Dreadlocks and acid blood. The Yautja and the Xenomorph. “Predator” and “Alien.” For over 35 years, the landscape of science fiction films has been forever inscribed with the chestbursters and plasma cannons of cinema’s most iconic extraterrestrial franchises. However, both series have constantly oscillated in quality, each experiencing a rollercoaster trajectory from critical praise to outright disdain. But with the release of “Prey” (the fifth standalone “Predator” movie), it has become apparent that “Predator” has regained its footing, while “Alien” seems to have been swept away by the rushing current of franchise expansion.
The two film series, which actually share the same universe, have been associated with each other for decades. Ridley Scott introduced the Xenomorph aliens in his 1979 tour-de-force science fiction horror film “Alien.” “Predator” took eight more years, taking theaters by storm in 1987. Both spawned successful franchises under the 20th Century Fox banner.
‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’
“Alien,” still widely considered one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, is a masterpiece of terror and atmosphere. It’s a quietly tense film that relies on the mystery and dread of the iconic Xenomorph alien, which wreaks havoc upon the personable crew of the Nostromo. From unbelievably horrific killings to indelible performances from Sigourney Weaver and company, the original film had all the ingredients for a hit that would stand the test of time.
In 1986, James Cameron took the wheel from Scott and delivered yet another classic in “Aliens.” Opting for a less horror, more action sci-fi approach, Cameron grew the “Alien” universe while still grounding it in the tactile characteristics that made the original great. Throw in a bit of commentary on the Vietnam War and some gritty action set pieces, and you’ve got yourself a sequel that rivals the first in quality.
A year later, “Predator” replicated much of what made “Alien” great by introducing a new killer creature: the Yautja. Where “Predator” diverged was its status as a kick-ass action genre film. “Predator,” outfitted with muscular men, machine guns and brutal murders, delivered one of the greatest action movies ever made. Its slick one-liners, outrageous kills, concise action set pieces and mysteriously murderous villain have enshrine “Predator” as not only a great genre flick, but also a time capsule of a particular moment in Hollywood filmmaking.
Three years later, “Predator 2” failed to capture its predecessor’s magic — despite it serving as cult classic fodder thanks to its willingness to lean into the outrageous. Outfitted with a head-scratching plot featuring voodoo drug lords and a noted lack of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film is a full-on shlock fest that, while entertaining, doesn’t match up to machismo blow-the-roof-off action of the original.
Two years later, “Alien” was met with its own relative failure. “Alien 3” leaned into nihilistic melodrama, resulting in a dark installment that hits like a shocking ice bath after the gung-ho, rip-roaring film that preceded it. While “Alien 3” still works well on its own terms, its lack of luster when compared to the preceding films has always made it stand out as a disappointment amongst the franchise. In fact, iconic director David Fincher — who made his feature film debut with this film — has since disowned the movie due to the troubled production. The freshman director was forced to initially shoot the movie without a completed script, several other directors came and went during pre-production and $7 million of the film’s budget was already in the hole from the beginning. In the end, “Alien 3” is a step backwards for the property, feeling as though it was written by 30 different people due to its twists and lack of thematic focus.
“Alien: Resurrection,” released in 1997, went over even worse. With a resurrected Ripley (because… science?) and human-Xenomorph hybrid, the fourth installment is all over the place. Overall, the trajectory of the “Alien” franchise just seemed afraid to let go of a storyline that had already exhausted its vitality.
‘Alien vs Predator’
By the turn of the century, both series seemed to slip by the wayside. The mid-2000’s “Alien vs Predator” movies didn’t do much to help their track record, either (although, of course, it’s dope to see a Yautja fistfight a Xenomorph). The next eras in the franchises, though, brought about varied levels of success that have led them towards their current statuses.
“Predators,” a 2010 film starring Adrien Brody, was the closest either franchise had come to capturing the magic of their original films. Following a similar hunters-being-hunted premise, “Predators” followed through with a straightforward action movie with kick-ass combat and even more kick-ass Predators. It focused on what “Predator” did best: be simple, and do it very well.
In “Predators,” the franchise showed that it doesn’t really care to tie up any big storylines; the “Predator” series is essentially an anthology. It follows a different group of characters in a different setting every installment, with the only constant being a Yautja on the hunt. While this resists a deeper thematic resonance for the series as a whole, “Predator” doesn’t seem to care. Each film feels like a new adventure, an open invitation to explore new characters, new worlds and new kills. “Alien,” on the other hand, pleads viewers to dive into its mythology and storyline. The next “Alien” installment, “Prometheus,” falls victim to this same sensation.
Ridley Scott returned for “Prometheus,” a new take on the “Alien” franchise released in 2012. While Scott’s beautiful camerawork stuns, his direction steers the franchise into a near-biblical storyline focusing on the weighty ideas of origin, purpose and perfection. Here, Scott created an interesting science-fiction film with deep ponderings and messaging, but “Prometheus” pushes the definition of an “Alien” movie so heavily that it breaks its own belt buckle. It still leans on the mythologies set up in the preceding films, but it instead looks to “reinvigorate” the series with an entirely new storyline focusing on Michael Fassbender’s David and his meditations on the “perfect being.” While “Predator” is creating self-contained stories that stand on their own accord, the “Alien” franchise is clamoring for a new, weighty storyline. It’s ambitious, yes. Ambition calls for immense execution, though. “Prometheus” has high aims, yet falls just short of its immense goals.
Although the latest “Alien” installment, 2017’s “Alien: Covenant,” reintroduced the word “alien” to the title, the film still feels like it’s slogging through a swamp of biblical proportions and philosophical ruminations. It once again harps on the David and Engineers storyline, and it still feels stuck in an idea that leaves little to care about. The characters are less real humans than they are moving targets to be picked off in gory fashion, and it’s fair to say that most fans do not generally look towards an “Alien” movie to learn more about their creation and purpose in life. Even a diabolically outrageous Fassbender performance cannot save this movie.
Moving past the large misstep that is Shane Black’s messy 2018 movie “The Predator,” the “Predator” series has promised that it is perfectly happy sticking to its simplistic roots. “Prey,” which is now the highest-rated installment in the franchise on review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, carrying a 93% rating, has been met with resounding approval online thanks to its lyrical and brooding hunter-vs-hunter storyline set in the Comanche nation.
Even though a film like “Prey” may have the same basic DNA as its original film, it works because it still feels wholly fresh and full of ideas. Director Dan Trachtenberg creates a worthy “Predator” entry while also painting a new, thoughtful portrait of heroism and bad-assery. It doesn’t feel like “Prey” is heavily connected to an intricate web of deep thoughts, but it also doesn’t feel like a soulless piece of corporate IP.
The timelessness of “Prey” is what “Alien” is currently lacking. When rewatching “Predator” or “Prey,” one can sit back and marvel at the well-executed genre filmmaking. It’s a fun, rewarding experience akin to “Alien” and “Aliens.” Rewatching any of the “Alien” movies outside of the first two, though, may instead feel like homework.
The decisive crux of “Alien” lies in its intense — yet honorable — ambitions. It’s reaching for the sky (or the heavens, at that), but it tends to fall short. Meanwhile, “Predator” is delivering small capsules of action-packed yet not-entirely-braindead fun. It’s attractive because of its ability to go anywhere and anytime. With “Alien,” the overarching tone is that we are in this for the long haul, like it or not.
In reality, it all comes down to this: “Alien” is trying to round out complex, biblical mythologies while “Predator” is hoisting bear carcasses over its head. Who wore it best?