I liked it. Admittedly I also liked its sequel, but this I'd defend as a genuinely decent film. James Cameron said after seeing it that he'd rank it third out of the Alien films, which is possibly going a bit far but I'd defend the basic principle. If it weren't for a couple of "We're Being Dumb And We Don't Care" issues, I might have even been agreeing with him.
Admittedly this means I'm praising a film by Paul W.S. Anderson. However this is my first film of his I've seen and I shouldn't judge a man purely on the fact that he's directed films called Mortal Kombat, Death Race and Resident Evil. Actually he was the writer, director and producer of all those. Busy chap. With the Resident Evil sequels, he only wrote the scripts. The critics weren't enthusiastic about his work on this particular film, but today it looks like a masterpiece compared with Aliens vs Predator - Requiem. Let's go through the charges:
1 - "wooden dialogue" and "cardboard characters"
I liked the cast. I'm not being post-ironic here. There's the mighty Lance Henricksen, giving us a link to two Alien films, and Colin Salmon as a mercenary with a gun. I'm happy already. Also good is the lead character, who takes her job extremely seriously and reminded me of the heroine of the first Dark Horse comic book. As for the roles they're playing, I liked them too. They're world-class experts in their field, hired by a sick billionaire to investigate a mysterious pyramid in Antarctica. It takes a while for the Aliens and Predators to show up, but in the meantime I was very happy watching these guys go about their business. They're professionals who know what they're doing and I was keen to see what they found. Of course Antarctica is always awesome, but the pyramid looks just as good. If I'd been there, I'd have wanted to investigate too.
I also appreciated the fact that they weren't all American. Instead we have Englishmen, Italians and even a Scotsman. He was cool too. I loved his accent. I won't pretend Anderson's going for Chekhovian subtleties, but I believed that these people were real and I was interested in their mission. There isn't an obvious weak link in the cast and I always enjoyed watching them. Well, in particular watching Henricksen.
I was amused by the lead character's speech near the beginning. "It is my job to keep you alive on this expedition." Uh huh. Don't set your sights too high, lady. I also liked her three rules, although the third one looked sure to get broken. All this sounds better than a teenager being a jerk about his pizza delivery job, doesn't it? Yes, that's right, there's no Ricky! This automatically makes this a better film than Requiem.
2 - the lighting, which apparently "left the audience in the dark" with "black-on-black-in-blackness"
I don't understand this. Alien? Aliens? Not exactly famous for floodlighting, are they? As for the Predators, they turn invisible! Personally I went away from the film impressed by its straightforward, easy-to-follow combat scenes. Admittedly I've just watched Requiem and thus could probably have been fobbed off with anything, but I like what we have here. Mr Anderson knows what we want and gives it to us. The first Alien-Predator fight is the film's big set-piece and obviously staged as such, with the two combatants smashing the hell out of each other and pretty much anything within line of sight. I loved that scene. It's cool and it knows it.
I also liked how the film handled its three opposing sides. The humans are never forgotten, but once the action begins they're getting crushed like eggs by the warring extraterrestrials. Unlike the sequel, I never felt that time was being wasted on them. Meanwhile the Predators look huge and are far more violent than that rubbish Requiem guy, while the Aliens are more menacing at least than the ones in Resurrection. One of my favourite shots incidentally was that of the frozen Alien Queen coming to life early on. She gets no electric spark, cryogenic revivication procedure or anything like that. She's just a violently unstoppable monster that's just too damn ugly to stay dead. Hands up anyone who thinks she died at the end, by the way. Yup, somewhere deep in the Antarctic ocean is one deeply pissed-off Alien Queen that's hopefully still harpooned to its rock.
Unfortunately this film twice asks you to turn off your brain, once with the pyramid and again with the Aliens' life cycle. I'll take the less important one first.
How fast do these Aliens grow? Going from facehugger to chestburster can hardly take a minute or two's screen time, after which it feels like barely five minutes pass until we're looking at fully developed Aliens! From embryo to eight-foot-tall monster in a few hundred seconds. If it stood still in front of you, you'd be able to see it grow. Hell, it's not as if the speed of their development even in Ridley Scott's original wasn't outrageous. However one could perhaps justify this as either the Predators being impatient to get on with things (why?) or the Alien Queen adjusting her offspring's life cycle in order to spring a surprise on their hunters. I think I prefer the latter. Goldfish grow to the size that suits their environment, for instance, and I've never suspected them of being an artificial or genetically engineered life-form.
No, my real problem is with the pyramid. Is it Aztec, Cambodian or Egyptian? Hell, let's do the full von Daniken and make it all three! Thus we're supposed to believe that the culture that built this pyramid carved its writing not in a language of its own, but in the three languages of those aforementioned cultures, despite their being not contemporaries but descendants. Yes, three languages at once. If archeology worked like that, the Romans wouldn't have written in Latin, but instead in triplicate in modern French, English and Korean. Admittedly it all looks great, but unfortunately it's been built according to the Indiana Jones school, in which sliding stone blocks separate you from your friends every five minutes. Yeah, right. As if being caught between two homicidal alien species wasn't bad enough for our protagonists. Ironically the film does an excellent job of building up our expectations for the pyramid, but once we've arrived it becomes clear that it's a rag-bag of cliches hidden under beautiful, beautiful design work.
Oh, and whatever happened to Predators liking it hot?
However apart from these quibbles, there's a lot to like here. The backstory about a previous incident in 1904 is nicely understated instead of being thuddingly overdone. Lance Henricksen gets an iconic death scene, which I appreciated. Instead of wasting time with lots of humans at the end (bad), there's one lone survivor (good). I liked the line about a swollen full moon being called a hunter's moon in Italian. The film also ends up reminding me of the first Dark Horse Aliens vs. Predator comic, which I appreciated even if it suffers from the comparison. You'd never call this an intellectual film, but I think it's seriously underrated. It does what it says on the tin.
P.S. It stars Patrick Troughton's grandson.