Review: The Predator
Following decades of attempts at franchising the deadliest killer in the cosmos, The Predator is the biggest movie in the series. The kills are grizzlier, the dialogue is profane and problematic, the mythology is almost an open door. It’s a tough property to crack, more-so than even the Alien series, which has occasional brushes with blockbuster success. Like any series of films, the artists working on the current iteration have to aim for less of what fans want and more of what they need. For a series to thrive, it has to be pushed into new territory. At the very least, each film should feel distinct enough to warrant viewing pleasures. That’s where The Predator mostly succeeds. It “feels” texturally different from the other mainline entries, which were already pretty separate from one another aesthetically. Writers Shane Black and Fred Dekker bring their trademark wit and hard-boiled cynicism, never forgetting to wrap it around a story about damaged people trying to be better.
It helps that the cast assembled is uniformly the strongest since the original entry. Boyd Holbrook plays his survivor as a struggling everyman, just trying to keep him and his unit together – familial and his new team. Trevante Rhodes keeps an effortless swagger, using it to mask his suicidal pain. Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane pair a duo of vets with a shared tragic backstory, though only Thomas Jane’s character suffers tourettes. Olivia Munn and Sterling K. Brown are the other highlights here. Brown devours scenery with his Men in Black cool and a perpetual chewing habit. Though it’s Munn who comes across as the biggest surprise, not that she was ever untalented, but her character might be the first time the franchise has given a leading role to a woman who has actual things to do. There’s a blue collar essence to her character, where even after spouting sci-fi mumbo jumbo, it’s grounded thanks to her. If there’s one complaint about Munn, it’s that her character is handled the most shoddily in the edit (more on that later).
After a Predator interrupts a mission in Mexico, Assassin Quinn McKenna enjoys a not-so-pleasant visit by some shady government employees. On the other side of the continent, a biology professor is recruited by a shady government employee. In the nameless American suburbs, a young boy receives a package. If that sounds like a lot of establishing criteria, that’s because it is. The opening mystery hook plays like Shane Black’s Independence Day, before it was interrupted by The Predator. Big, loud and messy, it’s also compromised and completely flabbergasting by the final frame. With such a broad set of characters and stories, a film of this magnitude requires some serious editing to find the flow of its event-style trappings. If you want to see quality editing on a blockbuster scale, rewatch the first 15 minutes of The Last Jedi and compare them to this. It ain’t pretty.
There’s a “good” movie in here somewhere. Most likely viewable prior to a completely re-shot finale and restructuring of the entire initial conflict. If you’re into sleazy 90’s cheese, The Predator feels as though it’s been plucked out of a vault specifically from that era. Along with it are all the cocksure attitudes and problematic elements you’d expect, and then some. For one thing, someone needs to put up a giant billboard about using autism as some replacement for “magic” or easy screenwriting nonsense. By the time a character states (and I’m barely paraphrasing here) “Autism is the next step in human evolution,” you’re either going to fight to ignore it or tap out entirely. Of course, the elephant in the room regards a cut scene with Olivia Munn opposite a convicted sex offender. Munn’s introduction originally involved harassment from a jogger, while establishing her professional background, adoration of animals and how quickly she refuses to put up with bullshit. The scene was rightfully cut, and whose blame can’t be pointed towards anyone else but writer/director Shane Black (who has since apologized and accepted full responsibility for the f*** up). Yet, given the already shoddy editing on display, Munn’s introduction wasn’t taken out entirely. Rather, Munn’s introduction was cut down to the last 30 seconds of her introduction scene. That time length may even be generous. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of Munn doing the right thing.
On top of that, the work of Black and Dekker can tend to be problematic in the way characters act or pronounce themselves. The Looney’s and Rory, Jacob Tremblay as McKenna’s son, might be cracking politically incorrect and, quite frankly, correctly outdated jokes, but it’s easy to see the soft spot Black grew for them. These individuals who have been cast out, told they’re no longer essential personnel, get to fight for something again. They get a mission that’s larger than themselves, and the ones who die (this is a Predator movie, afterall) will most likely be forgotten. But given the already rough go mental health has in the representation department, it’s a line for some that will understandably be crossed. You’re not wrong for being put off by it, and it should continue being discussed.
More on the “Looney’s” as they’re self-titled, there’s a fascinating aspect it draws from in the original John McTiernan Predator that I find to be rarely discussed. After Major Dutch’s unit built from 1980’s testosterone-fueled, action bravado were eviscerated, Dutch takes to the elements. There’s a primal, visceral nature to his final battle of wits against the titular creature. But what we hardly talk about is the toll it took on the hero. As Dutch is airlifted away, he sits shell-shocked; a damaged warrior, having lost all he knew (his team, possibly his mind) to a cause he’ll never fully understand. This new squad of soldiers, the Looney’s, are the aftermath. They’re the rejects, the ones who don’t fit into society after having gone and fought for it. They came back bent and burnt. People would tell them they’re broken or don’t belong. For all the issues present in the film and its story, that’s something special.
Capturing the humans and Predators in action is Larry Fong’s rich photography. A Zack Snyder regular, Fong’s sharp imagery doesn’t get to go as stylistically wild as he would under Snyder, but he still plays with light and shadows in visually stimulating ways. The deep blacks and metallic blues give the film a sugar-coated splendor before bathing them in harsh blood reds. While the haphazard editing leaves the viewer in a state of whiplash, Fong's camera brings an atmospheric sense of dread once the Predator(s) have been unleashed. When the Ultimate Predator walks out of his ship with his Predadogs, the fog and mist pouring around the alien tech give the film a true horror vibe unlike anything else in the series. Though trailers gave away the eventual money shot of the Ultimate towering over the Vanilla Predator, it’s still presented with a virtue of scale uncommon in a seasonal horror film. It’s why the evolution of Black’s traditional Christmas setting to Halloween felt like such a primer for great horror shenanigans.
There are moments that are cute in a winking sort of way, before devolving into harsher territory. As if Hitchcock’s bomb dilemma went cosmic. A highlight I won’t spoil involves a great trick-or-treating “trick,” though it feels like a missed opportunity to not play with the iconography even further. Shane Black is noted for consistently setting his scripts during Christmas, a holiday that he believes makes people reflect on their lives; a communal experience in which we take stock of what’s important, and by proxy, his characters become more introspective while solving some hard-boiled mystery. The Predator is set during Halloween season, mostly over the course of a single night after the plot kicks in. And again, moments tap into this. An early shot of a cloaked Predator is ruined by blood pouring onto its face, right as its eyes open wide. The elements were all here, they’re just undercooked.
Undercooked might just be the best way to describe The Predator. About as entertaining as Predator 2 and Predators, but filmed and staged better than both. What should have been the blockbuster of the year will certainly wind up finding a home in seasoned horror fans libraries, and not many others. It’s worth appreciating an R rated sci-fi action slasher of this magnitude has some absolutely brutal kills in its back pocket. Given the heavy baggage this movie carries, internally and externally, nobody can blame you for passing this up or waiting for a rental. For fans of the series who just want to see some dudes get torn to shreds, you’ll get that in spades after some rocky editing. Maybe that’s enough to satiate the fictional Halloween bloodlust. But given what the talent this project involved, those same fans would have to wonder what else could have been.