Twentieth Century Fox didn't dare screen Alien vs. Predator for us critics, so I dragged my alienated, predatory carcass to the one-minute-after-midnight Friday show at Union Square in Manhattan and found a rare seat in house full of muscled-up young men and a few surprisingly unembarrassed girlfriends. It's not that I especially like the Alien or Predator pictures, or the overblown work of director Paul W.S. Anderson. It's that I'm a "versus" completist, in spite (or maybe because) of the fact that there has never been a good Monster X vs. Monster Y picture and probably never will be.
Thirty-odd years ago, along with many prepubescent horror fans of the '60s, I also stayed up past midnight to see Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, in which Frankenstein (or, to be a geek about it, his monster) did not actually meet the Wolfman until the last five minutes, whereupon both were promptly swept away by a pathetic miniature exploding dam. I risked a barrage of peashooters to line up to watch King Kong square off against Godzilla and Godzilla square off against, well, anything. I suffered through Dracula vs. Frankenstein, an unbelievably tawdry Al Adamson film cobbled together from spare Z-picture pieces, in which Dracula (or the curly haired, goateed dork who passed for him) pulled the giant Play-Doh Frankenstein monster apart limb from limb. And, of course, I savored every stupid minute of last summer's Freddy vs. Jason, which set a world record for arterial spray and still couldn't manage to avoid a cheat ending. (No one really won—no one ever really does.) The appeal of the "versus" genre is no mystery. It's the same as Celebrity Death Match: We want the baddest cats to be humbled. We want the World Series of baddest cats.
All this passed through my mind as I sat with that crowd—surprisingly well-mannered, I should add, as if church were about to begin. "Go, Predator!" yelled someone when the Fox logo appeared. "Alien sucks!" cried another. This was a surprise: I didn't know that it was possible to pick sides. And anyway, there are many aliens and many predators: They're not characters, they're species. For my money, the best thing about the Alien and Predator monsters in all their incarnations is that you rarely see them fully or for any length of time: They swiftly disembowel their human prey and beat it. Directors (especially the various Alien directors, who appreciate the genius of H.R. Giger's shiny-slimy elongated black helmet-headed vagina dentata with the eviscerating tail) know enough to keep the action dark and semi-coherent for maximum terror.
Well, Alien vs. Predator is certainly dark and semi-coherent. The first 45 minutes or so is stupefying—flat, disjointed, missing all human connective tissue. After a throat-clearing prologue and a welcoming speech by millionaire Lance Henriksen in a long black coat, an international cast of dullards plus the lusciously tough Sanaa Lathan head into the bowels of some sort of ancient Cambodian-Egyptian-Aztec temple 2,000 feet below the ice of Antarctica. They're being watched from above by a spaceship full of predators, while way down below one of those big-mama aliens gets thawed out and starts laying eggs into a big alien-egg-laying machine. What's going on? If I told you, you wouldn't believe me, so you might as well see for yourself. Never let it be said that Paul W.S. Anderson lacks ambition: A flashback takes us to the dawn of civilization, which was apparently brought to us by—yes—predators.
Judging by Alien vs. Predator, standards have fallen since the days when we worshipped predators and built great pyramids in their name. Although that pyramid is an imaginative setting (it reconfigures itself every 10 minutes, creating new chambers and passageways while perilously eliminating others), Anderson is terrible at giving us our bearings; and he's the only franchise director who fails to generate even a drop of empathy for screaming people who have aliens erupting from their chests.
But once the predators and aliens start mixing it up—and they do mix it up, by gum, with lots of casualties on both sides and an adequate amount of splatter given the dismaying PG-13 rating—the movie gets some goofy momentum going. "De enemy of my enemee ees-a my friend," explains the pretty-boy Italian (Raoul Bova) keeping company with Lathan. In this case, that means siding with the disgusting storm-trooper predators against the rapidly multiplying aliens. And pretty soon those predators—whom I'd always thought of (mistakenly, I guess) as aliens with dreadlocks—start making like Klingons on Star Trek. They have no bedside manner, but they're brave warriors, and they recognize a kindred spirit in the toughie Lathan. And, ugly as they are, those mandibles are sort of … cute. Sanaa and Predator, sittin' in a tree …
Alien vs. Predator isn't a botch, but it's not as if I heard anyone enthusing on the way down the escalator. Some guys in front of me weren't talking about this movie at all. They were saying: "Well, Alien could meet Chucky." "No, no, Michael Myers should meet Chucky." "No, Hannibal Lecter should meet Chucky. …"