The original 1987 Predator is a masterpiece, and I will hear nothing to the contrary. It is the absolute peak of 1980s cheesy machismo and testosterone-soaked, nonsensical action and bloody, over-the-top violence, yet somehow at the same time manages to be genuinely suspenseful and engaging, and wholly unique in the genre. It works on the same principal as its earlier genre cousin, Alien, in that it knows when to tease the titular creature, and when to finally reveal it to the audience for maximum effect. In this same vein, it also knows that the less the audience knows about it, the more effective it is as an antagonist. As a result, Predator is not only a classic action film, but a sci-fi and horror film as well. Not to mention, it has some of the most quotable dialogue in movie history (“Get to the chopper?” “If it bleeds, we can kill it?” “Goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus?”), as well as the single greatest handshake in to ever grace the big screen.
The Predator franchise even has a leg up over Alien, in that it never really hit a low point (for the sake of this argument, I’m electing to ignore both Alien vs Predator films, because as far as I’m convinced, they’re completely non-canon). Sure, Predator 2 is nowhere near as good as its predecessor, but it’s still a fun movie that expands upon the original’s basic concept in a logical and interesting new way. Despite its completely undeserved 28% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s still, in my opinion, leagues ahead of the train wreck that is Alien 3. And 2010’s Predators really stepped the game up in terms of the sci-fi aspect of the series, taking the audience off-world for the first time in a worthy successor to the original film. So, at least to me, the franchise has been relatively solid since the beginning, thanks mostly to the genius simplicity of the concept that it’s built around: A race of aliens that hunt humans for sport. There’s really not a lot of ways you can mess that up or over-complicate that.
You would think, at least. Unfortunately, Shane Black’s latest installment in the extraterrestrial big-game hunting series, The Predator, seems not to have gotten that memo. I had such high hopes for this movie, given Black’s previous track record. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys were both criminally underrated, hilariously tongue-in-cheek crime movies, and his Iron Man 3 is among one of the most unique films in the entire MCU tonally. He’s also responsible for writing films like Lethal Weapon and The Last Action Hero, so he should have, theoretically, been the perfect choice to bring the franchise back for modern audiences, while still keeping the 80s flair of the original. Not to mention, HE WAS IN THE ORIGINAL PREDATOR MOVIE. If ANYONE should have an understanding of not only the franchise and how to approach it, it’s Shane Black. Yet, Black stumbles and misses the mark by a pretty substantial distance.
The plot is incredibly not only incredibly uninspired, it blatantly spits in the face of the previous Predator films, to the point where the titular hunters may as well not even be the same characters anymore. The film involves a renegade predator heading to Earth to deliver a gift to mankind, in the hopes that they can then use it to fight back against the rest of the Predator species when they inevitably come to claim the planet for themselves. The main character, an admittedly charismatic and entertaining Boyd Holbrook, stumbles upon the wreckage of the rebel, and finds himself on the run from not only the Super Predator tasked with retrieving and destroying the gift, but a shady government agency as well. Along the way, he teams up with a scientist, played (for some reason) by Olivia Munn, as well as a ragtag group of mentally unstable ex-military guys. The film leads into a race to save Holbrook’s autistic son, who the Predators want to take as a specimen because autism, Munn’s character so casually mentions, is “the next stage in human evolution,” and the boy is “a true warrior” because of it.
There’s a lot to unpack here, obviously, but, to start with, let’s discuss how the film uses the title creatures. Firstly, the idea that a Predator wants to help mankind defeats pretty much undermines their entire role in the franchise as brutal, yet honorable sport-hunters. They’ve shown signs of respect for worthy opponents in past films, but have never done anything to suggest that they are in any way heroic or benevolent. Even the film itself seems confused by this, as the supposedly helpful Predator who comes bearing the gift kills a frankly ridiculous number of innocent people. If it’s so interested in helping us, you’d think it would hold off on the skinning and decapitation for a bit. Secondly, the Predators have always been tribal hunters, not planet-conquerors. By having them suddenly be militaristic invaders, rather than solitary gamesmen, you take away the one thing that made them unique in a sea of other similar science fiction depictions of alien life. The Predator works as a species, and a character, because it doesn’t have a War of the Worlds/Independence Day plan for world domination. It just wants trophies, which is both incredibly badass and highly original as a concept.
