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Josh Reviews The Predator

I’m an optimist, and someday I hope to see a new, truly great Star Trek movie in the theatres.  Someday, I hope to see a new, truly great Alien movie in the theatres.  And someday, I hope to see a new, truly great Predator movie in the theatres.

This sure as heck ain’t it.

The original Predator, from 1987, is a bad-ass, violent action movie with a sci-fi twist.  It was directed by John McTiernan, in the era in which Mr. McTiernan could do no wrong.  (He also directed Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, two nearly perfect films that I adore.)  I love Predator — it’s got great characters, great action, and a great villain.  It holds up pretty well.  And it has spawned a heck of a lot of sequels, though sadly none of them have succeeded in being more then a relatively pale imitation of that first film.  1990’s Predator 2 is a truly bizarre sequel, transporting the series into the future (an at-the-time futuristic 1997 Los Angeles) and replacing the action-star Arnold Schwarzenegger with a very hyper Danny Glover as the lead.  At the time, it was a disappointment, and it’s hard to argue that the film is all that good, but relative to the films that followed, I now consider Predator 2 to be somewhat underrated!  In a film-fan in-joke, a sequence inside a Predator ship in Predator 2 showed an Alien skull, from the Alien franchise, on the Predator’s trophy wall.  That inspired a wonderful series of Aliens vs. Predator comic-books by Dark Horse Comics, which owned the comic-book rights to both franchises, and that in turn inspired two Alien vs. Predator films in 2004 and 2007, neither of which really lived up to the potential of the premise.  Then, in 2010, Robert Rodriguez produced another straight-up Predator sequel, called Predators (a fun nod to the Alien sequel, Aliens), that was directed by Nimród Antal.  I enjoyed the film’s efforts to do something new with the Predator franchise (such as setting the film on an alien planet as opposed to here on Earth), but in the end I didn’t find it particularly memorable.

And so now here we are with yet another attempt to relaunch the franchise with The Predator.  When I read that Shane Black was writing and directing this film, I was ecstatic.  Mr. Black is an incredible talent.  He wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, two films that I absolutely love.  (He also wrote and directed Iron Man Three, which was pretty great too!)  And he has a connection to Predator in that he appeared as an actor in the first Predator film, playing Hawkins!!  I was so excited at the idea of Mr. Black bringing his talent back to the Predator franchise.

So what the heck happened??  I cannot believe that this film, which is possibly the worst of all the Predator films, was written and directed by Shane Black.  This cannot possibly be the film that Mr. Black set out to make.  There are a myriad of problems with the film, a main one being that it’s a nearly incomprehensible mess.  Were there behind-the-scenes problems that resulted in their having to rework the story on the fly, resulting in scenes that don’t fit together when they assembled the film?  Is there an hour on the cutting room floor somewhere, that better explained what was happening and developed the characters but that got cut out when the film ran long?  I am mystified.  Maybe someday we’ll learn what the heck happened.

I’m not sure where to even begin.  Let’s start with what I just mentioned, that the film’s story is almost incomprehensible.  We jump from location to location with no clear explanation of what is happening, or why characters do what they do.  (This is a particular problem in the film’s first 20-30 minutes, and the movie never really recovers from that.)  In great movies, each scene leads into the next as we follow characters through the story.  The opposite of that happens here.  Let’s give a few examples.  At the start of the film, an Army ranger, McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), is on a mission in the jungle when a Predator ship crash-lands.  We have no idea where this is happening.  (Is this somewhere in the U.S.?  In South America?  No clue.)  We next see McKenna in custody and being interrogated.  Where are we now?  How did McKenna get back to a military base, and when was he captured?  If he’s a threat (to the people at “Stargazer” trying to keep the existence of the Predators secret), why do they put him on a bus to the loony bin as opposed to somewhere more secure?  And wow, what an enormous coincidence that the location where McKenna is being held seems to be right down the street from the house where his ex-wife and son live, to whom McKenna mailed secret Predator tech in order to keep it away from the people after him.  Because the film keeps being vague about the locations of where everything is happening, I couldn’t believe it when McKenna escaped from the loony-bin bus and we learn that, literally, his wife and son were a few blocks away as opposed to, oh, I dunno, on the other side of the country.  I was constantly having this cognitive dissonance watching the film, trying to follow what was going on and often misunderstanding what was happening because I couldn’t believe that the stupid things I was seeing happen were actually what was happening in the film, as opposed to some sort of intentional misdirection.

