Earlier this year saw the release of Predators, the third installment of the Predator franchise, which surprisingly offered a fairly enjoyable experience that felt closer to the spirit of the original and, while not perfect, managed to be a worthy sequel. Meanwhile in the Alien camp, there are plans for a prequel exploring the origins of the Xenomorphs directed by original helmsman Ridley Scott, slated for release in 2011-12. So things are still fertile in these series, despite Alien having run for over 30 years, and Predator for over 20, and these films enjoy a steady fanbase of both old and new viewers. Ever since the appearance of an Alien skull on-board the Predator’s ship fans were salivating over the idea that the two might have a crossover movie, and while those hopes were utterly dashed, it remains in principle a compelling and potentially brilliant idea (as numerous comic books and video games can attest). So let us ignore the pitiful efforts to make an Alien vs. Predator film, and compare and contrast the two in, arguably, their finest hours – 1979’s Alien and 1987’s Predator.
Alien tells the story of the spaceship Nostromo (named for the Joseph Conrad novel), whose crew is set upon by an unknown and deadly extraterrestrial, commonly referred to as a Xenomorph or just plain Alien. The Alien comes on-board by way of an infested John Hurt, maturing in a matter of hours and slaughtering every crew member with the exception of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, who narrowly escapes death by using the engines to blow the Alien into the vacuum of space. This has become the archetypal science fiction horror film, perfectly exemplified by the tag-line this film was marketed on – “In space no one can hear you scream.” The claustrophobia of being trapped in a relatively small metal box surrounded entirely by the vast nothingness of space is unnerving enough, but if you add in a stealthy and powerful creature that is hunting you and the terror is elevated to an entirely new level. This is a film of atmosphere, playing by the Jaws rule of waiting a long time to show the monster, building the tension and the anticipation. When you know that there’s a murderous Xenomorph out there, there is a constant fear that any second the next victim could die, with no way of stopping the creature. You know exactly what is going to happen, but not knowing when the attack will come is unbearable. Combine this with the fact that this is a creature that cannot be reasoned with and you have a recipe for a horror that plays on some very simple but extremely common human fears – darkness, claustrophobia and the unknown.
While Predator shares many characteristics with Alien, featuring a powerful Alien who appears from nowhere and seems unstoppable, a hefty body count with only one survivor, and the general fear of a terrible unseen threat. The titular Predator manages to take out an entire team of hardened commandos with almost no effort, with only the Arnold “The Governator” Schwartzeneggar able to stand up to the creature with a combination of clever tactics and psychological manipulation. Because the Predator has an innate sense of sportsmanship, Arnold is able to lure the creature into a trap and mortally wound it, barely escaping when it activates a self-destruct and nukes a small portion of the Guatemalan jungle. Where Alien‘s cast was entirely made up of average Joes who worked on an interstellar hauling vessel, the humans in Predator are special forces, a who’s-who of the toughest soldiers the planet has to offer. And still these soldiers are made to look helpless before the Predator’s incredibly advanced stealth and weapons technology and imposing physical stature. The theme of the unseen attacker is very strong here, as well as the inhospitable environment, but since the setting is Earth, the location is far less claustrophobic and less forbidding. The idea for Predator is said to have been a humourous response to the question of who Rocky Balboa could fight after defeating the chemically-enhanced super-boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, stating that he would have to fight an alien. And so the idea of muscle-bound meat-heads battling an alien was born and we, the viewers, are the beneficiaries.
The origins of both these creatures are extremely mysterious, to the point where almost all we know about them is that they are from another planet and are extremely dangerous. Strangely, despite the more inhuman and shrouded treatment of the Alien over the franchise, in the original film we know more about it than Predator tells us about the Predator. The basic life cycle of the Alien is laid out in Alien, as we are shown the Alien eggs; the infestation of a human being by the spider-like facehugger; the facehugger’s, and by extension the Alien’s, acidic blood making surgical removal impossible until the creature just drops off; the infested individual’s apparent recovery, though with a prodigious appetite; and finally the Alien bursts from the victim’s chest and grows to its full size within an astonishingly small space of time. The sequel added further stages to the lifecycle, and originally (in a deleted scene) the lifecycle was completed by cocooned victims’ bodies becoming more eggs. But beyond simple biological facts, we know nothing of the Aliens’ true origins. Theories include them being just hostile animals, biological weapons, bred to be the ultimate game prey, or simply the twisted brainchild of an insane Swiss genius. The Predator is even more mysterious, as he essentially descends from space to hunt man with little more motivation than that he is looking for a challenge. We don’t know where he comes from, we don’t know if he is an individual or part of a larger race of hunters, and even his motivation in hunting the commandos is clouded, as it is a mere assumption based on his actions. He seems much more like a scary alien that was created for the purposes of killing people in a one-off film, without any backstory on culture or biology, and later developments were likely afterthoughts, where the later films in the Alien franchise were building upon elements established in the original movie.
