The Predator is back in writer-director Shane Black’s addition to a franchise. Boyd Holbrook and Olivia Munn lead a ragtag group of military misfits when a super-charged alien creature begins stalking an autistic young boy.
For fans of the original 1987 Predator, writer-director Shane Black wastes no time informing us this sequel is going to deliver little of what made the Schwarzenegger-fronted horror-action-sci-fi hybrid such a riotous joy.
The first minute sees alien spacecraft in a galactic dogfight with laser cannons firing like some teatime edition of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A split in space (a black hole type of thing) witnesses one of the spacecraft appear in earth’s orbit, hurtling to the ground with a smoke trail in its wake. We’ve had more special effects in 90 seconds than the entirety of Predator and Predator 2 put together.
Black, who made one of Marvel’s best films in Iron Man 3, seems stuck in comic book movie mode. It worked for Downey Jr. and co., but an injection of camp into this franchise appears oddly displaced, turning one of science-fiction cinema’s iconic villains into a cookie-cutter bad guy, one more easily mocked than feared.
Black, who as a writer and director hasn’t put a foot wrong in a career featuring Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, felt like, if not the readymade filmmaker to add to the long gestating Predator franchise, a curiously intriguing choice. He is after all the actor who played Hawkins in John McTiernan’s original as one of muscular hero Arnold Schwarzenegger’s military companions.
No film has really come close to realising the atmospheric, cloying tension of Predator; its isolated sense of hopelessness peeling at the layers of the buffed machismo on display. That stage made its fittingly disorientating, fast paced action sequences more exciting, and its chief antagonist – an armoured alien on the hunt for human foe – more threatening. Black saw all this first hand. He loved it. And he wanted to make a movie that befitted such qualities. At least, I thought he did.
The end result is a surprise. But not in the sense of “oh, I wasn’t expecting that” surprising, rather, “really, is that it?”. The Predator, written with co-scribe John Dekker (who did a few cult 80s hits in his heyday such as The Monster Squad), couldn’t be further removed from McTiernan’s 1987 effort. In fact, given Black’s approach here, it borders on being the first comedy Predator movie.
Seriously, the film chucks so many gags at the audience I wondered if I was watching a fan-made recut of the movie with some choice re-dubs and clever shot rearrangement. But it wasn’t. This is the movie the studio intended us to see. And it’s disappointing. Very disappointing.
It’s a version of this franchise for the comic book movie age: lots of special effects, few pauses between light-show action sequences, a handy dose of bathos. Black is so stuck in Iron Man 3 mode that he even throws in an off putting, ill-conceived reference to those heroes who wear military grade suits to do their bit for world safety.
The film’s lack of plot logic is perhaps less damning than its throwaway dialogue designed to raise a smile but ultimately serves only to sour any tension The Predator manages to create. Unlike the unsettling proposition faced by Arnie in Predator and Danny Glover’s LA cop in Predator 2, Black’s creatures are mildly diverting circus acts shorn of menace.
I’d like to say the human fodder is more interesting. But it isn’t. Black assembles a group of military convicts – a mishmash of egos clamouring for screen time – whose survival you care little about. Boyd Holbrook as Quinn McKenna is the film’s principle hero, and he puts together this sorry band of mercenaries into a rogue Predator-hunting crew. An attempted backstory about marriage estrangement and a distant relationship with his autistic son gives the character a little meat on its bones even if it fails to really emotionally resonate when his young boy becomes the alien’s target.
Issues are more glaring as the film jumps from one act to the next, the motives of all concerned lost amongst the bullets and gags. The script from Dekker and Black is poor – the fat hasn’t been trimmed, there’s a distinct lack of dramatic invention, an imbalance in tone, and a seeming clash of different ideas constructed into a malfunctioning hole. It comes as no surprise to learn test screenings caused the entire third act to be re-shot.
Olivia Munn, as evolutionary biology professor Dr. Casey Bracket, is The Predator’s only shining light. A sprightly performance from the talented actor, Munn gives the film a healthy dose of female brains and brawn. There’s still nagging annoyances (like her sudden transformation from classroom-bound academic into acrobatic, gun-toting “super-woman”) but it befits this comic book world Black seems to preference. Within those constraints, Munn stands out, and as a consequence she’s involved in most of The Predator’s better moments. It’s a shame, however, that these are few and far between.
Within the wider cinematic universe concerning this particular malevolent extra-terrestrial, you can’t help but compare the film to its forebears. As part of the story’s chronology, it is a sequel to Predator 2 (with Jake Busey playing the son of his real life father’s character in that film) with references made to events that took place in the series’ first two instalments (with Predators, and Alien versus Predator 1 and 2 being related but not directly relevant additional feature length chapters).
When all the film’s are considered, what’s disconcerting is the fact The Predator ranks alongside AvP II, the unwanted child of the franchise and its most despised entry. Unlike the clear-eyed construction of the rest, The Predator, like AvP II, appears built around the needs of anonymous test audiences rather than any sort of organic vision Black may or may not have had when he took on the project.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Fred Dekker, Shane Black
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane
Released: 2018 / Genre: Action/Horror/Sci-Fi
Country: USA / IMDB
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The Predator is available on 4K, Blu-ray & DVD from January 28 and on Digital January 11.