Scalding Hot Takes: The Predator
Low expectations are underrated, and, in my case, necessary. I know I have benefitted tremendously from low expectations throughout the course of my career. My specialty is writing about entertainment deemed worthless, if not a crime against art and also humanity. So with me, the question is generally less, “Is this any good?” but rather “Could this possibly be as bad as everyone says it is?”
When you come at movies from that perspective, it’s easier to find meaning and value in things society as a whole has overwhelmingly found meaningless and without redeeming value. But low expectations serve other purposes as well. Constantly bracing yourself for life’s never-ending assaults on your dignity and self-worth can make those everyday indignities a little easier to bear, or at least a little less soul-shattering.
I cut way down on hope and optimism and expecting things to succeed a few years back and it’s helped me survive. You’ve got to survive if you hope to someday thrive.
Low expectations have also helped me appreciate motion pictures like Shane Black’s The Predator. It’s a movie I have been eagerly anticipating since it was announced, not because I’m a fan of Predator as a franchise but rather because I sincerely dig Black as a filmmaker. Then came the reviews and those sky-high expectations became exceedingly modest as critics and the public responded to Black’s re-imagining of the classic franchise about the scary alien hunter who comes to earth with a few days to kill with an indifferent shrug.
The Predator currently “enjoys” a less than stellar 34 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it has an almost mediocre score of 49 on Metacritic. The word of mouth has been equally anemic so I did not expect much from Black’s latest directorial effort.
In his younger days, Black acted in the original Predator. He returned to the series with few promising ideas. The first was to make The Predator a 1980s-style creature feature combining the extra-terrestrial and the poignantly mundane about an earth child who forms a connection with an otherworldly being. His life is changed forever in the process.
According to Hollywood lore, and by “Hollywood lore” I mean “the trivia section for E.T on IMDB”, Spielberg got the general idea for the movie from a subplot for an un-filmed John Sayles’ screenplay about an alien invasion called Night Skies about the friendship that develops between an autistic boy and a friendly alien.
That served as the seed that eventually flowered into E.T. and parallels The Predator’s core relationship between a Predator with a soft spot for humanity and Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay), a boy who is bullied for having Asperger’s but who turns out to be a super-mega-ultra genius with intelligence from beyond the stars, literally, when he comes in contact with some fearsome Predator alien technology that transforms his sleepy suburb into a war zone once some not so nice Predators come looking for it.
I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way in the forty or so years since a subplot in an abandoned script inspired one of the best loved and highest grossing films of all time in terms of how characters with Autism or Asperger’s are depicted onscreen but I’m not so sure.
Rory is undoubtedly brilliant and heroic but movies like this that depict atypical characters as something approaching superhuman end up depriving them of their humanity just the same as movies that depict them as less than, or inferior do. Black and co-writer Fred Dekker, who once upon a time wrote a very different movie about encounters between monsters and kids in 1987’s The Monster Squad find a new wrinkle in the hoary cliche about people on the autism spectrum being innate prodigies at math and technology and everything involving numbers and science (AKA things that terrify me nearly as much as Donald Trump does) by making him a precocious super-genius at alien technology as well.
Just as babies can figure out how to use smart phones faster than senior citizens, Rory instinctively knows just what to do with the high-tech weaponry from outer space his super-soldier dad sends him after just barely surviving an encounter with a dreadlocked space alien. Rory fits snugly into the ubiquitous stereotype that people with autism are otherworldly savants uniquely tuned into a world of numbers and science imperceptible to the rest of us.
Black’s other big ideas for reinventing Predator involve digging deeper into the world of Predators by introducing a much bigger, much fiercer sort of super-predator so enormous and ferocious it makes the predators of the previous films seem diminutive and milquetoast by comparison and having a bus full of soldiers with mental problems do battle with soldiers from outer space.
These elements are less successfully executed. The Predator is not anywhere near as bad as I had feared but it’s also not Black working at the apex of his ability. The ideas are, for the most part, solid and while sometimes the execution is inspired it often leaves much to be desired.
Everything involving the soldiers with “wacky” PTSD, for example, feels groaningly over-familiar and while Holbrook doesn’t humiliate himself as the head bad dude out to kill him an alien he won’t make anyone forget the star of the original Predator. Big fella. Lot of muscles. European, I think. Hard to pronounce his last name, which escapes me at the moment. Dolph Lundgren? No, that’s not right. Hopefully it’ll come to me by the end of the article. Starred in Jingle All the Way? Married Maria Shriver. Fathered Patrick Schwarzenegger and a love child with his nanny?