The Alien was supposed to be a hellish amalgam of human and monster, with a vaguely humanoid shape corrupted its black and vaguely biomechanical features. So it seems appropriate that the film-makers would eventually settle on a man-in-a-suit format to realise the creature, after several failures with multiple men in one costume. In this case, the man inside was the 7’2″ Bolaji Badejo, who was tall and thin enough to make the creature look human yet unnatural. The most striking feature of the Alien is its bulbous and over-sized head, which was an incredible example of engineering, incorporating approximately nine hundred moving parts to allow the iconic inner jaws of the Alien to function. In a strange piece of coincidence, the actor portraying the Predator was also 7’2″, though his frame was rather different from the slight figure of Badejo. Kevin Peter Hall was chosen to be the man in the Predator suit because he was so enormous as to look physically imposing even when compared with human behemoths like Schwartzeneggar and Jesse Ventura. Originally Jean-Claude Van Damme was set to be the Predator, lending his martial arts skill to the creature, but his (relatively) small stature made him an incredible threat to the commandos. Hall, on the other hand, is entirely believable when he is throwing Schwartzeneggar around, yet still manages to make the stealth aspects convincing as well. This is even more impressive when you realise that the Predator suit itself was (in true film fashion) built very much for form, not function. Hall was unable to see properly through the mask, and the weight of the suit made it cumbersome for filming in the jungle. Between the two, there’s really no superior in terms of realisation. If pushed I would choose the Predator suit, simply because of the added challenge of making the creature seem real in a jungle, as opposed to the soundstage that Alien was filmed on. But the practical effects still stand up today, despite the Alien looking a little cheesy in some scenes, and both art directors deserve kudos (though not unreserved praise – while Alien art director Roger Christian also won an Oscar for his exemplary work on Star Wars, he was the director of Battlefield Earth).
The Alien is a marvel of improbably dangerous biology, incorporating a near-perfect deadly design. On the surface the Alien is extremely graceful and agile, able to move across walls and ceilings as easily as the ground, and capable of moving with great stealth. Its dark colouring allows it to easily blend into the shadows aboard the Nostromo while it hunts the hapless space-truckers, and it has a wide enough arsenal to deal death in a variety of ways – with its claws, or its strange second jaws, able to shoot out from its mouth to pierce and bite a victim. But the deadliest weapon that the Alien possesses is its most scientifically ludicrous; instead of blood, the Alien has a highly potent acid capable of eating through multiple decks of a spaceship. Not only is this capable of causing catastrophic damage to the human body, it also makes the Alien unassailable by conventional means, for fear of causing bleeding and the acidic blood eating through every deck of the ship and breaching the hull. As such, the Alien is only killed when Ripley manages to blast it into space with a combination of explosive decompression and the escape shuttle’s engines, and may even have survived as it showed it could survive in the vacuum of space for some time. The Predator, though it isn’t lacking in physical power, is much more lethally-furnished by its technology. Physically the Predator is taller and more muscular than even the strongest human, easily able to fight hand-to-hand with the then-ubermensch Arnold Schwartzeneggar, but where it really excels is its advanced combat tools. The Predator’s defining tool is its active camouflage, which allows it to blend seamlessly into any environment and move undetected through the jungle murdering commandos with its blades and the laser cannon it carries on its shoulder. And while the Predator itself is invisible, its prey cannot hope to easily hide, as it is capable of seeing the world in infra-red, though Arnold turns this to his advantage by coating himself in mud to hide his heat signature. He is able to use this to finally defeat the Predator by appealing to its last defining characteristic – its sense of sportsmanship. By confronting the creature unarmed, Arnold is able to lure it into a trap and mortally wound it, forcing it to attempt to kill both of them with a wrist-mounted bomb. The setting is very important for determining how dangerous each of these aliens are, as the Alien has the advantage of being doubly dangerous on-board a space-ship, but even still the Predator is defeated more easily than the Alien, taken down by Stone Age traps and its own inability to accept defeat.
Choosing between these films is made more difficult by the differences of emphasis, with Alien trying for a claustrophobic horror and Predator acting more as a classic 80s action movie. But the threat of the Alien is superior for obvious reasons, detailed above, as it is terrifying on top of the innate fear of space travel. The best way to make a tiny metal box surrounded by nothingness more frightening is to toss in a ravenous insectoid that bleeds acid. Credit where credit is due, however, as both Ridley Scott and John McTiernan were relatively inexperienced directors who were able to craft these films into classics, and who both went on to greatness with Blade Runner and Gladiator, (Scott) and Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan). But Scott manages to edge out McTiernan, with Alien simply standing as a better film, creepy to this very day, and spawning one of the best sequels of all time, 1986’s Aliens. But while both films suffered later from badsequelitis, the originals, even the slightly inferior Predator, remain both watchable and very enjoyable, worthy of any sci-fi movie night, and indispensable to any horror fan.