Sunday, 9 December 2012

"Are They Called That Because They 'Pre-Date' Humanity?"

Courtesy of Channel 4 I finally caught Predators last night (thus bringing me up to speed with the increasingly out-of-control Aliens/Predators franchise), and I must confess, I'm baffled the film didn't receive a warmer welcome than it did.

There's no doubt in my mind - absolutely none - that it's a significantly better film than Predator (which in turn places it above Predator 2 and both Alien vs Predator movies, of course).  It's faster and better-paced, for a start.  There's obviously no way it'll ever win any awards for characterisation, of course, but that's hardly a mortal wound to a film like this.  Indeed, it does almost as well with fleshing out the 'grunts', and far, far better with the central character.  And yes, whilst the best I can really say about Adrien Brody here is that he's not quite as miscast as I'd originally assumed (it would be very interesting to see some alternate-universe copy of the film which switches Brody and Laurence Fishburne around), he's still twenty times more convincing as a hard-bitten military killer than Schwarzenegger managed, if only because hard-bitten military killers can generally speak without sounding like they're reading from cue cards.

As far as I can see, there's only really two major criticisms to be hurled at the film.  One is that an average 80s action movie with one good idea is actually superior to a slightly-above average 21st century action movie with plenty of good ideas based on that 80s idea, because at least Predator is of its time.  There's a lot of things to say both in defence of an in objection to that idea, but for now I'll just say that half of that argument could apply to anything one might be tempted to slap the term "retro" in front of, which seems to me a mistake, and the second half of that argument would force one to conclude that Alien is superior to Aliens.  Which, in fairness, a lot of people claim.  All of them are wrong.

Indeed, the Predators is to Predator as Aliens is to Alien comparison can take us further, and not because of the similarity of pluralisation and the (fulfilled) promise of multiple critters (and even critter types) it implies. This gets us to the second plausible avenue of criticism, which is that both Predators and Aliens start off with fantastic central mysteries that the audience already know much of the motivation behind.  This isn't so serious a problem for Cameron's sequel, because the scenes preceding the reactor battle are focussed on Ripley's mounting Cassandra-like dread and the implicit horrors that have gone on at Hadley's Hope.  With Predators, though, you have a bunch of people who have never met wake up in free-fall having been kidnapped from various places across the world, and who find themselves on an alien planet surrounded by empty and very large cages.

That's a cracking set-up, right there, that only gets better as the protagonists piece together what's going on whilst dodging death-traps and alien beasts.  Once the unseen threat starts using the voices of their own dead to both lure and taunt them, you've got a genuinely solid slice of sci-fi with a nice dash of horror.  It's a real shame that the whole way through you know that a bunch of Predators are going to show up and start taking skulls.

In short, then, you have what's not far from being the paragon of any film based around the Predator.  The only problem the film genuinely suffers from is that this is just too low a ceiling, and in trying its best to break out of those limitations, it really only succeeds in making you wonder what it could have managed by playing it's own world, rather than borrowing someone else's.


Gooder said...

Have to say I found Predators very dissapointing and for a large part of it's run time just plain boring.

The intial mystery is never taken advantage of (the never really truely address why these people in particular have been taken from memory and the Predator culture is never taken beyond what already has been established and it ends up with a set of stock characters being picked off one by one.

Something I've seen done better in many other places. (Like say Aliens, Pitch Black, Pandorum, Battle: Los Angles)

In fact I prefer Aliens v Predator which actually does a far better job of building tension before unleashing it's beasts.

And whilst Aliens is good, Alien is better! Alien is a much smarter film overall

SpaceSquid said...

Pitch Black is certainly a better film than this, and indeed Predators seemed at times to be apeing it, especially in terms of the main protagonist's arc. Panjandrum is a better film too, though I'm not sure the two are as comparable as you imply. Battle: Los Angeles I'd pretty much put on a par.

And yes, Aliens does it better. That's because Aliens is the best sci-fi action film ever made. Not measuring up to that isn't really something one should hold against anything.

Aliens v Predator, on the other hand, is nowhere near as good. I can see your point on the tension building, though in part that's down to Xenomorphs being creatures far more rooted in horror than the Predators were ever intented to be, but in every other way it's a markedly inferior film: the acting is worse, the main character even less interesting, the pacing somewhat odd, and the treatment of the Predators utterly unforgiveable.

Obviously, you're wrong about Alien being better than Aliens. That said, I'd be interested in hearing what makes you say the former is smarter. I'm not saying I disagree, just that it would never occur to me to suggest it, so I wonder what your thought process is, here.

darkman said...

What makes the original Predator good is that McTiernan used the movie to satirize action movies (take the scene where they empty their guns without hitting anything for example). Predators on the other hand doesn't really do anything that interesting (with the exception of Fishburne's character).

SpaceSquid said...