This leads me to another problem the film has with its depiction of the titular hunters: The Super Predator. This is the main antagonist of the film, and is the Predator tasked with retrieving the device that the earlier renegade smuggles to Earth. And honestly, it’s just the worst. It’s entirely CGI, so it looks like a Playstation 3 cutscene next to the real, practical effects used to bring its smaller counterpart to life. It’s also completely redundant narratively. Robert Rodriguez’s 2010 Predators already used the idea of a larger, superior race of Predators, to much greater effect. Predators featured a clan of slightly larger, more brutal Predators who were identified as a warring sub-species, hunting their smaller cousins in an intergalactic race-war/blood-feud. This works in the context of the greater mythology of the franchise, as it jives perfectly with the brutal, tribal warfare that we’ve seen the species exhibit before. Now, however, we’re told that this particular specimen is the result of genetic hybridization, combining the traits of all the species that the Predators hunt. In fact, whenever a Predator takes the spines of their victims, they aren’t being claimed as trophies, but rather as samples of genetic material, which pretty much directly contradicts the other three films, and again reduces the role of the creatures to nothing more than cliché alien experimenters, rather than noble hunters.
Shane Black’s particular style of filmmaking also seems completely inconsistent tonally with the previous three films. While its predecessors all have moments of levity, as all horror films do, The Predator takes it a step further and seems to be a full-on comedy. Seriously, from the opening scene all the way through the climax, the film is nothing but joke after joke. Every serious moment in the movie, every emotional beat, every suspenseful encounter or tense action sequence is completely undermined by terrible one-liners or visual gags. In fact, I’m pretty much 100% positive that almost every supporting character was written just as sources of comedic relief. One has Tourette’s, so of course the film just uses him to shout obscenities every 30 seconds or so, which is an absolute waste of Thomas Jane. And it’s not like Black doesn’t know how to time comedy properly. His past filmography is made up of almost exclusively films with a strong black comedy flavor to them. Yet with this, he abandons all subtlety and instead opts to just keep throwing shallow, weak jokes at the audience, regardless of whether or not they stick.
To me, this is an example of getting something that the first Predator film did perfectly and intelligently incredibly wrong this go around. Predator came out in 1987, right on the heels of the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone action movie craze. It very cleverly used those expected tropes against the audience, even going so far as to cast Schwarzenegger himself. It sets itself up as another run of the mill buff-men-shooting-things-in-the-jungle movie, yet quickly turns audience expectations upside down by having them all brutally slaughtered. Likewise, The Predator finds itself in the same era of the Superhero Film, where franchises like the MCU have taken to utilizing comedy as a critical component in their construction. Yet, rather than doing taking that idea and flipping it like the original, Black’s installment instead embraces it head-on, leaving it completely incompatible with the rest of the franchise in both tone and atmosphere. The film could have easily set itself up as a comedic science-fiction film, and then veer into horror, surprising audiences and knocking them off their balance. Instead, it stagnates, and tries to paint itself as an Avengers-esque light-hearted romp. Which, of course, doesn’t work with brutal, sociopathic alien murder machines.
One of the biggest problems I had with The Predator, on a technical level, was how the action was presented. Check out this scene from the original Predator:
Even in a moment full of chaos and violence, the film still is easy to follow. We can easily see who’s shooting, where they are, and who they are. It’s well lit, too, making it extremely clear to the viewer what’s happening. And all of Predator is presented like this, even nighttime scenes. It’s one of the most visually coherent action movies of all time, despite the fact that its antagonist is invisible through much of the film, a testament to John McTiernan’s expert direction. Shane Black’s newest installment, however, could not be more different. It has some of the most incoherent, chaotic action I’ve ever seen on screen in a theater before. And I’ve seen all five Transformers movies. The film is dark, to the point where I thought something was wrong with the theater’s projector. The action scenes are sloppily edited, full of inexplicably mirrored shots and quick cuts, with a lot of the main action out of center frame. There’s an encounter early in the film with the Super Predator’s alien hunting dogs (another redundancy, having already been done, differently, in Predators) where I genuinely couldn’t tell you what happened. Even worse, the always entertaining Sterling K. Brown, who plays the human antagonist in the film, gets killed so quickly and so randomly that I legitimately didn’t understand how it happened until someone explained it on Reddit later that night.
There’s so much more I want to complain about, from the film’s complete misunderstanding of autism to the absolutely ridiculous reveal that the rebel Predator’s “gift” to mankind was a suit of what is essentially Iron Man armor dubbed “the Predator Killer,” but honestly, it’s too frustrating to even discuss. With Shane Black’s directorial style and the sheer conceptual potential of the Predator franchise, this film should’ve been an absolute knock-out. But instead, it’s one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, and is hands-down Black’s weakest by far. This movie make Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom look like The Godfather by comparison. Seriously, just wait until this is out online and pirate it while drinking heavily. Don’t waste the money. As much as it breaks my heart to say it, maybe it’s time for the Predator to give up the hunt for good this time.