The Audience Contract
Updated: May 8, 2020
I watched Alien Vs. Predator and I’m not happy.
I love Alien. I’ve written about it before in the context of its video game adaptation, but my love began with the 1979 film. It’s a gloriously tense horror experience that is genre-defining and very entertaining. The xenomorph is a cinematic monster on par with the horror greats, tapping into our existential scientific fears with the same terrible thrill that Dracula surely tapped into Victorian conservatism. But to be transparent, I have not seen all the films in the franchise- after Alien and Aliens, I haven’t seen anymore. This decision was largely made by the people I was with, as they refused to watch Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, or Prometheus with me. Weirdly, I have seen Alien: Covenant, though I was confused and clearly not in the loop enough to really appreciate it. So essentially, I love the films I have seen in this franchise, but I am aware that there are gaps in my knowledge.
While we’ve been isolating my partner thought it would be a good opportunity for me to watch Predator for the first time. I hadn’t watched it not because I wasn’t interested, although Arnold is always going to spark some scepticism in me. I simply hadn’t felt to urgent need to watch a few hours of jungle-based muscle glistening. My vague impressions of the film were entirely unfair. The muscles certainly glistened, but the bloody character study that unfolds in John McTiernan’s action-adventure masterpiece is definitely more nuanced and heartfelt than I was expecting. The Predator itself is a formidable creature that suffers from the very human flaws of pride and greed, leading the story to exciting and unexpected places.
And so, after I enjoyed Predator and knowing of my Alien appreciation, we thought it would be fun to watch Alien Vs. Predator. And, because I’m a know-it-all with little awareness of what I was getting myself into, I thought I would guess the outcome. As in, I would make an educated prediction of who would win based on both my understanding of the films, and my dramaturgical training.
So- what are the strengths and weaknesses of our contenders?
Firstly, the Predator’s got technological superiority in its corner. We know the Predator has access to quick first aid, shoulder cannons, tracking tech, and a formidable cloaking system. And this tech is from 1987- a 21st century Predator could have new and exciting equipment to give them an edge in this fight. Plus, they clearly have an understanding of psychological warfare and enjoy toying with their prey. However, despite the advantages, the Predator has a tendency to lose focus when they take their prey fighting back personally. The urge to self-destruct rather than get caught is indicative of an issue with pride. This sense of superiority makes them vulnerable when they get sloppy. I concluded that the Predator is a great organiser who would fare well in most environments. They are adaptable, self-reliant and intelligent, but fail to maintain that superiority if they feel their pride is being challenged.
The Alien’s approach to battle would be significantly different to the Predator. Aliens are more animalistic, meaning they lack the emotional intelligence to take setbacks personally. They are built to kill with their acid blood, murderous reproductive systems, very pointy tails, and so on. They can camouflage in dark environments, and work as pack hunters or lone stalkers. These things are vicious; however, they are not flexible. They aren’t very formidable in open environments or at range, and they rely heavily on the breeding capacity of a Queen to be sustainable. They are killing machines and an infestation that is hard to get rid of, but they are not well adapted to hunting grounds other than space stations, and not as able to strategise long term.
If the battle takes place in a dark and enclosed environment, the Alien has it- they’d be on home ground. Aliens are one trick ponies, but they are fast killers so the Predator might not have enough time to figure that out. However, if the battle takes place literally anywhere else, the Predator has the advantage. They are clearly used to fighting in unfamiliar environments, and they have multiple hunting strategies that could overcome the Alien’s defences.
Of course, if you’ve seen AVP, you’ve already thought about this. You probably read my thoughts and have opinions of your own that contradict mine, and are thinking of all the ways to prove it. Or you agree with me, and feel that we’ve both come up with the best answer. But if you’ve seen this movie, you know that the question was not treated by the filmmakers with the same level of consideration and seriousness that audiences treated it. You know that the question is abandoned almost immediately, with the narrative instead concerned with an ancient pyramid and human sacrifice and all kinds of nonsense that was not promised in that title. You might feel, as I do, that the question was only half answered.
You might be unhappy with AVP. And you might be unhappy because the filmmakers broke the audience contract.
I first came across this concept when reading Christopher B. Balme’s 2012 book The Theatrical Public Sphere, in which he discusses theatre scandals and riots and what causes an audience to react badly to a performance. The audience contract is essential the deal that is made between an audience and an artist or artists when interacting with a text. It is not a literal binding agreement, although it could be- it is simply the notion of audience expectation that is established by the artist intentionally. For example, if you were to watch a film called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you could reasonably expect a film set in Texas where at least four people are killed by way of chainsaw. If you saw the poster for this film, you’re set up with even more expectations.
