A friend of mine last week insisted that Aliens was a better movie than Predator. Having fond memories of both of these movies from my younger days, I didn’t believe her at first. I thought the movies were very different but equally good sci-fi films.
I re-watched both movies to test her thesis, and man, was I wrong. Aliens is far and away the better movie, and not just because Sigourney Weaver can out-act the former governor.
Both movies turn out to be very similar to each other, but the writing and structure of Aliens is much better, much better.
How They’re Similar
Both movies follow a military team into an uncertain situation. This uncertain situation turns out to contain an alien threat.
The alien threat in both cases clearly outmatches the resources of the team.
Both squads have an Outsider Who Is In Charge along with them (Dillon in Predator, Burke in Aliens). This Outsider has a different moral code than the rest of the team, being concerned with either profit or enemy intelligence above everything else.
The original mission in both movies is supposed to be rescue, but we find out the team has been tricked, and they’re really there to advance the Outsider’s agenda.
The Outsider is karmically punished for their betrayal of the team by the alien threat.
The climax of both movies is a one-on-one fight between the protagonist and the main alien threat.
What Aliens Does Better
Let’s start with the team, since that’s who we spend most of the movie with. This is supposed to be a tight-knit group of people who have worked together for a long time, and we’re supposed to root for them throughout. So the film needs to take every chance it has to communicate that to us.
Aliens succeeds. Its marines seem to actually like each other, and function as team. We get to see them joking and talking as they come out of hyper-sleep and while they’re eating before the mission briefing. They continue to banter using their radios as the mission starts (before things go haywire).
We also get a clear sense of the hierarchy and role for each member of the team: we know who the sergeant is, which people are carrying the heavy guns, who’s got the radar for spotting, etc.
Predator fails to do any of this. The members of the team don’t seem to like each other at all. We don’t see them bantering, but we do see them do some macho posturing, which is not a substitute.
What’s more, none of the team members really seem to have a clear role. They all carry basically the same weapons, they don’t work in groups, and they all have the same skills.
The one exception is Billy, the tracker, but he’s so close to the “wise Native American hunter” stereotype that it doesn’t serve to flesh out his character, it just makes him more of a caricature.
Next, the “turn” or “betrayal” moment, when we find out the Outsider has tricked the team.
In Aliens this is a real betrayal. Burke locked two of them in with an alien in the hopes it would impregnate one of them, and was ready to kill the others so he could take off on his own (with the alien and its host). The Outsider turns out to be a real threat to the team, and there’s conflict generated both in overcoming his betrayal and deciding how to punish him for it.
Predator‘s betrayal is much lower key. The team’s capture of the rebel camp seems effortless, with not much risk to any of the team members. Dillon’s betrayal is just an ulterior motive for getting in the camp. He never directly puts anyone’s lives in danger, and so the protagonist’s treatment of him feels overblown and melodramatic. There’s no real punch to it.
It would have been much better to make Dillon’s betrayal more serious. Imagine if Dutch’s team made it to the camp only to find that everyone was dead, with Anna the only survivor. She won’t talk, but they decide to take her back with them anyway. As they head back to the evac point, the team start getting picked off by the Predator. Eventually only Dutch, Anna, and Dillon are left.
Dillon finally confesses what’s really happening: he knew about the Predator, and contracted Dutch’s team under false pretenses because his first pick got wiped out by the alien. He wants to capture it, which is why he hasn’t been shooting to kill when he sees it. He’s ready to admit that he was wrong, though, and wants to help kill it so they can all get home.
Now Dutch has got a real moral problem: should he trust Dillon and work with him to defeat the predator? Or should he punish him for betraying his team and getting most of them killed?
Either choice is interesting, and would have a significant impact on the plot.
Finally, the climax of Aliens is done better. I don’t just mean the robot-on-alien action (which is objectively awesome).
I mean that in the Predator climax, the alien gets progressively dumber. He starts out as this advanced warrior, but eventually ditches all his advantages — his armor, his gun, his helmet — to take on the protagonist in one-on-one combat. Against such a willfully dumb and weakened adversary, how could the protagonist lose?
In Aliens, the alien queen gets smarter as the fight goes on. We originally see her as just an egg laying machine. But she escapes from the power station before it blows up, stowing away on the ship. Once on the ship, she waits until they’re docked with the main one before emerging, and when she does she goes after the humans for food (Well, and maybe a little revenge. She does seem pissed off). She uses every advantage she has, all her strength and cunning, which makes Ripley’s victory even more impressive.