AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

the predators

Alien vs Predator begins with a recruitment montage, just like the way that heist films do when they’re putting together a crew to execute a robbery. But in this film, the group that’s being put together is meant for a mission to Antarctica, where wealthy tycoon Charles Weyland has discovered an archeological find and is out to uncover it to make his stamp on history. The resulting group includes around a dozen people comprised of scientists, archeological experts, engineers, mercenaries, and Weyland himself.

Almost halfway into the film things start to go awry; and then shortly after that, I catch myself wondering: Why are they all… dying already? It’s no exaggeration when I say that someone was dying every 2-3 minutes. From the time the shit hits the fan, bodies were falling everywhere. Even characters that one would have thought might hang around a little longer ended up being cannon fodder. There was whatshisname who kept on showing pictures of his kids and I felt like they’d keep him alive until the climax to maintain the viewer’s sympathy. No, he died quickly. Then there were whatstheirnames who seemed like they had sparks between them and a romance was brewing. No, they died quickly too. At around the 1-hour mark, there were only two people left, then shortly after that, just a sole survivor.

Then I figured that the film is, of course, called Alien vs Predator, so they were just setting the stage for the titular battle. But even then, in the original Alien, The crew of the Nostromo ended up being such remarkable characters. Ripley in particular became one of the most iconic figures in sci-fi history. In the original Predator, not only Arnie, but also Dillon, Mac, and even Jesse “The Body” Ventura were such memorable parts of the story. They were the elements in those films that made you care about the conflict and be afraid of the danger. In AVP though, I could barely remember half of the crew after the film had ended. What’s worse is that I haven’t the slightest idea about any of their characters and personalities outside of the several most featured ones. Years from now, none of them will stick in my memory.

So in the absence of anyone to root for, AVP ends up being dull. In fact, it has very little going for it, if it even has any. There is nothing frightening or thrilling, the visual effects, sets and creature design are notable, but not particularly impressive. All that this film shows is that its producers knew elementary mathematics. The Alien film and its sequels made bajillions of dollars at the box office. The Predator film and its sequels also made bajillions of dollars at the box office. Put them together and what do you get? Two bajillions of dollars of course! And that’s the story of the film right there: Never mind the perfunctory plot. Never mind the cardboard cutout characters. Let’s just take these two incredibly recognizable sci-fi film franchises, beef it up with a fair amount of serviceable effects, then let the people come in droves… and they did. AVP: Alien vs Predator made quite a lot of bajillions of dollars in the box-office as well.

Rating: D (bad)

Soldier (1998)

Kurt Russell in Soldier

In most strategic video games, a player usually chooses beforehand whether to play against a human or an AI (artificial intelligence). When playing an AI, there’s also the matter of how difficult the AI should be. At its highest difficulty, an AI is designed to be faster, stronger and more efficient than any human. In Soldier, infants are selected at birth and trained to be war machines that are similarly faster, stronger and more efficient than any standard military recruit. They’re not robots, but they might as well be. They are brainwashed – or programmed, if you will – to become the most efficient killers possible. Todd (Kurt Russell) is one of these soldiers and the best in his squad. However, when a younger and better breed of super-soldiers is introduced, Todd’s squad is rendered obsolete. After being beat by one of the young blood, Todd finds himself thrown out to a remote waste disposal planet called Arcadia.

On Arcadia, Todd discovers a small and peaceful human society. Through them, he starts to feel emotions and reconnect with his humanity. When the squad of super-soldiers land on Arcadia and attack the colony, it’s Todd who defends them – not only defeating the younger soldier who beat him earlier, but also its entire squad, including their commander. So how is it that Todd gets manhandled earlier in the film and then is able to wipeout the entire opposing squad later on? The answer lies in the video game analogy I cited earlier. 

Even though an AI is superior on paper than any human, a lot of high level gamers will still be able to beat an AI easily at its highest difficulty. In most cases, they can even beat several at the same time. This is because AI’s don’t have the capacity for genuine human thinking, and that makes all the difference. AI’s are caught up in a web of routines and pre-defined conditions. While the speed of their processing power makes them more efficient than a human, it also makes them more predictable, and this predictability can be exploited. Humans on the other hand have the ability to adapt and feel, which makes their actions infinitely more varied and unpredictable, and this is what enables Todd – having gotten in touch, even partly, with his humanity – to save the Arcadian colony from being destroyed.

The surprising thing about Soldier is that it’s a film that has a lot to say. It wrestles with the question of what it means to be human and what the price of progress and perfection can be, which is incredibly relevant in today’s increasingly chaotic and fast-paced world. The unfortunate thing about it though is while David Peoples (writer of Blade Runner, Unforgiven & Twelve Monkeys) tries to convey a noble message through his story, the director is not one well-equipped to treat the material justly. When one sees close-ups of a woman’s nipples poking through her garments, an unbearably cheesy song backing an even cheesier amateurish montage, a rubber snake bought from a toy store meant to be a menacing threat, and a colonel urinating out of his trousers in terror – then you know that Paul W.S. Anderson has more juvenile and superficial goals in mind. There is also the forgivable issue of a $60-million sci-fi picture looking like it had a $6-million budget, but when an actor meant to be stone-faced and deliver a mere 104 words throughout the whole film turns in a better acting performance than half of the cast, then there’s just no saving that.

In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, Soldier could have been good. With a better cast, it could have been great. But as it is, the crudeness of the film robs the material of its power while the tacky and campy direction drowns out the message and prevents it from coming through loud and clear.