Who will survive? What will be left of them?
These are the questions in an audience’s head as they venture into the theatre. The title, the genre, and the R rating set us up to expect specific events and aesthetics to be explored in the film. This contract exists in any situation involving an audience. Jane Austen adaptations are treated differently to Pixar films because the artists present their work in a way that points audiences towards an intended, specific response.
When I sat down to watch Alien Vs. Predator, I was presented with a very clear title that points to a very specific situation- the film will be a match between an Alien and a Predator. And, knowing what I know already about these characters, I can assume it will be a bloody death match possibly involving explosions and lots of body horror. If you look at the poster for this film, you’ll see another set of expectations prompted by the tagline.
Now I know that there are humans involved; I presume WE is a reference to the people who populate this planet. Again, knowing what I know, I assume the humans will be pasted in the midst of this showdown. They stand absolutely no chance and will be mercilessly destroyed in this deathmatch. This is actually kind of rare in this situation, because every time we’ve seen an Alien or a Predator, the humans always win. So, with the humans discounted, we should be seeing a fair fight. It’s the kind of set-up that encourages viewers to come to a conclusion before the film begins. The film will confirm or dismiss your viewpoint. The film will answer the basic question asked in the title.
Who would win between and Alien and a Predator?
Does the film answer the question? Kind of. The Predators survive where the Alien Queen does not. But one human does too. The tagline was wrong. It should have been-
One of us will win too.
Alien and Predator are simple films. Humans are thrown into a situation where they must fend off against a creature with lots of killing potential. Most of the humans die, except for one who thinks outside the box and outwits them. The monsters are also simple- they kill humans. AVP does technically answer its central question, but because this film is also supposed to be simple, it fails at this because the answer ends up being complicated by its silly plot. Who would win? Well, the Predators win in the specific situation in which an Alien Queen is forced to produce Aliens for the Predators to hunt for sport, and that Queen is left dormant under the Antarctic ice for 100 years and only starts laying eggs because the humans sent to investigate the disturbance accidentally trigger the floorplates in the ancient Predator temple that revive her.
The Predator wins in a situation designed for a Predator to win. It’s hardly a fair fight.
The audience was led to believe that the fight would be fair, or at least not dependant on the actual kidnapping of one party before the fight even starts. The audience was told there would be a definitive winner. And the audience was supposed to be ready to watch all the humans die- not some, but all. We shouldn’t reasonably be asked to consider that the Predator would even need a human’s help to win in a situation where they really can’t lose. It’s asking a bucket of chum to help the fisherman with the physical act of reeling in the line. It’s simply ludicrous.
I wanted to write about this film because it’s rare to see the dramaturgy of a work be so affected by cultural vibe and audience expectation rather than actual content. The badness of AVP has almost nothing to do with the formal qualities of the film. The acting is okay, the set design and cinematography are genuinely good, and the action set pieces are satisfying to watch. The film is bad because it broke its own contract. The plot is stupid because the audience knows that characters should be acting differently. The audience was promised something it did not receive. My few minutes of deliberation before watching the film were thrown away almost immediately. It felt pointless to try, and it felt like I was being punished for thinking too hard. Alien and Predator are fun action adventures, but they also require critical thinking and some modicum of trying on the filmmaker’s part. AVP feels like playing Lego. It feels like a pointless squabble over who your favourite Ninja Turtle is. It makes no effort to answer the questions it goes out of its way to ask.
And I dread to watch AVPR: Aliens vs Predator- Requiem to see what kind of non-answer is provided to that film’s question. Namely-
Why does this exist?
Do you know of other plays, TV shows, or films that break the audience contract? Share your thoughts with a comment!
Balme, CB 2014, The Theatrical Public Sphere, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Krometis, D 2015, 'Establishing the Audience Contract', HowlRound Theatre Commons, 31 October, viewed 15 April, <https://howlround.com/establishing-audience-contract>.
IMDb 1990-2020, Alien Vs Predator 2: Requiem (2007), IMDb, viewed 15 April 2020, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0758730/mediaviewer/rm3172046848>.
IMDb 1990-2020, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), IMDb, viewed 15 April 2020, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072271/mediaviewer/rm0581888>. IMDb 1990-2020, AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), IMDb, viewed 15 April 2020, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0370263/mediaviewer/rm3021379584>.