These days, it’s hard to think of Aliens vs. Predator without rolling your eyes. The title evokes less than pleasant memories of the 2004 film and its abysmal sequel, films that seemed more like B movie fluff than anything else. But there was a time when Aliens vs. Predator generated a lot of excitement in the fanbase, with titles that were comparable to the films that spawned them. Given how much the films got wrong, it can be hard to imagine just how many other attempts got it right.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, films like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon terrified moviegoers in new and inventive ways. Most of these monsters could be found in one place; Universal Studios. These films helped grow the budding studio into a corporate juggernaut, and provided a unique opportunity. Some at the top decided to experiment with a revolutionary new concept. What if you put them together? Thus, the movie crossover was born.
In the later cycle of classic monster movies, numerous icons like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, and Dracula waged war in battle royals that left audiences either on their feet or hiding their eyes. The success of these crossovers proved there was money, and impact, in the concept. But as the decades wore on, it became increasingly difficult to find two such icons under one roof. It was 20th Century Fox that eventually found themselves with a golden ticket.
After the end of the original Star Wars Trilogy, Fox was looking for the next big series to promote. That came in the most unexpected of places when Aliens, James Cameron’s sequel to the now eight-year-old original, made a killing both critically and commercially. Aliens took the original film and made it into a franchise. Barely a year later, Fox was caught by surprise with the release of Predator. Predator became a sleeper hit and added another, bankable monster icon to Fox’s library. Fox now had two science fiction icons under one roof. Bringing them together seemed a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t long before some people began testing the waters.
Alien vs. Predator was born in the late 80s during a brainstorming session at Dark Horse comics. Many credit artist Chris Warner with creating the concept while discussion potential properties to adapt. Warner’s idea caught the interest of the team, and the Aliens vs. Predator comic series began. This first crossover told of a colony on a distant desert planet who find themselves caught in the middle of a war between the Aliens and Predators. Desperate and alone, a tough Chigusa Corporation administrator named Machiko Noguchi aligns herself with a Predator named Broken Tusk (Dachande) in order to survive.
Aliens vs. Predator was a big hit for Dark Horse, spawning a long-running series of comics that continues to this day. It has also proven quite influential beyond the printed page. The series elaborated heavily on Predator culture, exploring their purpose for hunting and code of honor, which would later be incorporated into the films. It also introduced the Predator’s name for their species, and ‘Yautja’ is still being used even in non-AvP related media.
The character of Machiko has also become a fan favorite, later appearing in Aliens vs. Predator: War, and Aliens vs. Predator: Three World War. The graphic novels were later adapted into the books Aliens vs. Predator: Prey, Aliens vs. Predator: Hunter’s Planet, and Aliens vs. Predator: War, published between 1994 and 1999 to similar success.
The comics also jumpstarted a very popular line of Aliens vs. Predator merchandise. Figures of the Alien and Predator doing battle were hot items back in the early 90s, further cementing the idea in the popular culture. Still, it seemed little more than a curiosity only a small niche of the fan base would enjoy. Then, in 1990, came a film that contained one of the most significant events of either series.
1990 saw the release of Predator 2. A sequel to the 1987 film, it told of one of the intergalactic hunters as he stalked a cop through the streets of Los Angeles. It didn’t attract as much attention or acclaim as its predecessor, but there were several noteworthy additions to the canon. The film became the first to adapt many aspects of Predator culture first seen in the Dark Horse comics. It also brought back creature creator Stan Winston, who designed the Predator’s look and animatronics in the original film. Winston and his team also created an elaborate trophy case seen on the Predator ship. Hanging on the wall was a rather significant nod to one of Winston’s other films, a little science fiction movie he did with James Cameron.
Having read the series, Winston and his team thought it would be fun to mount an Alien skull on the Predator’s trophy case. Since both creatures were under the Fox banner, the crew got little push back on this idea. While this may seem insignificant at a glance, one must remember that this brought the premise of the comic into the mainstream. A major Hollywood film made reference to their war. The floodgates had been opened. What followed was a decade of creativity and innovation, which propelled the Aliens vs. Predator to a place of prestige. But these adventures wouldn’t be on the big screen.
