I meant to get to these a few months ago, but they’ve lingered around. With Batman vs. Superman continuing Warner’s desperate investment in doing the Marvel/Disney thing, here’s a look at some franchise-fighters to have come before. A note: We’re keeping this literal this time, much as I wanted to get cheeky and include something like Kramer vs. Kramer.
Freddy vs. Jason
So much for humble beginnings. Freddy vs. Jason introduces itself on about as inopportune a note as a film can: a callback – sorry, a montage even – of the most striking mise-en-scene from earlier Nightmare films, intimating in a florid blast of death-marked imagery that those nightmares were, at least, you know, nightmarish in their giallo-inflected surrealist imagery and disturbed editing, not unlike a tone poem to rococo human flesh warping. While director Ronny Yu deserves a bucket of credit for accepting the “Go Freddy Kreuger” slant of Damian Shannon and Mark Swift’s screenplay and imbibing in a montage of scenes from the inarguably superior franchise, we’re drawn to that age-old adage about not reminding audiences of better movies in your film.
Especially when your film doesn’t have much going for it on its own terms, rather than on the terms of the Mom and Pop franchises you’re willing to flagellate for your benefit. Overlit in a distinctly early-‘00s mustiness by cinematographer Fred Murphy, this film is kindled into a timid wire-fu outing by director Ronny Yu in a bizarre attempt to breathe action-cinema life into these mostly-dead slasher franchises in the post-Matrix cinema glut of the same time period (when every film just couldn’t go to sleep without their before-bed 360 degree pans, slo-mo kicks, and air-catching extreme-sports jumps). Actually, on this note, Freddy vs. Jason is a shocking divining rod of the trivial tricks of the trade for its 2003 release date as much as the original franchise kickstarters were for their time twenty years prior.
Refreshing though it is for to pigeonhole the once-personality-deficient ’00s with recognizable cinematic cultural markers, however inept those specific stylistic touchstones are (the dazzlingly dated butt rock adorning the title card is another obvious assault on that front), Freddy vs. Jason isn’t especially useful for much else. At the least, the pointless action focus encasing the later portions of the film in a high-flying prison ensures that this “vs” film is more literal-minded with its title than your garden-variety they-fight-until-they-don’t smackdown. But Yu’s direction is palpably underinvested in the insidious niceties of atmospheric horror and instead stomps around like a lumbering, past-its-prime dinosaur searching for new meat. Correction, make that two dinosaurs. Rather than sneaking up on you like a good murderer and toying with your emotions, Freddy vs. Jason makes so much of an audio-visual racket that there’s no room for stealthy imagery or more silent, suggestive terror.
Freddy nearly drop-kicking Jason is, however fundamentally enticing as a sentence to type, depressingly mundane in visual form. As is the also-too-literal red-for-Freddy-blue-for-Jason aesthetic that remains too grounded in everyday iconography (rather than fluorescent, hallucinogenic, and phosphorescent a la a more primary-colored giallo film). Stylistically, this is has-been material through and through. Troublingly, the film seems to have expended all its energy on Frankensteining a premise out of random body parts, stopping over in a corn field dance rave just for kicks (admittedly, “corn field rave” speaks to my nightmares as a child, so point taken). Truly, the undivine “Freddy can’t be remembered in his home town, Freddy sicks Jason on town like his personal Cerberus to inflict fear hoping that everyone will think it’s Freddy, Jason won’t stop rampaging so Freddy has to put him down” exposition clogs up the works again and again and again. The premise overtakes the execution; the effort-to-concept sleepwalks on top of the effort-to-actually-direct.