The bus of “crazies” that take on the Predator is full of warmed over stock characters ubiquitous in World War II movies, like Coyle (Keegan Michael-Key), the joker of the group, who has a wisecrack and a one-liner for every occasion. He’s the film’s comic relief but he’s not supposed to be “funny” so much as “obnoxious.” In that respect, the suddenly strikingly less successful half of Key & Peele is all too successful. I like Keegan Michael-Key a lot but I disliked him here both individually and as a crude comic double act with Thomas Jane as Baxley, a soldier whose Tourette’s is played for naughty giggles.
The Predator is very much a boy’s club but Olivia Munn comes close to stealing the film as a brainiac brought in to examine a bona fide space alien. I haven’t been terribly impressed by Munn in the past but her performance here is nothing short of revelatory. She’s funny and tough and about the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate. She alone seems to view the alien with a sense of wonder and possibility as opposed to seeing him as just another ugly thing to kill.
One of Black’s defining features as a filmmaker is his love of language. The enormous pleasure Black takes in the way words sound is infectious. There’s a jazzy musicality to his films, a joyous sense of rhythm. Black loves what he’s doing as a writer and a director and that comes through in every frame. The motherfucker can straight-up write.
That’s a big part of what’s missing from The Predator. Usually, Black’s dialogue is self-indulgent in the best possible way. Every wisecrack and elegantly, aggressively composed one-liner has his DNA all over it but The Predator often feels oddly impersonal, as if it’s the work of someone inspired by Black rather than Black himself.
It’s a testament to how good as well as how flashy Black’s writing generally is that watching The Predator I found myself missing the way that Black’s dialogue relentlessly calls attention to itself and, by extension, the prodigious gifts of the junk-loving cinephile behind it. And while I chuckled a few times I did not laugh heartily and often the way I usually do at Black’s work.
One of the things I liked best about Predator 2 was the glimpse it gave us into the Predators’ world, like the famous scene in the “Trophy Room” where we see the skulls of D.B Cooper and Amelia Earhart are included among the Predator’s prizes.
The Predator tantalizingly introduces the notion that the brutal realm of the Predators could be bigger and darker and more horrifying than we could have possibly imagined by bringing in a much bigger, fiercer, deadlier Predator along with a few scattered glimpses inside alien ships.
Humans are able to communicate with Predators through a fantastical new device here and subtitles clue us into what these Predators are saying to each other. In The Predator, the titular outer space kill-crazy monsters speak but it saddens me to report that the Predators have nothing interesting to say. Seriously, they are incredibly boring. Instead of wowing humans with their verbal prowess or unique insight into the world, they just give one of the human warriors a brief head start.
This is a huge missed opportunity. This is Shane Black, we’re talking about. And he can’t make the Predators interesting? If we’re going to have different Predators with different agendas, why can’t the monsters themselves have a little personality, a little soul? Could it have hurt to make the Predators the Irish of the interplanetary world, lyrical, melancholy and a bit partial to whiskey? Why not have the main O’ Predator turn to a life of hunting species from different planets once his career as a poet/literary novelist died an unmourned death?
One of my favorite moments in Predator 2 was a random shot of the Predator running through an old woman’s apartment. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic was surreal if all too brief. The Predator takes place in American suburbs yet the film is nevertheless oddly devoid of those kinds of crazy moments where the Predator’s world and ours unexpectedly and crazily overlap.
Like an astonishing amount I’ve written about for this site, The Predator audaciously ends by teasing a follow-up that would be the middle film in what some very hopeful executives imagine will be a new Predator trilogy. I would watch a sequel to The Predator even if I was not professionally obligated to, although given the way my brain, life and career work it would be more accurate to say that I would find an excuse to write about a sequel to The Predator. That’s less because I think The Predator and its predecessor Predator 2 (Jake Busey even shows up as the son of the character his father played in the 1990 version) are quality films but rather because they’re both enjoyably junky in a way that I appreciated.
That sequel is probably not going to get made but if it did, I think it could lead up to a big crossover film where the Predators finally take on their greatest threat and natural enemy: the Oogieloves. Those ominous motherfuckers have been lying low since their Big Balloon Adventure. I think we should take them out of cold storage so they can fuck up some Predators. I will write the screenplay, Hollywood.
The Predator franchise has gone in a series of different, audacious directions since the one starring the Eraser guy but this is the direction it absolutely needs to go. We can even throw in a cameo for the star of the original film, who I just remembered is named Jesse “The Mind” Ventura. He hasn’t been governor for a hot minute so I’m sure he’d be overjoyed for such a worthy project and being a former Navy S.E.A.L, I’m guessing he can really fuck up a Predator, with his brain, as well as his aged but still ripped body.
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