Though it probably amounts to the equivalent of cinematic racism, I can’t stand fanboys, and this comes at least in part from having formerly been one. Anyone who knew me during the summer of 2003 must surely recall my gung-ho Matrix sequel attitude, an outpouring of adolescent enthusiasm that I can only hope will never manifest itself again in a fashion even remotely similar to the shamelessness I once exhibited (defend the films, yes; dress up as Neo for the midnight premiere, no). In this mindset, be it for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or even the broader, artier bases of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, liking a film/film series isn’t so much a matter of taste (that indefinable beast of burden that reflects as much as it obscures) as it is a religion one defends blindly, nationalism for the cinephile. Hence Kevin Smith’s juvenile (albeit intentionally self-aware, thus self-critical) pitting of his beloved Star Wars against Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations (sorry, Silent Bob, but the ring is mightier than the ’saber), and countless similar confrontations that go utterly nowhere. Question even one hair on Frodo’s left foot, and it’s off to the stocks for the newfound heretic.
I shared somewhat in this same attitude - probably more than I can/would like to remember - and, in one memorable moment, proceeded to tirade against a local newspaper critic who panned the much-anticipated Matrix Reloaded in what was, in retrospect, a very cool and observant review of the film. Though my goal as a film lover/critic/human being is to continuously grow in body and mind until the day I expire, I think I can state without presumption that I’ve come a long way since then, which is a large part of why this kind of behavior now churns my stomach so. Case in point: every time I pan an action movie released into more than 2,000 theaters, I can damn well expect at least one nasty message about my supposed lack of taste/inability to have fun, usually oblivious to the fact that The Terminator, warts and all, is one of my favorite films, and that I’d ditch junk like Babel or Atonement for Die Hard, (the original) Assault on Precinct 13, or Speed any day of the week. Too often these attacks come from people who don’t care to understand someone else’s taste in a larger context; you disagree with them, and if you’re not with them, you’re their enemy.
The latest in these mini-debacles was the Christmas release of Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, a film that, judging by the previews and newfound R-rating, would have had to be better than its rotten predecessor, a film I never expected to be good but one whose confounding laziness I was wholly unprepared for. I like to sit back and let Inland Empire blow my mind with its ethereal profundity, but other times I want to enjoy a soda, popcorn, and some kick-ass stunts; pardon me for having a dick and therefore wanting it stroked on occasion. At the same time, though, I like my action movies to have a little meat and gristle on them, be it those Screenplay 101 foundations of plot and characterization or the more technically-based merits of choreography, editing and a sense of space (something Michael Bay, with his carefully honed junk-flying-everywhere aesthetic, seemingly knows nothing about). The fluidity of film is what attracts me to the medium, in that it allows works as diverse as Terminator 2 and the recent Exiled to operate on wholly different planes (one a story-driven blockbuster, the other a dreamy genre exercise) but to both be excellent in their own ways, maximizing the possibilities of the medium best suited to their needs. Breakdown and War are my bag, baby. And it wasn’t a week ago yet that my best friend and I savored a double feature of Aguirre, The Wrath of God and The Running Man; one is certainly greater than the other, but each is, on its own terms, perfect.
Which is why it rankles me so when it’s insinuated that the ability to “have fun” at the movies comes along with the understanding that, as long as the likes of AVP and Doom are intended to do nothing more than provide “fun,” and in some limited sense succeed, they must be deemed good. I can only hope that such an argument would disqualify someone from the debate team. Seems to me that many were satisfied by the simple opportunity to actually “see” an alien and predator duking it out, thus validating their childhood memories of clashing action figures. Fair enough. But if that’s what fans really want, why didn’t the producers simply commission an all-action, no plot exercise in gratuitous bloodletting? The human elements are the most atrocious in both AVP films, and with a creative and visionary enough director, such an act in WWE cinema could actually be something worth its budgetary weight (I imagine it as Mel Gibson’s unofficial, extraterrestrial sequel to Apocalypto). As they stand, neither features much of the titular clashing, just cheap shots of creatures running around dark corners and a lot of senseless editing. (Props, though, to the AVPR trailer, which - sans lame-o tagline - succeeds in making something impressive out of nothing, every snippet suggesting something major about to go down—a promise the film itself barely strains to acknowledge.) I like to see some carnage from time to time—and yes, I proudly own the Alien Quadrilogy box set, third film and all—but even taken as strictly visceral creations, these AVP films are clouds of dissipating steam. Hastily made from a checklist of minimal must-haves, they are the moviegoing equivalent of premature ejaculation; buying your ticket is about as exciting as it gets. Once the film starts, the story proves so anesthetic that you may as well be counting backwards from 100: a Predator spacecraft crashes in Colorado, host to numerous facehuggers and a newfound Alien/Predator hybrid (essentially Lenny Kravitz with the retractable second jaw); civilian casualties pile up between every other obligatory, awful set-up scene; during these moments, don’t feel bad for thinking about Harrison Ford’s equally monotonous and uncaring voice-over in the original cut of Blade Runner (at least his efforts were bad on purpose); military involvement screws things up further; mix, repeat.