Example #2 & 3 are SPOILERS, so skip these next two paragraphs if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to have any “twists” ruined.

OK, Example #2: We learn mid-film that the Predator we’ve been following for the first half of the film seems to have been trying to help humanity by giving us a secret weapon to use to fight other Predators who mean us harm.  But nothing we’ve seen in the film to that point allows that revelation to make any sense.  The Predator has been killing people left and right since he crashed on Earth in the film’s opening scene — why the heck would he be doing that if he wanted to help us??  It makes absolutely no sense.

Example #3: when we first meet the scientists and investigators at project Stargazer, who are studying the captured Predator, we assume they are good guys.  They’re scientists, after all, and they’re seeking to learn more about this alien life form.  It’s for that purpose that they call in Dr. Bracket (Olivia Munn).  Those all seem to be good things.  But it turns out that Stargazer and their leader, Director Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) are the main bad guys in the film.  But why??  Why is Traeger such a mean asshole all of the time?  What is his goal?  Traeger is the villain because the film decides to make him a villain, but at no point did I understand what he wanted or why he was doing anything he was doing.  (As a counter-example, in Aliens, when we learn that Paul Reiser’s Burke is actually a villain, we understand his motivation: to make money by bringing back an Alien so the Company can sell it as a weapon.  The movie doesn’t need to spend a lot of time delving into the character’s backstory — there wouldn’t have been the time or space for that in the film, and it wouldn’t have been a story-digression that would have made any sense for that fast-paced action film.  Instead, Burke’s motivation is presented clearly and quickly in barely seconds.  But it works.  That sort of story-telling and character clarity is sorely missing from The Predator.)

The film has a great cast, and there are a few moments during which I can imagine what this film could have been.  But for the most part, the characters are completely flat and undeveloped, taking actions without clear motivations and failing to draw in my empathy or attention as an audience-member.  Let’s start with Boyd Holbrook’s lead character of McKenna.  There’s been a sorry trend in recent big franchise movies to cast a flat, boring white dude in the lead (Jai Courtney in Terminator: Genisys and Joel Kinnaman in Suicide Squad come to mind), and McKenna is the latest.  All of those three men I named have the potential to give a good performance (Mr. Holbrook, for instance, was a solid villain in Logan), but they failed in these films (or were failed by the bad film they were in — it’s hard to say exactly where the blame lies).  I didn’t care one whit for McKenna.  I didn’t want anything bad to happen to his son (played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay), but that’s about it.  The film doesn’t develop McKenna at all.  Is he a good soldier?  Is he a good guy?  Was he a crappy father and husband in need of redemption?  We have no idea.

Olivia Munn plays Dr. Casey Bracket, a biologist called in to examine a dead Predator who then gets swept along in the mayhem.  The Newsroom showed us that Ms. Munn has the potential to be a terrific actress when given the right material, but boy, this wasn’t it.  The film wastes no time finding an excuse to get her naked.  (No nudity is shown, it’s just implied, but even so, I felt bad for Ms. Munn as I was watching the film.)  Dr. Bracket is supposed to be a biologist, but when the Predator breaks loose, suddenly she’s grabbed a gun and is chasing after it.  I am all for bad-ass female heroines, but her action doesn’t make any sense for the character we’d been introduced to, and the film never bothers to explain it or give it any context (by establishing that, say, she was a military brat raised on an army base, or that her father was a hunter, or anything like that).

I love the idea that, while the first Predator film focused on a highly trained and skilled military team, this film would focus on a group of thrown-together nutcases who’d been bounced from the service.  That’s a great idea, and the actors Mr. Black assembled to portray the “loonies” with whom McKenna finds himself trapped are terrific: Trevante Rhodes (grown-up Chiron in Moonlight!!); Keegan-Michael Key (a brilliant comedian); Thomas Jane (who I will love forever for his underrated work in The Mist); Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones); and Augusto Aguilera.  Every one of them is great, and although the movie spends very little time to develop these characters, each actor gives it their all and does their best to bring the characters to life.  There are a few moments with this ensemble of nutballs in which the film comes to life, and we can see how these actors are able to take some great Shane Black funny banter and bring the material to life.  (I loved the scene in McKenna’s wife’s house in which the characters are indecisive about whether to help McKenna fight the monster.)  I wish somehow the movie had been able to be more focused on these characters, allowing them room to breathe and for the audience to fall in love with them.  I can see then how this could have been a good movie.  But instead these characters are mostly lost in a fast-moving story that makes little sense.

