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Hard to kill

Championed by a director as relentless as its characters, 'Alien vs. Predator' took a perilous path to the screen.

August 11, 2004|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

For more than a decade, science fiction fanatic Paul W.S. Anderson felt compelled to write and direct "Alien vs. Predator," bringing together two of his favorite movie titles. It took 20th Century Fox and the film's many producers almost as long to share his passion.

After several false starts, a studio management shakeup, years of negotiations between feuding producers, a near derailment by a fifth "Alien" movie and a last-minute assist from another studio's hit slasher film, Anderson finally got his wish, and his resulting "AVP" movie debuts Friday.

"It took a long time to try to figure out how to make it work," producer John Davis says with understatement.

Combining two of Fox's best-known science fiction titles, the film seems a natural fit for today's show business craving for recognizable franchises. The marriage is so obvious, in fact, that an Alien skull made a cameo in 1990's "Predator 2," and the Predator and Alien creatures started dueling years ago in popular video games and comic books.

Yet "AVP's" road to movie theaters has proved as perilous as an abandoned spacecraft, and in an unusually defensive step, Fox decided not to show its nearly $70-million investment to movie critics before its release.

Even without reviews, the movie can deliver plenty to Fox. The film can take advantage of the "Alien" and "Predator" name recognition to launch not only itself but also, if it sells bushels of tickets, potential sequels. New Line Cinema is currently thinking about a follow-up to its 2003 hit "Freddy vs. Jason," a spin-off from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" films, and Warner Bros. has toyed with (but recently abandoned) a "Batman vs. Superman" project.

"The advantage we have over a 'Batman vs. Superman' or even a 'Freddy vs. Jason' is that we are dealing with a species," Anderson says. "There are any number of Predators, and any number of Aliens, so there can be endless amounts of Alien deaths, and endless amounts of Predator deaths. There's only one Batman, and one Superman, and Warners is not going to kill one of its franchises off."

Fox furthermore believes audience interest in "AVP's" antiheroes will reinvigorate DVD sales for its six previous "Alien" and "Predator" films, and the studio is now releasing a two-disc "collector's edition" of 1987's "Predator" (Vivendi Universal Games also has a new "Predator" video game). Finally, a well-received movie might also give fresh energy to "Predator" and "Alien" sequels well into the future.

What sounds like an obvious no-brainer on paper, though, wasn't so easy when it came to bringing "AVP" to life.


Many questions

No matter how skeptical moviegoers might be, studios do try to operate to the best of their abilities, and if you think some of today's movies are bad, imagine the quality of movies that don't get made. Such was one of Fox's dilemmas on "AVP."

In numerous pitch meetings with the studio and producer Davis, a series of screenwriters struggled to find an effective way of marrying the futuristic Alien creature with the modern-day Predator. There were so many versions that the Writers Guild of America spent four months sorting out the "AVP" screenplay credits (Anderson has sole screenplay credit, with the story by Anderson and Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett).

There were any number of storytelling decisions. Should the movie be set in space, where the Aliens reside? Or back on Earth, where Predators dwell? What time period would be best? Which species would ultimately prevail? Or should the movie be made at all?

Former Fox studio chief Bill Mechanic believed there was still mileage left in the original "Alien" and "Predator" movies, and felt a combination sequel might kill off both. He consequently considered "AVP" a poor idea. "Alien" star Sigourney Weaver said she didn't want "any part" of a joint movie.

Anderson had different ideas.

He had attended the 1994 Sundance Film Festival with his low-budget drama "Shopping." While making the rounds in Park City, Utah, Anderson encountered a young Fox studio executive and promptly pitched him his idea for an "Alien vs. Predator" story.

The executive quickly rose up the Fox ladder (Peter Rice now runs the studio's specialty division, Fox Searchlight), but Anderson's "AVP" idea went nowhere.

"No one was ever going to give that kind of movie to me to make," Anderson says. The British director went on to make a number of popular genre films, including "Mortal Kombat," "Event Horizon" and "Resident Evil," yet he never stopped thinking about "AVP."

Meanwhile, circumstances began working in Anderson's favor. "Alien: Resurrection," Fox's fourth film in that series, didn't do well when it came out in 1997, recording a lower domestic gross than any of the preceding "Alien" movies. "Predator 2," released in 1990, grossed half of what the 1987 original took in. Mechanic left the studio in 2000.

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