Alien vs. Predator came to the Super Nintendo in 1993. In it, the player took control of a lone Predator out to avenge his clan mates who were killed by the Alien. For a short time, this formula of the Predator taking a more heroic role while the Alien played the de-facto villain became the template for the series, later repeated on the classic arcade game. But the series was still young, a formula hadn’t been established yet, and creators were still trying out new and innovative ways to tell this story. The formula would change when the title came to the Atari Jaguar.
It was the 1994 game for the Atari Jaguar altered the Aliens vs. Predator formula in a big way. Now instead of merely controlling humans and Predators, players could now be the Alien. The player now had both the Predator’s exciting gadgetry and the Alien’s lethal claws and teeth at their disposal. This mechanic effectively gave the player three games for the price of one, each with their own unique plots, perspectives, and gameplay.
The Atari Jaguar game was a big hit, and many felt another installment was warranted. Surprisingly, apart from the comics and toys, the Aliens vs. Predator series was pretty quiet for the next five years. Then gaming magazines began running a cryptic ad. Games had changed a lot since 94. Graphics were now more realistic than people had ever seen, leaving fans to wonder just how immersive this new game would be. Many assumed it would be a success. Nobody could have guessed it would be a phenomenon.
Aliens vs. Predator was released for the PC in 1999 by Rebellion. Like the previous game, it told three stories, each from the perspective of a different character. Players got to take control of an Alien pursuing a clutch of stolen eggs heading to Earth, a Predator out to avenge a fellow hunter’s death, and a helpless Marine trying to escape an acid-drenched battlefield. Each character had their own unique style of gameplay, giving each free reign over a universe that was now more real, and more terrifying, than ever.
Aliens vs. Predator perfected many elements of the first person shooter. It featured better AI, enemies that re-spawned, dark and moody environments and a game mode allowing players to battle hoards of endless Aliens. On top of its technical innovations, the game also had numerous callbacks to the films. For the first time, players could explore maps based on the Nostromo, Sulaco, Derelict Craft, and more. These elements came together to make the most immersive entry in the series yet.
To call the 1999 game a smash would be an understatement. It was a bona fide gaming Blockbuster, garnering massive critical acclaim on top of its financial success. With the exception of perhaps only Goldeneye, few other shooters of the decade could claim to be as influential and innovative as Aliens vs. Predator. The game has surpassed its era, and continues to attract fans on platforms like Steam and Good Old Games. The crossover series had spawned its first smash hit and firmly established the three-story formula as a staple of the Aliens vs. Predator crossover series. With that, the wait for a sequel wasn’t nearly as long.
Aliens vs. Predator 2 was released in the PC in 2001. While Rebellion passed on picking up the sequel, creative duties passed to Sierra, the people responsible for the stellar Half-Life series. Aliens vs. Predator 2 incorporated most of the elements that made the previous game popular and improved on them in many ways. It also brought new innovations to the table, including a mechanic that allowed the player to go through the entire lifecycle as the Alien, from facehugger to adult.
By far the game’s most impressive aspect was its story. Aliens vs. Predator 2 told of an isolated outpost on the planet LV 1201 where people were studying an Alien Hive. When the facility is overrun, the rising conflict draws a clan of Predators looking to test their blades, and an unfortunate squad of space Marines coming to investigate the crisis finds themselves caught in the middle. Rather than repeat the independent narratives of the previous game, Aliens vs. Predator 2 had them intertwine. Each player character occasionally crosses paths with the others, even inadvertently helping the other stories along.
The characters in the 1999 game were blank slates, but the sequel developed its cast rather well. Corporal Andrew Harrison guides the human story, topping off the ragtag group of Colonial Marines caught in the crossfire. The Predator story tells of a humiliated hunter’s quest for revenge against a corrupt and insane human general. The Alien story followed a determined beast as he tears through swaths of humans and Predators to rescue his captive Queen. Out of all the risks the game took, fleshing out the Alien and Predator this much was probably the biggest. Still, the risk paid off, turning both the Alien and Predator into likable protagonists the player cared about.
It’s no coincidence that the first Alien vs. Predator film came so soon after the 2001 game. The game was just as big a success as the 1999 title, perhaps even bigger. After AvP2, it was clear that Alien and Predator showed no signs of slowing down. Demand for a motion picture was never higher. But, as history tells us, this is when things started going wrong.