The silver-tongued lining, unexpectedly, is Robert Englund, as devious as ever and thankfully recalibrated away from his dalliance with the Bugs Bunny routines of the later Nightmare films, and Kelly Rowlands is actually feasible as the best of the pod people playing teenagers. But mostly it’s all for naught; they’re flickers of desperate passion temporarily igniting a comatose near-cadaver, proverbial drops of blood for embalmed franchises that, by 2003, couldn’t be saved even with full-on geysers. Maybe a direct link from hell to Johnny Depp’s bed could have pulled off the trick, but with a poker-face like Jason Vorhees walking around aimlessly flailing about without menace, sacrificing Freddy’s screen time, even I cannot say. Then again, there’s a mid-film exposition dump including such wringers as “Wait a minute, Freddy died by fire, Jason by water. How can we use that?” delivered a propos of nothing that could kill the patience of a hundred struggling audience members on a dime. Freddy transforming into an Alice in Wonderland worm and possessing a stoner, for its part, is also gauche enough to run your blood cold.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator
Airheaded and bloodless in equal measure, whatever venom and spine-tingling malevolence had enlivened these two franchises was surgically removed long before their first cinematic clash in 2004. Graced with the un-supple hand of Paul W.S. Anderson – he of the video game adaptation – doing his best to make sure this film is not a whiff off from his standard oeuvre batting average, Alien vs. Predator is banal in the extreme. Not even gifted with the awful, how-could-they, verboten filmmaking of its immediate sequel AVP:R to at least befuddle us as to how it could exist, this is weightless, perfunctory filmmaking, a torpor-ridden fugue of competent incompetence; it’s drivel, to be sure, but desperately, unfortunately, mechanical drivel. That it is bad is matched only by the anonymity with which it is bad. Its incompetence is not special; it is a matter of fact, quoted verbatim from hundreds of prior blockbusters. Its worst sin is that it is too assured in its filmmaking fundamentals, and too totally unwilling to apply those fundamentals for any purpose whatsoever, that it is content to wander around in a void of impersonal nothingness.
I mean, even the questionable Alien Resurrection was gilded in its incompetence, gregarious enough to be a nearly avant-garde structural mishap and an accident imploding all over the screen, replete with tonal mismatches and slimy, bizarre mood vacillations, as though it was giving its all without any idea of what direction to wander. AVP, in comparison, is barely even trying; even its incompetence is indifferent. The neutral, neutered failure to relish the essential ludicrousness of the concept “teenage Predators are tasked with breeding and hunting Xenomorphs as a coming of age ritual” is a missed opportunity that speaks to the filmmakers’ lack of imagination and spirit; in place of a semi-absurdist flash-bang of brio and verve, AVP is a wet match in a dark room. The liquid doesn’t even have the social propriety to be Xenomorph acid-blood.
That mythology, incidentally, is part and parcel with a cloying, stone-faced self-seriousness the film mistakes for mystery or dread; in place of a sinister, lurking malevolence in the visuals or the masterful use of negative space in the original Alien, AVP brings needless exposition and a dull-minded attempt to explain some iota of the essence of the world structures of its titular characters. Which is a fundamental mistake, an adolescent fixture on “information” as the only facet of “intelligence” that only grows more inexplicable the more it bends over backwards to explain its back-breaking alien history to us. The core of both series is a sense of crawling emptiness and sneaking suspicion, two slow-burn threats totally absent in a film that wishes to explain and explain until the mystique of the characters is emptied out as one more vacant vessel in a bone-dry film.
Anderson is certainly trigger happy, and he clearly enjoys the unnecessary underground alien pyramid he chose to set the film in for no reason, although that is about the only sparkle of passion to be found in this movie. The cinematography is dark without achieving insidious-status, the editing sloppy without being torn, frayed, or fascinatingly messy like it ought to be, and it willfully avoids characterization except the spontaneous bursts of false-empathy dialogue that only waste space in light of the film’s inability to commit to them with any iota of conviction. Characterize with vigor, or don’t characterize at all. That every single instance of characterization in the film revolves around a character simply acknowledging that they either have children or had a parent (as though someone’s worth is divined through their being in a family rather than because they are human) is amusing to say the least.
As for the titular beings, they duke it out in parsimonious slug-fests that come and go as they please, evaporating into thin air when they ought to double-down on physicality, another noun which this film is inept in trying to achieve. The Xenomorphs are little more than garden-variety bugs where fleshy maws once were; the Predators have been steroid-enhanced to beefed-up football players in place of the frightening assassins your nightmares made them out to be. The all-hands-on-deck throat-grabber style of Predator and Aliens and the encroaching-doom haunted-house premonition of the original Alien are nowhere to be found, replaced with bargain-basement versions of both tones offhandedly smacked together in a film without the conviction to burrow into either style with anything more effort than a pale, halfhearted limp. Even Alien 3, flawed though it may be, committed to its gloomy vision with an admirable singularity of aesthetic purpose. In place of all those films which were at least effortful, AVP is a giant sucking noise, a wasted opportunity that doesn’t even seem to consider itself an opportunity in the first place. The previous films in both series vacillated between achievements and attempts, but the meeting of extraterrestrial minds feels like neither.