels like the distillation of the internet at that period — two intense, nostalgia-driven fanbases finally getting their wish: They found out whether or not their dad can beat up your dad. It came out on Aug. 13, 2004, 16 years ago. The surprise, honestly, is that it took them that long to make it.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The best argument why Alien vs. Predator shouldn’t exist? James Cameron was in serious talks to do a fifth Alien film, but once he heard AVP was in production, he dropped the whole thing, saying it would, “kill the validity of the franchise... it’d be Frankenstein meets Werewolf.” (His initial idea ultimately became Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.) A monster mash might not have been Cameron's style, but it definitely was Paul W.S. Anderson's.
Anderson, the other Paul Anderson (the one whose movies have made more money that P.T. Anderson’s, actually), who had a few hits with Mortal Kombat and Event Horizon (and had just made the first of six Resident Evil movies with his wife Milla Jovovich), was the perfect guy to make an Alien vs. Predator movie. After the ending of 1990's Predator 2 first teased the possibility of a battle (you could see a Xenomorph skull in a Predator's trophy case), minds got racing, none more so than Anderson’s, who wrote up an extended pitch he’d been working on for eight years. He added in some old Egyptian mythology, cast Lance Henrikson as someone named “Bishop” to ensure some continuity, and then got to having the monsters fight.
This was not without precedent, of course: Freddy vs. Jason, a film that’s a lot worse than this movie in a very on-brand way, had come out just the year before. It was a little mini-trend before reboots truly took over: The start-over with a twist, a way not only to extend one franchise, but two. Think of it as two struggling, formerly competing companies merging just to keep each other alive. It worked for Freddy vs. Jason, which was the highest-grossing film in either franchise’s history. Would it work for this?
What was the impact? Whatever your thoughts on the film itself — and we’ll get to that — one undeniable impact is that it has a truly incredible tagline: "Whoever Wins... We Lose." There aren’t many creatures fighting each other that wouldn’t become more enticing with that tagline; I’d watch two accountants thumb wrestle if that were the tagline. It is an indictment of Freddy vs. Jason that it didn’t use it already.
That tagline had to do a lot of work, though. Anderson’s reputation was as a low-grade schlockmeister, and the film didn’t screen for critics beforehand — always a bad sign. All the movie really had to sell was a fight between famous movie monsters.
And that was more than enough to sell. The movie was an immediate hit, leading the box office with $38.2 million its opening weekend, and it kept going; its worldwide gross ultimately made it the highest-grossing Alien or Predator movie of all time. (Prometheus would later pass it.) People really, really wanted to watch Alien and Predator fight. It would even get a sequel three years later.
Has it held up? There’s some good casting here; Sanaa Lathan was still hot off Love and Basketball and is a very likable and vibrant protagonist. It’s also fun to see Henricksen back in an Alien movie, even if he’s playing an actual human being this time, and even Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner gets a little run as a scientist, the exact opposite character of what he played in that film. And there is a cathartic kick, no question, when Alien and Predator finally do face off, even if it takes a while.
Look, they’re really mad at each other!
So, that’s the good news. The bad news is that the movie is mostly unwatchable otherwise, with boring characters, all sorts of dull mythos/franchise building, and a shooting style that makes scenes so dark it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on. The movie has no reason to exist other than its title (and, yes, its tagline), so now, in a world where you can just watch the clips on YouTube in two minutes, the rest of it is entirely beside the point.
But you do get that fight, which may justify the existence of the movie in the first place. And ultimately the movie won over its biggest initial skeptic. “It was actually pretty good,” Cameron said after seeing it. “I think of the five Alien films, I'd rate it third. I actually liked it. I actually liked it a lot.”
Whether you believe him or not, such an endorsement almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. Almost.
Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.