Wednesday 3 October 2018

The Predator | review by Rafe McGregor

Two lonely men too many…

Alien vs. Predator (2004, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson) confirmed that the Alien and Predator franchises (of four and two films respectively, at the time) were set in the same universe.  Although the first crossover and its sequel were both commercial successes, they were rightly panned by critics and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007, directed by Colin and Greg Strause) is the lowest-grossing film in both franchises (when adjusted for inflation).  I remember my initial reaction to news of the release of Alien vs. Predator being what’s the point, quickly followed by who are we supposed to root for?  There are deeper problems with the intersection of the two franchises, however, an essential incompatibility that may explain some of the artistic failures of both films. First, Alien (1979, directed by Ridley Scott) is a paradigmatic work of cinematic art, part of the canon of not just great science fiction, but great film. While the quality may have varied, all five of its sequels have retained the thematic complexity and stylistic sophistication of the original. In contrast, Predator (1987, directed by John McTiernan) is essentially an action spectacular, a testosterone-fuelled charge through the jungle terminating in an Arnie vs. alien duel to the death.  Second, the Alien franchise has employed a wide range of cinematic effects and techniques to represent a species at the very limits of human conception whereas the predators in the Predator franchise have (up until now) clearly been men in monster suits (Kevin Peter Hall, who stood at seven feet two inches, for the first two), an updated creature from the Black Lagoon with an anthropodic mandible that looks like it would be able to hold food as effectively as a dog’s dewclaw.

In other words, the Predator franchise has, at best, been the superficial, juvenile, and action-obsessed relative to the Alien franchise, neither striving for nor achieving the latter’s artistic or technical excellence. For all its simplicity, Predator was nonetheless very entertaining, deserving of its 80% on the Tomatometer with a narrative as strong and toned as Arnold Schwarzenegger and his musclebound henchmen. Predator 2 (1990, directed by Stephen Hopkins) brought the predator to the urban jungle, which seemed like a good idea, but was poorly-executed with curious decisions to use a dystopian futuristic Los Angeles as its setting and to replace Arnie with Danny Glover. Glover was an unlikely and unconvincing action hero, in the middle of his appearances as Roger Murtaugh – whose catchphrase was I’m too old for this shit – in the Lethal Weapon franchise. In consequence Predator 2 was also deserving of its Tomatometer score, a deplorable 27%.  The third film, Predators (2010, directed by Nimród Antal) returned to the rural jungle and the hunter-turned-hunted storyline of the first. Critical responses were better, with the Tomatometer raised to an acceptable 65%, but the plot was improbable, a duplication of the original that made little or no sense. Neither the belated decision to accord a female character a significant part (Isabelle, played by Alice Braga) nor the acting talents of Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne were sufficient to overcome Predators’ B-movie presentation, consolidated by a disappointing climax that was also a pale imitation of Predator.

20th Century Fox kept prospective audiences of The Predator in suspense pre-release, providing very little information beyond a return to Earth (true), another tough-guy protagonist (in a manner of speaking), and a promise to fill in the gaps between Predator 2 and Predators (false). The film is directed by Shane Black, who played the part of Rick Hawkins in Predator.  Black has previously directed the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the well-received Iron Man 3 (2013), and the entertaining but morally problematic The Nice Guys (2016). Perhaps Black was too comfortable with his multiple roles within the franchise – starring in the first and co-writing (with Fred Dekker) and directing the fourth – but after three successful outings as a director, he has crashed and burned on the fourth. The Predator is by far the worst film of the franchise to date, including the disastrous crossovers (scoring 20% and 11% on the Tomatometer respectively). Crashing and burning is where the narrative begins, with a premise that is plausible if not particularly imaginative. The predator species is evolving such that an internecine conflict is raging between their equivalents of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. At an unspecified time, which seems close to the near-future of Predator 2, one of the former crash-lands on earth in the middle of a US special forces team’s hostage rescue operation in an unspecified Latin American country. The team’s captain, Quinn McKenna (played by Boyd Holbrook), is the sole survivor of the encounter, escaping, evading, and mailing the alien’s helmet to his estranged wife in order to provide evidence for the inquiry to come.  The story then switches to Quinn’s young son, Rory (played by Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autistic spectrum but has an eidetic memory and a genius for languages. Despite the segue facilitated by the mailing of the helmet, I did wonder why anyone thought a depiction of troubled childhood had a place in a science fiction thriller and the scene does indeed herald some of the many problems that follow.

There is nothing wrong with genre braiding, blending, or bending, but a film that tries to be all things to all audiences runs the risk of substantive incoherence. Black has mixed science fiction, action adventure, family drama, gross-out horror, and comedy and the mélange is as messy and self-contradictory as the list implies. The comedy is especially poor and the fact that it is initiated when Quinn is placed on a bus full of mentally-disabled veterans is indicative of its taste and wit. It is also indicative of the many inconsistencies of the film: we are invited to sympathise with some mentally disabled people (Rory), but to laugh at others (the five veterans).  The comedy is further diminished by numerous in-jokes (many of which were lost on me), but the film also fails as a parody. Aside from the genre chaos, The Predator stages a shocking waste of talent. Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jayne are all accomplished actors yet they deliver dialogue that aspires to be cringeworthy. There is also an apparently appalling absence of expert advice on subjects crucial to the plot (I use the term loosely), including (but unfortunately not limited to) biology, linguistics, aerodynamics, and military hardware and etiquette. Yes, I know it’s fiction and science fiction at that, but one cannot choose what does and doesn’t pass through one’s bowels and university professors are not trained to use automatic weapons. Dr Casey Bracket (played by Olivia Munn) is not only handy in a gunfight, but can survive a tranquiliser dose designed for a predator and run as fast as a spaceship can crash-land. I must have missed those courses on the last staff training day. Somehow, The Predator has managed a wildly exaggerated 34% on the Tomatometer. A far better indication of its artistic and entertainment value is that my fellow film nerd and I were the only two people in the movie theatre… we were two lonely men too many*

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