Sometimes a particular film may fail in its storytelling or characterization, only to make up for it with more superficial joys. AVPR is not one of those particular films; even AVP, underwhelming as it was, had one good setpiece. The special effects, many of them obviously digital from the outset (an unforgivable quality for a 2007 film purporting a realistic look), are kept deliberately out of focus and/or are never lingered upon, so as to better mask their contempt for audience expectations. Kill shots are avoided by cheap cuts to black, with the exception of gratuitous child-in-peril scenes, in which we see the chest-burster emerge, but with the victim’s face purposefully off screen. The film’s R-rating is a joke; compared to Eastern Promises, it may as well be PG (compared to Hostel: Part II, it’s fun for the whole family!). Violent or not, though, the mechanics of it are so aggravating that by the time you get to an actual throw-down, it’s all but impossible to care about how poorly lit the rumble is. Somewhere, a producer sneers. In the words of Mastodon: “Your money is now our money.”
As someone raised in large part on adrenaline-stoked populist entertainment, I’d like to hold out some hope for the genre. To date, James Cameron’s Aliens is the only film I can straightforwardly compare to a rollercoaster ride; even when viewed on commercial television (edited, with commercials, and pan-and-scan, ahhh!), it left me completely exhausted, an achievement due as much to Cameron’s technical virtuosity as his focus on (admittedly and often cartoonish) characters. The film defies most deeper readings but it’s a great piece of popcorn nevertheless, brazen and guileless. In contrast, the AVP films are like a joyless visit from an escort service, here to get the job done and not even bothering to smile in the process. How any admirer of the series could consider this decline in quality without their blood coming to a boil is beyond me.
It is in its perfunctory obligation to human elements that this sequel proved even worse than the original. It would be a stretch to call the people in this film characters - ideas of characters is more like it. I was the only one in the Christmas evening crowd at my local Carmike laughing plainly about the scenes of “development” and exposition; not one word or gesture struck me as genuinely human, and unfortunately I don’t get that excited about a story that comes down to which mannequins will live and which will die. A film like Ong-Bak goes through these motions with a barely concealed wink, hamming it up intentionally so as to frame its set pieces with a sly sense of self-awareness: You’re here for the action, and we’re gonna give it to you. But AVPR, even more so than its predecessor, believes its own bullshit, and without any cinematic Lysol it’s a stench I’m unwilling to tolerate.
The thought of a future without obligatory genre sequels seems appealing. But what of the occasional just-for-the-money follow-up that proves a worthwhile artistic endeavor, or barring that, entertainment that actually lives up to its promises? Many rightly expected 28 Weeks Later to be an unnecessary rehash—a pedigree-based preconception that I believe obscured many from judging the film on its own terms. Six months after its release, it made my top 10 list, a small bit of recognition that I can hope directs more to a film wrongly deprived of its deserved audience. But while it’s certainly worth wading through a junkpile to find a treasure like 28 Weeks Later, the mere existence of such a movie doesn’t legitimize a garbage majority—and the fanboy mentality reflexively supports such sequels, ensuring that they’ll ultimately make money regardless of quality. The first AVP was bad but grossed $80 million in North America; the even worse follow-up has made about $40 million to date, and if the normal genre film moneymaking cycle applies, it will probably make that amount again overseas, and yet again on DVD. It’s a given that many otherwise odious films are critic-proof, but there’s no reason they should be audience-proof as well. The near-guaranteed profitability of junk sequels could be written off as a matter of free market choice were it not for the critical collateral damage it inflicts. The fanboy stigma pre-emptively banishes all unapologetic genre films—from rich sequels like 28 Weeks Later to surprising originals like the surreal action parody Shoot ’Em Up, a work that I think deserves as much serious consideration as Atonement—to the outskirts of film culture.
Watching both of these recent “versus” sequels, it was all but impossible not to look beyond the screen and imagine an office full of studio heads laughing, counting the cash plunked down by Comic Book Guys everywhere, another ramshackle money magnet already in production. This isn’t cinema of fulfillment or growth, but a perpetual series of near-satisfactions constantly baiting the audience to come back for more—the false promises of the sideshow barker at a traveling circus. Granted, this very enthusiastic subset of moviegoers is aware of the relentless cyncism of Hollywood’s sequel factory, and this awareness makes the occasional triumph like The Return of the King or The Empire Strikes Back all the more monumental; but the overall effect of the obligatory sequel/fanboy excitement cycle is to validate and perpetuate a stunted, even regressive sense of culture. The defining trait of the fanboy seems to be a lack or dislike of discernment and general fear of complexity—a mentality that deems Transformers awesome even before its release, and writes off anyone who doesn’t deem its action “sick” as a loser/idiot/moron. There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking an individual film on its merits—heaven knows, I initially enjoyed Transformers and agree with my colleague Mr. Knight on the awesomeness of At World’s End—but the viciousness of such us-versus-them attitudes is still unsettling. Literally and figuratively, I’m happy to have graduated from high school.
At least one of my fellow audience members at the Carmike appeared to share my lack of enthusiasm. At the height of AVPR’s climax (a virtual repeat of the scenario from the first and second Alien films), the purportedly nerve-racking thump of the sound mix was cut short - a la Made in America - by a sound-deprived cut to black. Somewhere, two or three rows back, a weak fart was released, summing up my feelings better than words ever could.
House contributor Robert Humanick’s writings appear in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.