Trophies and Atrophy
(Yes, my parole has come through unexpectedly early! Possibly to the Editor's chagrin, who was looking forward to another month of having copy filed well in advance...)
Just before I went off on this most recent trip, I made a stern promise to myself that I would stay strong, hold fast, remember my principles and not go to see any new movies dubbed into Russian no matter how much I regretted not being in the UK to see them. As it turned out, the only one that even came close to testing my resolve was Shane Black's The Predator. There is some historical irony to this, as one of the films which led me to swear off the whole dubbed experience was watching Alien Vs Predator: Requiem in Italy, ten years ago. What can I say, I must just be a sucker for the Predator franchise.
Further proof is lent by the fact that, finding myself back in Britain, the very first film I trundled along to see was Black's new offering, the fourth in the series – or possibly the sixth, depending on how you feel about those little-loved Alien cross-overs. Well, I say little-loved, but one of the weird things about the Predator franchise is that it seems to go on and on and on without ever making a film which is actually, um, much good or especially popular. The last (and indeed only) Predator film generally agreed to have any significant quality to it came out in 1987, which was so long ago that the likes of Emma Stone, Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Lawrence were not even born at the time (Jason Statham was 19), that the Tory party was still winning sizeable UK majorities, and that Donald Trump had yet to go bankrupt even once. Possibly only Highlander is a better example of something that was mildly popular a long time ago managing to hang on seemingly indefinitely, more like a cockroach infestation than an actual franchise.
The movie opens in the traditional fashion with a Predator arriving on Earth, in Mexico (presumably a deliberate call-back to the original film, but who knows), and thus spoiling the evening of US special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose mission is thrown into chaos. McKenna manages to lay his hands on some of the alien's kit, which he promptly posts off to his ex-wife and son (as you would), before he is grabbed by shadowy government types and thrown in a rubber hospital to ensure his silence. Meanwhile, biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is recruited by the same agency to investigate some strange anomalies discovered by an examination of the Predator, whom they have managed to capture.
Well, it's all going reasonably well (for the shadowy government types at least), until another starship shows up. The captured Pred takes advantage of the panic and confusion this causes and busts out, heading off in search of its purloined equipment. In pursuit of the creature are Bracket and McKenna, the latter having teamed up with a busload of wacky army veterans suffering from various psychiatric disorders. The hunter has become the hunted! Although, to be strictly accurate, the hunters hunting the hunter are also themselves the objects of some hunting from another hunter. What could be simpler?
'A very large number of things' would be an honest answer. It is slightly baffling that they have gone for this particular story for the new film, especially given that it's the work of someone with at least a passing connection with the original (good) Predator movie – Shane Black had a small role back in 1987 as the first member of Arnold Schwarzenegger's team to get disembowelled. The thing about the first Predator is that it is a deceptively simple story – sure, there's a not-very-deeply-buried subtext about the Vietnam War, but mainly it's about tough guys in extremis, in fear for their lives as they are picked off one by one by a terrifying and mysterious alien force. It's a great SF-action-horror movie, but how are you supposed to come up with a sequel to it that isn't just an empty retread?
They have, of course, had several goes at finding a follow-up to that classic Predator hunts people in a jungle scenario: Predator hunts people in a city, to start off with, followed by Predator hunts Aliens at the South Pole, then Predator hunts especially disgusting Aliens in small-town America, and finally Predator hunts a bunch of people on a fairly boring alien planet. Most of the preceding films are really not very good, but they are still easier to summarise than the new one, which is never knowingly under-plotted and seems to be deeply conflicted about the idea of letting the Predator ever actually do any hunting. For most of the film the only reference to this is a running gag about how the Predator is really badly named, as it actually behaves more like a trophy-bagging sports hunter than an actual predator in the biological sense – it's a typically smart and cynical Shane Black line, but comes perilously close to the film sending itself up.
You really do get a sense of a film scrabbling around trying to find new ideas to justify its existence. Too often these come at the expense of demystifying the creatures too much, of explaining things which really did not require an explanation in the first place. There doesn't need to be a particular reason why the various Predators have been so keen on extracting their targets' spinal columns: it's just a memorably scary piece of imagery. The pleasures of the Predator franchise are largely superficial anyway – once you dispense with Arnie as the leading man, you're basically left with a banging theme tune (which gets played rather a lot in this film, especially when you consider its composer isn't that prominently credited) and a cool monster suit. Fiddly plotting and complicated back-stories do not really find a natural home in this series.
Nor, to be perfectly honest, does Shane Black's particular brand of humour. Here he is working with his regular partner Fred Dekker and the usual sort of scabrous, fast-talking, profane dialogue peppers the movie – if you've seen The Nice Guys or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you will know what I mean (there are also some quite good pieces of physical comedy, too). But the kind of knowing and tongue-in-cheek humour that worked so well in one of Black's detective comedies or in Iron Man 3 (one of the very few Marvel movies to attempt to succeed through wit rather than spectacle and actually succeed) always feels in danger of toppling the film over into camp or self-parody, which may be why the script is relatively restrained here: a lot of the film just feels like by-the-numbers action movie machismo. It's almost a shame, because more and better jokes might have made up for some of the clunkier exposition.
My instinct would be to say that, despite some good moments and interesting ideas, The Predator is a bit of a dud and unlikely to do much for the fortunes of this particular franchise: I might even suggest the films are getting worse, the stories withering away as the scripts run out of ideas. But then I would have said the same, if not much worse, about all the other sequels, and yet here we still are. I guess this is just the kind of film which will always make money, provided they don't go too mad on the budget – and there's no reason why they should; past releases seems to have proven that these films don't need star names to make a profit. If so, then it is a shame that they can't push the boat out and come up with a more interesting script, because I'm tempted to say that if Shane Black can't come up with a more entertaining and engaging Predator movie than this one, I doubt anybody can.