There is something to be said for a movie that is acutely aware of what it is.
This is the case for every film in the schlock heavy, thirty-year history of the Predator franchise — a series that began with a celebration of machismo action and quickly descended into hot trash. While the first film garnered a cult following since its 80s release, the sequels and spin-offs never quite reclaimed mainstream appeal, and the series has been dormant since the bizarre 2010 outing, Predators.
Enter Shane Black, with his penchant for subverting genre expectations and who himself starred in the first Predator film holding a pitch for an R-rated soft reboot of the series. While Black ratchets up the gore in The Predator, a flimsy script and disjointed editing make for a film that feels more like a fan’s fever-dream than a sequel.
The Predator clips along at such a manic pace as to be borderline incoherent.
Wasting absolutely no time, the film opens on a badly damaged Predator ship. As the ship rips through a wormhole and plummets toward Earth, the ship’s pilot hurriedly prepares for the crash in an introduction to the titular alien more comical than imposing. As the flaming wreck hurtles toward our planet, we are treated to a title stylised as to make you reminisce on film openings of a different era, the kind where a clean Times New Roman font would spread across the screen accompanied by music that Spielberg used to let audiences know that the journey was just beginning.
The Predator would have been better suited to the kind of soundtrack Micheal Bay would use.
After a spectacularly poorly animated crash landing in Central America, the resulting destruction sees sniper Quinn McKenna (played with dutiful dispassion by Boyd Holbrook) come into possession of several pieces of Predator technology after he accidentally incapacitates a Predator. Keenly aware of how his tale of alien ships will sound, Quinn attempts to keep the evidence by mailing the weapons and Predator helmet to his PO Box back home in the states. Thanks to unpaid post office bills, the dangerous goods wind up in the possession of his autistic son, Rory (Jacob Trembly) and estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski). Quinn is soon apprehended by a military force led by big bad Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who takes the Predator from the crash to a research facility in which he has recruited evolutionary biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) to investigate why the alien had returned to Earth.
This cacophony of plot threads isn’t even the entirety of it. A large portion of the film is dedicated to a literal boys club composed of misfit, military castoffs who will come to be a troop under Quinn in order to unravel a mysterious plot regarding the fate of humanity.
It’s not just that it feels like too much is happening, there is too much for the pacing required from an action blockbuster. Neither Black’s directorial choices, the frantic editing, nor the script, which Black co-wrote with Fred Dekker, allow for these discordant elements to fully tie together into a cohesive plot.
Characters are rice paper thin and bounce between scenes in accordance with the action set pieces rather than any discernible motivations save Quinn, whose desperate quest to rescue his son from the Predator hardly moves the needle. Which isn’t to give any credit to previous entries in the series, which all featured a similar array of cheesy, underwritten protagonists blasting through increasingly implausible stories.
However, The Predator seems to think that it is playing with those tropes, as opposed to falling prey to them more so than any other entry in the series (yes, even Alien Vs. Predator).
The Predator isn’t necessarily a complete slog. Certain scenes brim with a kind of infectious energy, primarily thanks to the films three MVPs, Munn, K. Brown and, of course, the Predator.
Munn brings the most to her role, deftly weaving through the less developed elements of her script with a likability that belongs to a leading role. Which is fortunate, given that The Predator has a strange relationship with its female characters. Munn’s Casey Bracket swings wildly between levels of competency depending on the scene and the only other primary speaking role for a woman is Quinn’s wife, a bare bones mother archetype that utterly wastes the talents of Strahovski.
The film would not have benefited from a more diverse range of characters, but even the ultra-macho-military identity it’s seeking is unrealised save for a few key performances. With a self-awareness reserved for the greats, K. Brown dominates the screen as the film’s antagonist, delivering a scenery-chewing performance that turns his cliched villain into a consistent delight to watch.
Most action sequences involving the big guy himself are also enjoyable enough, though occasionally the film’s CGI, and coherence, buckle under the weight of the obvious reshoots. Early on in the movie, a marvellous extended action piece takes place inside a secret military laboratory. During, we are treated to a bevvy of well-lit, full body shots of the alien hunter moving about and killing its prey. It’s a rare treat to see a Predator out of the shadows and without its helmet, so while this scene undoubtedly fits into the same schlocky tone as the rest of the film, it also provides some unbridled fun and is one of the few times The Predator finds its footing.
In contrast, toward the end of the second act, a literal dogfight plays out on the baseball pitch in which all of our protagonists go to war with three Predator Dogs (exactly as dumb as you’re imagining it), during which the visual effects of the film come completely undone as Quinn and friends shoot at things that would look at home in a PlayStation 3 game.
Those occasional highs don’t do much to mitigate the lows though. Amid the afterglow of the film’s few engaging moments, you’re still left with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction. Overarching script issues aside, The Predator fumbles the ball by attempting pseudo-commentary on social issues like mental health, military induced PTSD, and even global warming (yeah, that wasn’t a joke earlier). This tone isn’t to be dismissive of action films tackling issues heavier than their genre. Example, The Last Jedi took massive risks in bending the framework of a summer blockbuster to fit a meta-narrative commentary. But The Predator fails to do anything meaningful with its established issues. The autism of Quinn’s son is haphazardly tossed aside during the second act (this particular issue was made all the more confusing by the repeated use of ‘retarded’ as a slur), while the mental stability of the troop is played entirely for laughs – there’s even a particularly cringe-worthy Tourettes running gag.
Black’s haphazard filmmaking isn’t even the worst thing to emerge from The Predator production. Prior to the film’s release it was revealed that Black had hired a known sexual predator to act in the movie. Worse still, this only surfaced after Munn made a vocal stand against working with the offender, a stand which she had to take alone as the rest of the film’s cast, and Black, refused to make public comments on the situation. Black has since apologised for hiring the offender, with whom he has worked on several films and withheld information on, and a candid interview with Munn can be seen here for the full story.
Depending on where you stand, the most egregious sin committed by The Predator is that it is an exercise in tedium.
The film’s rapid pacing and cliched character work mesh together as well as you’d expect, as audiences are rarely left with a moment to breathe and take in anything that is happening. Given the calibre of storytelling on display, it’s maybe for the best. A couple of strong performances and the occasional taste of gleeful action are not enough to hold up the rest of the film which starts as it ends, a confusing mess of poor visual effects, incoherent editing, and the worst kind of schlock.
Paired with a halfhearted attempt at deconstructing action movie tropes, social stigmas, and the very real issues that have surfaced around the movie, the end result is a film that feels, frankly, predatory.