For months Twentieth Century Fox has been frothing us up over Sir Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien business with Prometheus. But for me, this is an occasion to not only celebrate the uncelebrated—Paul W.S. Anderson’s fantastic Alien vs. Predator—but to see through Scott’s contributions and mourn their horrible legacy.
First: Scott didn’t think up Alien’s feminist hero angle. All reports indicate that just sort of happened at the behest of producers David Giler and Walter Hill. Nor did he think up the paradigm-shifting H.G. Giger bio-mechanical alien design. Nor the story.
What he deserves credit for is saying yes to those elements.
But above and beyond that, what Scott—an ace adman whose Chanel #5 ads fused wealth, sex and property to almost pornographic levels—really brought to Alien (1979) was class. And Class.
Writing about Prometheus recently in Box Office, James Rocchi, after trashing the unimportant Alien vs. Predator (2004), just up and said it’s “nice to have Sir Ridley classing the neighborhood back up.”
Yes, ‘Sir”. As in knighted by The Queen. And “classing” things up, one assumes, like he classed up Hannibal with those splendidly art-directed, scrumptiously-lit scenes of Ray Liotta eating his own brains.
But why would you need “class” in a films about chest-bursting phallus monsters? Knowingly or not, Rocchi had used the correct verb.
Back in the late 70s, there’s no way that Scott could help but understand the discomfort we colonials felt around art and the class struggles we’re not supposed to suffer from. Watching Alien, you can see how he capitalized on that discomfort, on the way many Americans were still not quite sure how to process, say, a Bergman film. Did you act as if you got the long pauses, unfamiliar allusions, and the beauty for its own sake? Or should you just walk out, and fear being judged an idiot?
Doing what worked so well in the Chanel ads, he slathered Alien with style and class, and with the glacial pace, mood lighting, anti-hero casting, and doleful music he guessed we’d associate with “serious films.” By the time the first finished print rolled through a projector with a really long, 2001-looking spaceship named after Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and Howard Hanson’s august Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”) rolling over the end credits, Scott may have imagined Americans who wouldn’t be caught dead seeing low-class fare like Friday the 13th feeling downright continental about watching what Scott himself called “the Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction.”
A Chain Saw, that is, about working-class stiffs deceived by an upper-class android, in which a blue-collar girl (Sigourney Weaver) kills the Giger menace.
British critics like the indispensible Kim Newman (author of Nightmare Movies) saw through the class story, seeing a pose that hid a monster/gore/Ten Little Indians hybrid whose plot required its characters to seek out dark places where they might get killed. But for Americans, that cold, humorless seriousness was the key to what made Alien so damned scary.
James Cameron understood that “serious” was a one trick pony: his war movie remix sequel, Aliens (1986), went for creature battle and feminism, blowing Scott’s pretense and future grunge chic out the air locker: the film was a huge success.
Alas, both Alien 3 (1992), wrought by the future king of high faux seriousness, David Fincher, and Alien: Resurrection (1997) both behaved as if somber, existential gloom—the Sir Ridley touch currently being pimped in the Prometheus teasers like the “Happy, Birthday, David” viral videos, which are basically ruling-class Danish modern architecture porn disguised as futurism—were the key to Alien riches. This proved incorrect.
But then came Paul W.S. Anderson, egalitarian king of deep focus mayhem and why-the-hell-not, ripping any shred of swank out of both the Alien franchise and its déclassé Predator brother, an 80s rasta hunter-monster that was either all developing-world anger-subtext or just a super bad-ass space demon, in a film that pitted one against the other to the death! Finally, some fun, for fuck’s sake!
Anderson is the creator of the terrifyingly strange Event Horizon (1997), the neo-grindhouse exploitationer Death Race (2008), and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), which proved that he demonstrably owns the most visionary sense of spatial geometry in modern cinema. He loves mixing, matching, and fusing ideas, conveys a palpable sense of sheer cinema-making glee, and most critics despise him as an aesthetically base-born, second-rate creator of vulgar garbage.
But beyond these inaccurate judgments lie deeper, troubling, truly dispiriting things that go far beyond anything in any Alien film. I’ll get to that in a minute.
In Anderson’s alternately inspired and nutso screenplay for Alien vs. Predator (or AvP), an African American environmental scientist Alexa (Sanaa Lathan) leads a crew of experts to the Antarctic, where they discover a vast sub-glacier pyramid in which the titular Reagan-era monster icons are about to do battle.
But first, a whopper of a casually sacrilegious backstory posits humanity as just another race, made intelligent enough by predators to farm and worship predator gods, sacrifice themselves, and unknowingly become impregnated with aliens, assuring predators of awesome hunts. And if that doesn’t work out, they can blow up the city and start all over again a millennia later.
And then, back to the present day, amid the pyramid’s Aztec, Cambodian and Egyptian wall carvings, Alexa teams up with Predator to battle the alien queen mother, whose twice the size of either of them.
Anderson stages the main event like some Aztec SF Götterdämmerung, but it’s spiritually the original Kong v. Dinosaur with 21st century technology.
For anyone who’s loved the wonders of Willis O’Brien, Jan Švankmajer, Ray Harryhausen, the men-in-suits of Toho, or other toilers in the strange discipline of bringing the inanimate to life, AvP is like a screaming memorial to gods and monsters made of dead materials. If Neil Gaiman had relayed this, or if Guillermo Del Toro had filmed the same story, there would be worship.
But Anderson? Too low class, honey. But like I mentioned, it’s more than director issues.
I worry that our always-coded class agita and blind reverence for high seriousness over all considerations has so mangled our appreciation of genre values that people might walk out of Mario Bava’s transcendentally gorgeous Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) or Gareth Edwards’ Lovecraft-in-the-jungle Monsters (2010), because the effects are so “unrealistic” (code-phrase for “not enough money”) and the dialogue “not good enough” (code-phrase for “not ironic, hiply detached, or displaying another luxury commodity trait prized by entitled classes”).
No doubt, Prometheus will offer the usual Scott attributes—as with Blade Runner (1982) and Alien, the out-sourcing of designs to the most exclusive and expensive creators on Earth; the ice-blood mise-en-scene; and gold standard blood and guts effects.
But Anderson? He does what only he can do: His unique mental mad lab, cutting and pasting an endless fountain of pop art, geographic, child-dream, King Kong, multi-culti-architectural, exploitation, Chariots of the Gods, and Lord knows what other fantasies. I imagine him laughing, maybe a little crazily, while the sparks fly.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.