It can be easy to forget there was much anticipation for Alien vs. Predator back in 2004, and why shouldn’t there be? This was the first Alien movie in seven years, and the first Predator movie in fourteen. The previous decade had produced a string of well-regarded games and comics, so a crossover film seemed the natural next step. Some of the names involved in the film only boosted audience confidence. Returning was Alien veteran Lance Henriksen, along with Tom Woodruff Jr. who’d played the Alien since the third film. ADI, the same effects studio behind Alien 3 and Resurrection also came on board to supply the creature effects. But these elements were not enough.
Apart from the occasionally impressive animatronics and one or two interesting moments, the 2004 film offered the audience very little in the way of interesting characters or atmosphere. The film lacked a lot of what made the 1999 and 2001 games so successful, such as the perspective of all three species that made them so unique. The setting of an Antarctic pyramid also didn’t do much to build a mood. Characters can only run through the same rocky corridor so many times before it stops being interesting.
Alien vs. Predator was a success at the box office, though audiences and critics were less kind. The rough edge of both Alien and Predator had been stripped away in an ill-advised attempt to get a PG 13 rating and reach a wider audience. But its biggest crime was that it just wasn’t very scary. Still, people were hopeful. Alien vs. Predator had been pretty reliable before, so when a sequel was announced, there was some hope that perhaps it would correct some of the first film’s mistakes.
Released three years later in 2007, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem picks up moments after the ending of the previous film as a Predator ship crashes near a small town, unleashing a hoard of Aliens while a lone Predator is charged with cleaning up the mess. People were more than a little excited that AvP R would bring back the rougher edge of the previous films, but the excessive gore is a poor substitute for a good story and mood. If Aliens vs. Predator 2 was an example of everything done right with the premise, Requiem was everything done wrong.
Requiem failed at everything from its world to its characters. Even the animatronics, which had still been impressive in the lesser films, were noticeably lesser quality. AvP R instead relied more on shock violence that seemed less like the subtle suspense of the previous films and video games and more like the shock schlock found in your average B slasher movie. Also, while the games gave both characters their dues, AvP R was unabashedly pro-Predator, infuriating half its audience. AvP R’s decent box office wasn’t enough to save it from the critical panning.
The aftermath of AvP R made it clear. The series needed to get back on track. In spite of strong box office, Fox heard the criticisms and was hesitant to do another film. It seemed the best option was to bring both characters back to the medium that showed the formula could work. It was time for another video game.
Released in 2010, Aliens vs. Predator brought back elements of the previous games, with three distinct campaigns featuring three distinct characters. Like the 2004 film, the game also brought Lance Henriksen on board to further connect it with the original films. What’s more is Rebellion, the studio behind the 1999 game, came back to develop this latest title. But Rebellion had changed a lot in the eleven years since the 1999 classic. So had the Alien vs. Predator series.
The 2010 game didn’t spark as much interest as the previous games for a variety of reasons. The stories weren’t as well balanced or developed as the 1999 or 2001 games, the Alien and Predator campaigns being noticeably shorter than the Marine story. The game also incorporated a lot of elements from the AvP films, in particular, a temple based setting that recalled the 2004 film. Make no mistakes. The game did very well financially, becoming the fastest selling game on Steam. But as the movies proved, ticket sales aren’t enough.
In many ways, the 2010 title suffered the same fate as the two films. It made money but didn’t capture its audience with the same rigor as the 1999 and 2001 titles. Most considered it mediocre, and that wasn’t enough to repair the damage done to the brand. And that was it. There were, and still are regular releases of comics and tabletop games, but when it comes to video games, film and television, things have been very quiet since 2010.
Aliens vs. Predator came from a different world than today. Back then, there were only four Alien films, two Predator films, and a fan base clamoring for more. The years since 2010 have seen the release of two new Alien and two new Predator movies, and reactions to them have proven divisive. Looking at the vast majority of output for Alien and Predator material, it’s clear both of these science fiction titans have seen better days.
The more cynical amongst us will say that both Alien, Predator and their crossover should be shelved so no more damage can be done, but this is unlikely. The Alien and Predator have transcended their films to become part of our collective popular culture. When you try to put a genie like that back in the bottle, it will rarely go quietly. So rather than look back on the crossover series with scorn, it’s important to study it, look at where the mistakes were made, and understand how, when done right, it reached heights approaching the films that spawned it. The Aliens vs. Predator series continues to survive modestly by way of comics and graphic novels, but the printed page can only hold the two for so long. Things are quiet now, but every cold war eventually turns hot.
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