Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. Warning: mild spoilers ahead.
Movie series often take strange twists and turns over their lifetimes, but the Predator franchise has always been its own uniquely bizarre case. John McTiernan’s 1987 original was an Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle that pitted a group of military commandos against an interstellar hunter that picked them off one by one. It brought with it all the one-liners, alpha-male posturing, and explosions that the decade demanded, and was enough of a hit to warrant a sequel. But three years later, Predator 2 failed at the box office, and the property lay dormant for 14 years. It eventually resurfaced as part of Alien vs. Predator, and while mash-up films are usually a creative death knell, the movie was enough of a sucess to warrant its own sequel. Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal tried to bring the whole thing back to life with 2010’s Predators — and then once again, things got quiet.
Predator is the little franchise that could: never delivering a sequel that’s a true home run, but always doing just well enough to warrant another turn at the box-office bat.
But with The Predator, filmmaker Shane Black is attempting to put the franchise back in the spotlight. Originally known for writing movies like Lethal Weapon and The Last Action Hero, Black has since become known as a dual-threat writer-director, combining action and comedy with films like Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. (He coincidentally has a history with the Predator franchise as well, having appeared as an actor in the first film.) Along with co-writer Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Robocop 2), he tries to turn The Predator into an R-rated comic-action-horror hybrid, a movie that salutes the 1980s genre churn that spawned the original, while simultaneously trying to add its own idiosyncratic spin.
It sounds great in concept. A Shane Black rethink could theoretically give the franchise its own strong authorial voice and identity — the one thing it’s been missing ever since 1987. But to pull that off, the movie would actually need to deliver.
What’s the genre?
1980s sci-fi action throwback mashed up with a 1980s goofy monster-comedy throwback.
What’s it about?
Mercenary Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) has a mission suddenly interrupted when a Predator crash-lands his ship and promptly takes out Quinn’s colleagues. Quinn is able to escape with some of the creature’s armor, and sends it back home for safekeeping. But soon thereafter, he’s captured by Project Stargazer, a secretive government organization created to study Predators since they began visiting Earth in 1987. Stargazer is led by the treacherous Traeger (Sterling K. Brown from This is Us, chewing scenery non-stop), who decides to send Quinn to a mental hospital to preemptively discredit any information he may share with the general public.
There’s a Predator and, um, a bigger Predator
Eventually, Traeger discovers that the Predator Quinn discovered was actually on the run from a much bigger Predator that pursued it across the galaxy, and has now landed on Earth as well. But in one of the most convoluted movie set-ups in recent memory, the Predator armor Quinn sent home landed in the hands of his young son, Rory (Room’s Jacob Tremblay). Having the armor has made Rory a target, and Quinn has to team up with a group of misfits from the mental hospital — and a scientist named Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) — to save his son, and stop both Traeger and the giant mega-Predator.
What’s it really about?
If that plot summary was hard to follow, you’ll have a bit of an idea of what it’s like to actually watch The Predator. Obviously, hyper-convoluted plot machinations can work if the film itself has enough momentum to propel the audience through it all, or if there’s some larger, overriding theme or sentiment tying it all together. Neither are really the case with The Predator, however. Black’s movie gestures at various ideas along the way — how humanity’s lack of self-awareness about the environment may lead to our downfall (the Predators have been hunting Earth more frequently because they realize climate change will soon wreck the planet), or how fear of anyone different from us prevents us from clearly seeing their potential. (Rory’s son is autistic, which the Predator recognizes as a strength, not a weakness). But these ideas are more like passing interests than any kind of thematic foundation.
At times it seems The Predator wants to satirize the excesses of ‘80s action movies
If anything, it seems as if Black wants The Predator to satirize the ridiculous excess of ‘80s action movies by subverting them. Rather than a crew of musclebound heroes, Quinn’s support comes from the ragtag group he meets on the way to the mental hospital: a group of jokers, deviants, and weirdos suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in one way or another. Keegan-Michael Key has room to shine here as Coyle, a cut-up who never stops joking (and is quite reminiscent of the character Black played in the original film). Another standout is Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes, Moonlight), who brings a sense of well-rounded empathy as a former commanding officer who tried to take his own life. But while the movie definitely tries to upend the ‘80s formula, it also never goes far enough to really commit, ultimately falling back on the same big dumb action-movie tropes it initially seems to mock.
Is it good?
There are interesting things about The Predator, to be sure. Some laughs do land, and individual actors, like Key and Holbrook, have different beats that feel genuinely affecting. A couple of sequences are truly memorable, such as when Rory goes trick-or-treating dressed in Predator armor and comes across some bullies from his school.
But the cast never really gels as a cohesive whole. They turn scenes that are clearly intended to be filled with funny back-and-forth banter into a series of awkward, disjointed moments that can’t end soon enough. There’s also an odd tonal tension throughout the film: it’s not funny enough to really be a comedy, it’s not slick or daring enough to be an innovative action film, and the horror elements are largely treated as an afterthought. Black knows how to mix humor, action, and genre elements; his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, easily combined the different tones with a film-noir framework in an immensely satisfying way. But The Predator comes across like it’s too timid to fully commit in any one direction, perhaps for fear of alienating some potential segment of the fanbase, and ends up feeling like the least inspiring combination of all possible elements instead.
Those plot convolutions also don’t help. Movies don’t need to be as sparse as the original Predator, but this version seems to pad on storylines just for the sake of having them, all cut together in a surprisingly inelegant way. The film jumps around between so many characters that it’s almost impossible to feel any real tension, much less emotional investment. By the time the end rolls around, what should be one of the film’s most audience-rousing character deaths happens so quickly that viewers might not even realize it’s happened at all. Combine that with an overreliance on computer-generated imagery for many of the Predator events, and the result is a movie that seems to rob the franchise of its most simple, basic pleasures.
What should it be rated?
This is an “R” and it should be one: it’s laden with violence, language, and gore from top to bottom.
How can I actually watch it?
The Predator arrives in theaters on Sepember 14th.