REVIEW: Predator is losing its teeth
Disclaimer: “The Predator” is an R-rated film. It features strong language and strong bloody violence. Many crude jokes and references are also made throughout. A young boy is put in danger several times. Not recommended for anyone who has a strong aversion to seeing these things represented on film.
A Spotty Record
The “Predator” franchise has been around since June 1987. That’s over 30 years of history in popular culture across what is now six films (four mainline entries and two “Alien v Predator” films which will not be mentioned again in this review). Among those films, only the ’87 original is generally thought of favorably, and for good reason. The movie centers around a band of beefed-up dudes led by a prime Arnold Schwarzenegger getting hunted by an alien in the jungle. What’s not to like?
Actually, there could be a lot to dislike, but it overcomes those things by embracing its campiness and adding in legitimate suspense. It takes itself seriously but is chock-full of classic one liners and iconic moments that stand the test of time. The original is a silly good time supported by solid effects and a fantastic creature. Since 1987, the series has faltered time and time again, yet it always manages to find its way back.
The question now is whether or not writer/director Shane Black (“Iron Man 3”) gives the series a follow-up that finally lives up to its iconic status.
My answer: Eh.
A fair amount is good in “The Predator,” and I think it is important to note the things that make this Predator movie succeed where others failed.
For one, they have finally (mostly) done away with the basic formula. Up to this point, all core Predator films have had the same basic construct: a group of hardened soldiers* have to survive a deadly alien, known as a Predator, who is hunting them for sport. Periodically the individual team members get picked off one-by-one until there’s only a couple left (the main tough-guy and whichever actress they’ve thrown into the cast). The woman runs off somewhere, is paralyzed or is pregnant. The main tough-guy then takes on the Predator, man-vs-alien, to win the day.
While it does still follow the prototypical group of soldiers, “The Predator” reserves this formula exclusively for the last act of the film, allowing our heroes to run around neighborhoods and government facilities being chased by and chasing the alien threat. I like the basic story of a renegade Predator crash landing on Earth; that it is actually being hunted by a larger, stronger Predator is an interesting twist. The shift is a simple enough, but it makes things fresh for people who have grown tired of a narrative that wasn’t even very original back in 1987.
Another aspect that puts this a cut above the other sequels in the franchise is the overall change in tone. The series has had a rough time detaching itself from the original film, each one trying to recapture the original’s essence and each one failing.
“The Predator,” on the other hand, has a completely different feel to it, and it's refreshing to see it be its own thing. While every movie in the franchise feels a desperate need to repeat all the iconic lines, this one at least puts some clever spins on it, which applies generally to most of the movie’s approach to the franchise.
*In “Predator 2,” they’re technically cops, but they turned LA into a gang war zone in that movie, so it’s close enough.
If the original “Predator” is the “iconic” one, “Predator 2” is the “ridiculous" one and “Predators” is the “dull” one, then “The Predator” will certainly be known as the “funny” one.
Humor is the film's distinctive character trait. For fans of writer/director Shane Black, this should come as no surprise. His staple is dark, crude yet witty comedy. His style frequently subverts a dramatic moment or highlights the idiosyncrasies of human behavior, often in a shocking and occasionally mocking way. His brand of humor is one that I subscribe to heartily, but it does tend to overwhelm and become the defining quality of whatever film it is. This style fits fantastically with his original films, such as his excellent “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Nice Guys,” but it can be a distraction when his films are supposed to fit into a larger universe.
This does play heavily into “The Predator,” and the film feels like an action-comedy, betraying its purely action roots. The film is admittedly very funny. It made me laugh a number of times, but the film is also brutally violent.
The reliance on comedy sucks the wind out of the intensity of the moment on a regular basis. Instead of the usual trend of a “comic-relief” character, basically every character is cracking jokes or creating humorous situations. If somebody can make a joke, that joke is made—and it seems that somebody can always make a joke. Thanks to this, the movie feels rather trite. Not that it can’t be funny, but it should not come at the cost of any and all suspense.
Boyd Holbrook ("Logan") leads the cast with Olivia Munn ("X-Men: Apocalypse"), Jacob Tremblay ("Room"), and Trevante Rhodes ("Moonlight"). Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Sterling K. Brown, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, and Yvonne Strahovski round out the impressive cast.
The solid cast does add a lot to the experience. Holbrook and Rhodes stand out, bringing a healthy dose of charisma to their gruff soldier characters. Munn gets a more significant and involved role than she’s played in the past, as a biologist who seems the most determined to track down and study the Predator. Seeing that she's definitely no damsel-in-distress is refreshing. Tremblay continues to be adept at playing anomalous children, this time portraying a young boy with Asperger's.
The rest of the cast is made up of several similarly characterized funny-yet-damaged soldier types, some dastardly government/corporate bosses, and an assortment of eccentric goons whose sole purposes are to be Predator fodder.
The real star of the show in every Predator movie is the Predator itself. It's a terrific creature design, and the practical effects hold up to add substance to the tangibility of the character’s struggle across the series. Truly intimidating and cool, the Predator is the primary selling point for all of these movies.
This point leads me to perhaps my biggest problem with “The Predator,” which is, unfortunately, the Predator itself. For a time, the film deals with a standard Predator as we’ve seen many times—but at some point, the decision was made that the tried-and-true Predator wasn’t good enough. It swaps out the classic alien for some beefed-up CGI version.
I suppose it was only a matter of time. In fact, they even introduced some alternate larger Predator in “Predators,” but that’s nothing compared to this. This new Predator comes across as just some generic CGI monster to be killed rather than a strategic hunter to be feared, and for a franchise that so heavily relies on its creature, it’s disappointing to see it take such bland shape.
“The Predator” is a successfully diverting yet ultimately disappointing movie-going experience. It packs very little punch, and the shameless sequel set-up at the end leaves a sour taste. The abundant violence is underwhelmed by the lack of tension brought about by an over-reliance on off-kilter humor and underdeveloped characters.
While refreshing in tone, “The Predator” still suffers from being too enamored with the iconic original, which continues to be the only reason this franchise still has relevance 30 years on. This new addition to the franchise is definitely the best of the sequels, but the series as a whole feels stretched thin.
If you’re a fan of the franchise or just interested in seeing this, I’d wait for it to leave theaters. If you have no investment in this franchise and are just looking for something to see, other films are a better use of your money (such as “Searching,” which you should go see instead).
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references.
Runtime: 1hr 47min