Same goes for Sterling K. Brown as the villainous Director of Stargazer, and Yvonne Strahovski as McKenna’s ex-wife.  Mr. Brown is such a great actor!!!  And yet he’s stranded in this film, playing a guy who is a dirtbag for no apparent reason.  (And, SPOILER alert, in yet another example of the film’s seemingly dashed-together nature, after being an important bad-guy for most of the film, Brown’s character is killed off suddenly in the third act in a way that is so fast it’s almost as if it happens off-screen, and no other character ever seems to react to his death or absence for the rest of the film.  It is super-weird!!)  Ms. Strahovski is a great actress and she does the best with what she’s given, and it’s great to see a smart, tough female character in this male-centric film, but, again, the film doesn’t take any time to develop her character or give her any significant role to play in the plot.

I was hoping that this Shane Black anchored sequel would have a little more budget to play with than the last several small-scale Predator films.  But if it did, for most of the film, I thought The Predator was shockingly small-scale and cheap-looking.  (That jungle where McKenna’s opening mission takes place looked very much like a small set to my eyes.)  Things do finally open up at the very end, in which there’s some fun action on the hull of a Predator spaceship.  There’s a whole bit of business that I loved in which the characters on the hull have to evade the ship’s activating force-field.  Wow, suddenly here was a fresh, new idea (I’d never seen this sort of playful storytelling around the use of a force-field, which is a common sci-fi device), and the visual effects that brought the sequence to life looked great.

But, sigh, those sorts of moments in which the film came to life for me were few and far between.

Other thoughts:

* I was happy that the film’s score made liberal use of the classic Predator themes from the original film.

* I was amused to see Jake Busey in the film, playing a character who was apparently the son of the character Jake’s dad Gary Busey played in Predator 2.

* I was pleased that the film did acknowledge the existence of the original Predator and Predator 2, mentioning Predator incursions in 1987 and 1997.  It makes sense in the Predator universe, in which we’ve seen four films now with Predators wreaking havoc on Earth, that there would be an organization like Stargazer involved in tracking these aliens and attempting to learn everything they could about them.

* The film doesn’t officially acknowledge the two Alien vs. Predator films, though the Predator ship and technology design in the film did seem consistent with what we saw in those films, so that made me happy.  I think the film struck exactly the right balance in that regard.  There was no need to get bogged down in trying to connect with all of the previous Predator sequels, but I was happy there wasn’t anything that directly contradicted any of those films, either.

* I quite enjoyed the running joke about how the “Predator” name doesn’t really fit the actions of the alien hunters…

* Olivia Munn’s character calls the Predator a “beautiful motherfucker” at one point, which I thought was a fun reversal of Arnold’s calling the alien an “ugly motherfucker” in the first film.  But, oy, the way they forced “get to the choppers!” into this film (a play on Arnold’s famous “get to the choppa!” line in the original) was painful.

* My favorite line in the movie is a wonderfully random — and yet, perfectly accurate — reference to Disney’s The Haunted Mansion.  I loved that!

* The film’s final scene was yet another head-scratching scene in a film filled with choices that I do not understand.  (Beware SPOILERS.)  Our surviving heroes discover that the Predator who crashed at the start of the film has left humanity some sort of Predator-killing weapon in a silver cocoon-looking object.  My first guess was that the Predator-killing weapon would be Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing a cryogenically preserved Dutch from the original film.  When a character mentioned an A.I. component, I started guessing wildly about what sort of tech-based surprise they had for us.  Maybe another crossover?  Would there be a Terminator in there?  Robocop?  I’m being a little silly, but that final scene was set up to say, hey audience, we’re going to end this movie on a BIG CRAZY SURPRISE.  But then we learn that the weapon is some sort of Predator-looking suit of armor (sort of a Predator version of Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit), McKenna makes a lame joke, and roll credits.  WOW was that a disappointment.  It’s an out-of-left-field development that is meaningless in the context of this film, and it also fails to leave me all that excited about the story-telling potential for a sequel.  (And it’s such a brazen seed for a sequel that it’s sort of sad to see, now that this film has failed to wow at the box office, so I highly doubt a direct sequel to this film will ever get made.)

Sigh.

So, this was a big swing and a miss in my opinion.  I’m bummed, as I was really hoping that this would be a great new Predator film.  I still believe there is juice in this franchise and potential for a great new Predator story to be told.  But this wasn’t it.

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