Rating: C (poor)

Death Race (2008)

someone about to die in Death Race

Shortly into the film, one will notice that Death Race oddly looks like a laundry list of its actors most popular roles. Jason Statham plays The Transporter, Joan Allen plays Pamela Landy and Tyrese Gibson reprises his role from The Fast and the Furious. Thankfully, Ian McShane gives the viewer a character to look forward to, with his gravelly voice and authoritative aura. But everyone else plays some sort of caricaturish cardboard cut-out role whose only purpose is to increase the body count throughout the film. The only thing that could have made the typecasting more ridiculous is if Robin Shou had pulled out some kung-fu moves while he was at it.

The film stars Statham as Jensen Ames, a man framed for the murder of his wife, subsequently incarcerated and eventually forced into being a driver for the top form of entertainment in the film’s dystopian world: The Death Race. The mastermind of the race and top beneficiary of its profits is Hennessey (Allen), the warden of the prison. And in a twist telegraphed long before it’s actually revealed, we learn that Hennessey is actually the brains behind Jensen being framed. The purpose being so that she could use him to assume the role of recently-deceased Frankenstein – the most popular racer in the game.

It isn’t difficult to surmise that Death Race is a film created by a director with no ounce of subtlety or nuance in his body, which is perfect because this is a film perfectly suited for the video game generation. The race itself looks exactly like a video game with its combination of cars, guns, competition and various gameplay mechanics. There is even a montage where the different drivers are introduced and it plays out similar to a racing game selection screen. There are copious amounts of blood, gore, crass humour and bad punch lines masquerading as badass punch lines. And to top it all off, the film also has the depth of character and plot development that one would find in most popular modern shooting games… which is not much.

Yet, for all of Death Race‘s shortcomings, Paul W.S. Anderson is not at all a bad director. Unlike Michael Bay, who always has everything turned up to 11, Anderson still has a setting that goes down a few notches. The pacing in this film is not perfect, but it’s not a mind-numbing attack on all the senses either. The best thing about it is that even though Anderson is a terrible writer who never goes beyond an elementary treatment of his screenplay, he knows how to put together a visually cohesive film.

Everything about the look of Death Race – from the sets to the props and the costumes – all serve to enhance the film’s dark, cold, steely and worn-out industrial aesthetic. Even the muted colour tones (contrast this to the vibrant palette in his 2011 film Three Musketeers) also conform to the film’s overall atmosphere. He knows how to work the camera and there are a lot of visually engaging shots that play with light and shadow and silhouettes. Anderson also shows the capability to come up with interesting camera angles and well-framed images; but most intriguingly, his fast-paced editing, quick cuts and shaky camera work play out like a poor man’s Paul Greengrass. It’s a more indulgent technique that results in a superficial grittiness compared to the raw and visceral work of Greengrass, but nonetheless works excellently for Anderson’s style.

Death Race is not nearly as bad as the reputation of its director suggests. In fact, I enjoyed it, was entertained and am now looking for a potential marathon topic where I could squeeze in the original it was based on. The film is cheesy, campy and comes from the same school of filmmaking as Michael Bay, but unlike Bay, Anderson shows skill and restraint. This film is still best experienced if you leave your brain at the door, but if for some reason you want to bring it in, rest assured the experience will not leave you feeling like your brain was mashed and eviscerated once you step out.

Rating: C+ (average)

Heat (1995)

Val Kilmer in a shootout from Heat

I might have just seen the best action-thriller movie ever. It’s just that this 2-hour movie exists within the 170-minutes of Heat, but I’m sure that it’s there and it’s amazing. It has this riveting and intense cat-and-mouse chase between the De Niro-led gang of criminals and the Pacino-led LA police. It has some of the most raw, visceral and well-crafted shootout sequences I’ve seen, including a particularly incredible one in the middle of downtown LA. It knows how to pace itself, can maintain tension even in its quiet moments, and has one of the most electric scenes you can ever have between two people talking in a diner.

What it doesn’t have is the rushed and underdeveloped subplot of how a bank robber meets a younger woman, falls for her, and how he wants to give up his life of crime so they could run off into the sunset. It neither has the story of a cop having domestic problems due to his dedication to his job, nor does it have the totally disjointed backstory of a getaway driver who just gets killed and dropped from the plot completely.

Thus is the predicament of Heat: It tries to be both a thrilling heist film and a romantic-drama at the same time. The good news is that it still succeeds at being the former. In fact, as a more taut and focused two-hour film, it can be considered the high point of the genre. The bad news is that Michael Mann really does not know how to do drama, and he’s even more inept at developing a believable romance. The one and only such scene that I felt worked in the film was at the end when Charlene (Ashley Judd) makes a sacrifice for her husband at the last second. That worked and it was powerful. The other bits of melodrama, not so much.

It’s almost as if Michael Mann thinks that his films can’t be compelling within the action and suspense only. The funny thing is that without the melodrama, his films actually are quite compelling. Watching De Niro’s Neil McCauley and Pacino’s Vincent Hanna – two passionate individuals who are similar in so many ways, yet find themselves on the opposite ends of a tense situation – is already an interesting setup that doesn’t need dramatic flourishes to support it.

I understand and appreciate how Mann was trying to make the stakes higher for both of them by including McCauley’s romance and Hannah’s domestic drama, but it just makes me wish that he was much better at writing these things. In any case, the parallels that one can draw between them is intriguing and the way in which Mann increasingly blurs the gray line between good and bad is fascinating. Ultimately seeing them understand, respect and admire each other through the conflict is what ends up being the most compelling thing about the story. Considering they both know that only one of them can come out of it alive ends up being bittersweet

Rating: B (good)