That's interesting. I was too young when I first saw Predator to have picked up on any satire, and I've not put any effort into really picking it apart since. I shall have to give it another spin with my irony circuits fully engaged.

Gooder said...

For starters in Alien the characters feel like real people. Time is spent to flesh them out and we understand that they are just normal people doing their work.

It's perfectly understandable that Lambert breaks down and freaks out for example but why does a supposed hardcore marine like hudson apparantly start crumble so easily under pressure?

It's fascinating to see how these people react once Dallas dies and see how quietly without fuss Ripley begins to lead the group.

Even Ash is sublty drawn, whilst he doing the company's bidding (and that in itself is a fantastically handled reveal) he is more that just the corporate evil guy (like Burke is - he may as well have "I'm here to screw you" written on his forehead). He is shown to have genuine fascination in the alien.

Truth is no-one in Aliens is a real person. They are the typical cyphers of the men on a mission moive.

The rookie leader, the all round good guy, the wise-ass, the drill sgt. It's even underlined by one of them adopting a Rambo style bandana).

Even Ripley moves from someone drawing on wits and massive effort to stay calm whilst petrified to an almost template action hero(ine) wielding dual guns where a squad of marines just failed.

The pacing of Alien is very smartly done. Starts slow as the crew are introduced and just as the audience gets used to the world we are in the slow crank of the tension begins.

Going from the mystry of the signal, to the reveal of the ship, to the weirdness inside it, to Kane dropping into the pit, to the movement in the egg and then or course Kane getting it in the face.

Gooder said...

Each bit drawing the audience in before moving onto the next bit just as the tension starts to slightly fade to draw it back up again.

The masterstroke the is to slow things right down again as we watch the crew deal with the stress of the situation.

And then the audience and the crew are allowed to relax with Kane seeming alright. In fact it's no accident that the chest burst happens around the dinner table, as we're familiar with that scenario. We've seen it at the start of the film, it's feels safe and then is of course punctuated with one of the most famous moments in modern film history.

We get similar with Dallas in the ducts and whilst the Brett is pretty much a classic 'horror fakeout' the payoff is fantastically done. It's not a jump scare as many would use but in fact a draw out moment that teases the audience with the notion something else may yet happen.

The only thing that comes close to any of the tension in Alien is the intial trip into the power plant. After that it's basically standard action fair.

Aliens meanwhile does have some great sequences but also for me drops into a pattern of exposition, loud bit, exposition, loud bit, plot, loud bit, ending?, ending?, loud ending. And I think the extended versions are worse seeing as the opening sequence with the colonists basically frontloads all the mystery.

Alien's mise en sene is very, very good. You get both the normalness of the Nostromo and the otherworldly environs of the alien ship (thanks a lot to Geiger of course).

For me there is nothing in Aliens that matches the awe and wonder of say the space jokey (although Prometheus has diluted that now a bit!)

Aliens all looks like it's happening on a industrial estate (which it was), now there is reason for this in terms of the film's setup but it still lacks that sense of 'elsewhere'.

Simply change the aliens for Viet-cong and it could be a Vietnam film - but then that was the whole point.

Alien however is, Alien, it feels unique.

There is also that old thing where you take one fearsome creature/enemy and say "wouldn't it be cool if there were hundreds on them!". Well, yes. But unfortunatly you just then go from terrifying thing to thing that is mainly cannon fodder until either your protagonist is idiotic or plot dictates that said creature must again display it's original attributes.

If the aliens in Aliens were like the one from the first film, they wouldn't charge down corridors blindly. The marines wouldn't see them until being picked off from the shadows, there wouldn't be any prolonged gunfights. It very much is "yes, it would be cool if there were hundres of them but only if we neuter them to some extent otherwise our heroes wouldn't last very long at all"

Gooder said...

I know some argue that it behaves differently in Alien because it is alone but if you spin that round that just means that this smart, effcient predator acts like a complate retard when in groups for some reason.

Don't get me wrong Aliens is a fairly strong action film but that is pretty much all it aspires to be (there is some thematic stuff at work like Ripley's maternal instincts but in the theatrical version espically it's not played to that much and Newt is just around almost as a McGuffin that has to be saved, something that pushes Ripley to meet the Queen rather than just get out)

Where as for me there is so much more in Alien. From the character work (very much a feautre of Hollywood's silver age in the 70s), the expert pacing, the tension (even right to the end it's unclear on first viewing if Ripley will actually survive), the production design that drops hints at a much larger universe (Prometheus would never have happened without it) even the sparse sound design that fits so well is sublimly pitched (combared to Aliens' bombastic approach) and there are interesting themes at work underneath (questions of authority run through out, is the creature evil or just acting according to it's nature - a couple of time it's juxtaposed with the cat - another predator albeit a more familar one).

Anyway, I could probably go on and on! But for me Aliens is pretty good, Alien is a stone cold classic.