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By Michael Ferraro | August 14, 2004

Paul W.S. Anderson gets no respect as a director, and with good reason. Admittedly, “Event Horizon” divided audiences who couldn’t decide if they were watching a canny horror film with distinctly Lovecraftian elements or a cheap, paint-by-numbers ghost story in space. But Anderson’s other major releases, “Mortal Kombat” and the abominable Resident Evil, encouraged no such ambiguity, they were simply crap. With this spotty record, few fans of either the “Alien” or “Predator” franchises were looking forward to Anderson helming the film that would finally, after years of comic books, video games, and RPGs, bring the two together on the big screen. Still, we all have fond memories of the original films, with the possible exception of Alien: Resurrection, of course (and I’ll go on record as saying “Predator 2” is underrated). And even if Anderson has yet to demonstrate that he’s capable of directing lemmings to jump off a cliff, that’s no reason to assume “AvP” is going to be an affront to all that is holy, right?

Hold that thought, because Anderson’s newest effort, “Alien vs. Predator,” almost plays out as badly as advance word might lead you to believe, and it will end up frustrating fans of both movie franchises enough to make them wish someone more competent was in charge.

Taking place in the present, “AvP” posits that the extra-terrestrial predators have visited Earth for millennia, using a captive queen to produce aliens for novice predators to hunt in a controlled environment. As the film begins, we learn that industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) has discovered a mysterious pyramid underneath the Antarctic ice, and assembled a crack team of scientific experts and drillers (the site is 2000 feet below ground) to explore it. Chief among them is environmentalist/scout Alexa “Lex” Woods (Sanaa Lathan) and archaeologist Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova). Lex is obviously cast in the Ripley mode of strong female protagonist, while Sebastian is merely along to advance the plot thanks to his command of hieroglyphics.

In a ridiculously short amount of time, the team travels to the Antarctic site, only to discover a tunnel has already been drilled into the ice (by an orbiting predator spaceship that no one detects). Nonplussed by this development, the team descends to the pyramid, discovering too late that the structure has been designed to pit predators and aliens against each other in a sort of ancient initiation ritual. Before we know it, the humans screw up the logistics of the scenario and eventually get whittled away to almost nothing by out of control aliens as the two species duke it out.

For starters, one has to fault Anderson for making a movie called “Alien vs. Predator” that only features, at most, 15 minutes of actual alien on predator action. The set-up is also hurried, and allows the audience scant time to get to know a handful of the 20-person exploration team before they’re quickly killed off. Meanwhile, we’re treated to scene after scene of the so-called experts explaining how this particular pyramid could combine aspects of Aztec, Egyptian, and Cambodian culture. It became so repetitive at one point that I wondered if Aaron Sorkin had come in to do a script rewrite.

Part of what made the original movies of both franchises so notable was the care that went into developing the human characters. Unfortunately, “AvP” doesn’t give us a Ripley, a Dutch, a Hudson, or even a Burke. Lex is a garden variety badass, nothing more. Bova is a handsome enough fellow, but his Sebastian never gets the chance to establish himself. The rest of the cast might as well be wearing red shirts, Star Trek style, given the speed at which they’re dispatched.

As the second half of the movie plays out, the problems become even more pronounced. Not the least of which is Anderson’s fast and loose style of playing with his creatures’ history. For a guy who gave a fair amount of lip service to continuity, he seems hell-bent on changing our preconceived notions about the two species. For example, the incubation cycle of the aliens has shortened from days to a matter of hours or, in one case, minutes. Now it seems a facehugger can lay an egg that gives rise to a full grown alien in less time than it takes to watch an episode of “Oprah,” and this would be fine if Anderson hadn’t gone back and changed things around for his requisite shock ending.

The fact that we barely get to see the two species fight extensively is only slightly less annoying than Anderson’s depiction of the alien brood queen as a “Jurassic Park” style T-rex in the movie’s closing minutes, or the way in which he makes the predators effectively impotent without their state-of-the-art weaponry. Further, the final third of the movie is so rushed you’re left wondering if anything that might’ve made the film worth watching was left on the cutting room floor.

There’s really no reason for this movie to exist. Fans of both “Alien” and “Predator” will likely be howling for Paul W.S. Anderson’s head, and I can’t say that I blame them. He managed to take a couple of properties that were pretty much dead in the water and turn them into a mockery of their former greatness. There are a handful of interesting alien/predator encounters, but they don’t come close to making up for the mess that surrounds them.

And was there really a point to casting Henriksen as the Weyland character? He has name cred, sure, but given his eventual fate, it seems hard to believe this “pioneer of modern robotics” (as he’s described in the film) would go on to found Weyland-Yutani or help develop the prototype for the synthetic Bishop of “Aliens.”

Do yourself a favor and erase “AvP” from your moviegoing memory. It isn’t as bad as some of the more heinous franchise killers of recent years, such as “Highlander 2” or “Batman and Robin,” but it definitely deserves a place of notoriety reserved for movies like the last two “Superman” films, half the Roger Moore Bond movies, and the Star Wars prequels.

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