Flung out of time, The Predator is a sequel better-suited for a bygone era
Despite being their biggest source of income, franchises can sometimes be something of a conundrum for movie studios. They often begin with a bang before crashing back to Earth, sending executives into a tizzy over what direction they should take a property next. Do they make something close to the original? Do they create a quiet, understated take on the material in a bid for critical acclaim? Reboot it? The questions can be endless. No franchise knows the pain of the the throw it at the wall and see what sticks mentality of Hollywood brain trusts more than the Predator series, the saga about burly space aliens who come to Earth to hunt our deadliest warriors for sport. The original film, released in 1987, seemed ready for a blockbuster exercise in universe-building: it had one of the world’s biggest stars in Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fascinating creature brought to life by effects legend Stan Winston, and plenty of personality to spare. However, the subsequent attempts to capture the kitschy macho energy that made that film a cult classic have had less than interstellar results: Predator 2 is an incoherent, offensive mess, the Alien vs. Predator films are considered some of the worst big-budget films ever made, and 2010’s Predators is an underrated film that nevertheless no one really seems to remember. So what is 20th Century Fox to do in order to breathe some life back into this tired property? Hire Shane Black, of course.
Black is basically the father of modern action movies, formulating the genre as we now know it with 1987’s Lethal Weapon. Since that film’s release, he has become the go-to man for action scripts which revel in witty banter and unabashed celebrations of male bonding. Fresh off a string of writing/directorial successes and already involved with the Predator franchise to some extent (he acted in and re-wrote parts of the 1987 original), Black seems like a natural choice to re-imagine the Predator for the 21st century, bringing back to life the camaraderie and one-liners that define the first film and giving it a fresh spin. However, watching The Predator, it becomes clear that while Black’s hiring certainly has its improvements, Hollywood still can’t quite figure out to do with one of its most iconic villains.
The script’s set-up is difficult to boil down, but in essence it’s quintessential Black: Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, Logan) becomes entangled with a Predator after it crash lands in the middle of a rescue mission in Mexico. After his squad is killed and he barely escapes, he ships some of the alien’s gear to his estranged wife (Yvonne Strahovski, The Handmaid’s Tale) and autistic son (Jacob Tremblay, Room) in an effort to secure evidence before he’s scooped up by the government and labeled a madman. After he discovers that his son has inadvertently beckoned the presence of a bigger, badder Predator to Earth, he enlists the help of an evolutionary biologist (Olivia Munn, The Newsroom) and the misfit soldiers he’s locked up with to battle the beast and save his son. It’s filled to the brim with Black’s signature tropes: well-intended but perhaps ignorant explorations of mental illness, zippy action, and nostalgia to spare.
Despite their usually dependable tools on hand, Black and frequent co-writer Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) unfortunately have no sense of how to efficiently weave all of this together, as the script is an overstuffed, often confusingly energetic rollercoaster that makes one realize perhaps Black wasn’t the best man for the job. His admiration for biting, humorous dialogue delivers some clever gags, but he is so preoccupied with it that the plot is lost in the fury. The action is serviceable, providing the sort of gore and bravado you’d expect from this series, but the jumps to conclusions, exposition, and even some major character deaths are so quickly paced that it’s often easy to get overwhelmed by the noise.
The characters are obviously Black’s interest here, and he certainly assembles a colorful assortment to play with, particularly in the group McKenna enlists to fight the titular alien: suicidal charmer Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight), wise-cracking Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele), Tourette’s addled Baxley (Thomas Jane, The Mist), trickster Lynch (Alfie Allen, Game of Thrones), and prophetic weirdo Nettles (Augusto Aguilera, Chasing Life). While they all have their charms, the stand-out of the stacked cast is Traeger, a shady government agent tasked with hunting down alien artifacts brought to scenery-chewing life by Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us). Traegar represents the best aspects of what the studio was going for with bringing on Black, with Brown spitting out zinger after zinger with an appropriate mixture of sarcasm and menace. He’s a focused, fun vision of what the film could be. However, that aforementioned focus ends with his character. The rest of the cast is still a ton of fun, as all the actors are perfectly cast and punching way below their pay-grade, but their characters are rushed so quickly through the film’s onslaught of gunfights and explosions that they never receive the attention they truly deserve.
The film’s biggest misfire is its handling of the Predator itself, which again fails to understand why its original portrayal was so successful. The first time we bore witness to the might of this extraterrestrial sports hunter (Predator sounds cooler, Brown frequently quips), it was effective because director John McTiernan (Die Hard) saved all his best cards until the final showdown between the creature and Schwarzenegger. Until those final scenes, the Predator was not unlike the shark from Jaws: a rarely seen and always ruthless mystery whose ultimate reveal proved more terrifying than what we imagined in our heads. It’s easy to forget Predator was in many ways a spin on classic horror films, and Black certainly forgets it here. Not to mention that even in lesser installments, the Predators had personality. Black, for all his obsession with charm, gives none of it to his villain here.
However, The Predator is by no means a bad film. It’s simply breezy popcorn fare dressed up in the allure of a creator whose recent work suggests a more attuned eye for entertainment than he probably actually has. It has all the workings of what makes good sci-fi schlock tick: thrills, kills, and humor in droves. It just never comes together into something cohesive enough to conclude that the Predator in back in full form. Instead, it feels like a callback to a simpler time in blockbuster filmmaking, where banter and blood was enough to pass as original. That effect may provide a healthy and satisfying dose of nostalgia, but rest assured that the high will pass quickly. It’s a mess, but at least it’s an admirably fun one.