An over-the-top ode to 87’s majesty.
Predator, one half of the galaxy’s most feared and fierce monsters, first appeared on our screens in 1987, going toe-to-toe with Earth’s hardest man, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since then, the beast is a fan-favourite, spawning two sequels, and a spin-off with its natural foe, the Xenomorph from Alien. The Predators are back now though (they’re more like hunters as they kill for sport) after an eight-year hiatus, but this time being helmed by franchise veteran Shane Black. More known for his directorial and writing efforts (The Nice Guys, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), he actually starred in the original film. So, is he the perfect man for the job? In many ways yes; he brings a pulpy, over-the-top, intestine-soaked goodness, as well as some hilariously un-PC humour to the script. But he strangely falls into many amateurish pitfalls along the way.
Opening with wide-skied, smug credits that are very clearly reminiscent of Predator‘s initial shots, we’re soon introduced to Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a sniper whose unit is decimated by a frightening, helmeted, “alien Whoopi Goldberg” – a Predator. He takes some of the alien tech from the scene to hold as proof when he’s inevitably branded a loony. He posts it to a secure safety deposit box, but due to missed payments, the package ends up at his home address, where his son (Jacob Tremblay) gets hold of it.
Tremblay’s character is a real problem in The Predator.The issue isn’t that he’s autistic -look at other films that are handled wonderfully well, and tastefully (Rain Man, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). It’s the fact its nature as a plot point is so unnecessary and shoehorned, exercised in a way to simply make it seem ‘cool’. Tremblay’s character manages to understand the Predators’ language easily, accessing and using their weapons and control systems without ease. He could have just been written as a super intelligent kid, but Black and Fred Dekker, the writing pair on the feature, take repeated times to brand the child as a ‘retard’ – the inclusion of this kind of insanely inappropriate language isn’t within the context of a parable on acceptance, or reform, or anything meaningful; a character just splutters it out, like a nonplussed scoff, and I’m still trying to work out why they thought it was a good idea to head in that direction.
After a Predatorial ambush which leaves many a classically skinned body and sends McKenna on a Jackassian tumble down a hill, he upends expectations and uses one of the enemy’s gadgets to escape, which was pretty refreshing. Then, his son accidentally sends off a signal which lets a “big boy” Ultimate Predator know where to go. But the plot isn’t just as simple as the ol’ cat and mouse you would expect from the franchise. You can feel Black’s passion and enduring love for the mythos of the monsters bleeding through the (overly expository) scenes – the story he’s crafted is an intriguing one, which still retains the hunting metaphor (Humans hunt animals for fun, Predators hunt humans for fun, yada, yada), but has some interesting comments to make about biological manipulation.
What Black has done is strip away the suspense, almost entirely removing the horror element, opting for high gross-out action rather than scares. A lot of other things remain though, such as the hardy group of military misfits, although they’re nowhere near as hilariously macho as our original soldiers who famously “ain’t got time to bleed”. A terrifically zany Thomas Jane is a personal highlight, afflicted by Tourettes which is manipulated in the exact way you expect. Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes is on board as one of the less maniacal members of the squad which McKenna has to eventually lead to find the titular monster. Olivia Munn isn’t part of the team initially, playing a biologist who’s brought in to examine a captured Predator. Her backstory is frustratingly vague, and she’s fed some really, really atrocious dialogue, the absolute worst being, “You’re one beautiful motherfucker” – yawn. Black’s throwbacks to where it all began sometimes work, for example, Henry Jackman’s score euphorically uses the same high-tempo classic tune from the original, but there are a few lines (including a “Get to the chopper”) which do not land at all. Strange, considering Black is most widely lauded for his aptitude as a witty, fresh pen.
The superstar of the ensemble is far and away Keegan-Michael Key, a naturally talented comic performer who evokes laughs as easily as a Predator removes a head. Constantly bursting with a loveable energy, even the most off-colour jokes are lifted by his spunky personality. The film thankfully takes place at a relatively breakneck pace, never spending too long between chases and slaughterings. The violence is ultra in the sort of chuckle-inducing, goretastic way. Superbly and deliciously over-the-top. That is until Black descends down the treacherous path of using way too much CGI in a clumsy third act, that focuses heavily on the Ultimate Predator. The villain is a cool idea, but the blending of the generated and the physical effects isn’t smooth or balanced enough, and ultimately, the inclusion of the him in most of the recent marketing was probably a huge mistake. The direction is relatively smooth, although the action scenes can suffer from that annoying shaky cam, editing technique a little, whereas more domestic or less frantic moments are far more polished. There is an overwhelmingly gorgeous shot around halfway through where a Predator emerges from a ship, envisioned almost poetically by cinematographer Larry Fong. He has a hand in a few other poignant scenes, but they are few and far between.