REVIEW – ‘The Predator’

At some point over the last few years, Hollywood has decided humour is the right path to resurrecting a sagging franchise. Perhaps Disney are to blame, given they’ve taken this route to revitalise both the Star Wars and Thor sagas. But those films are inherently rooted in fun, thereby adding a dash of comedy feels entirely natural and earnest. Applying this formula to something grounded in sci-fi/horror is often fraught with problems, especially something as promisingly terrifying as the Predator franchise.

Sure, every film since John McTiernan’s 1987 original classic has been underwhelming. Predator 2 went large and fell hard. The Alien vs. Predator films turned both franchises into ridiculous, campy farce. And does anyone even remember the bleak Adrian Brody-led 2010 attempted reboot, Predators? After three decades (!) of disappointing fare, it’s hardly surprising 20th Century Fox have looked to really shake up this series with some new blood and a confusing new tone. Perhaps they should have just let it die.

The decision to hand the reigns of The Predator over to writer/director Shane Black was an intriguing choice. Besides the delicious meta-ness behind his inclusion (Black played a minor role in the original Predator, as well as providing uncredited contributions to the script), Black has proven himself one of the most exciting talents around. His penchant for razor-sharp dialogue and deft hand at mixing thrills and laughs are keenly on display in his two hugely underrated films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys.

Those sensibilities are indeed on display here, but Black’s talents are hidden by a turgid disaster of convoluted set pieces, an incoherent narrative that makes absolutely no sense, and a roster of pointless characters so inane, you won’t bat an eyelid when they’re despatched within the blink of an eye. The Predator is a god-awful mess which may well be the worst thing you’ll see all year. For a film that only runs 107 minutes, it feels exhaustively long, mostly due to the fact you’ll spend the majority of those 107 minutes literally scratching your head and wondering what on earth you’re watching.

Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is an ex-U.S. military sniper turned mercenary whose jungle mission to take down a Mexican cartel is interrupted by the crash of a futuristic spaceship. As the vessel’s ruthless alien passenger begins to decimate McKenna’s entire crew, he manages to escape with some of the warrior’s alien technology as evidence to prove his innocence, should he be wrongly blamed for the disaster. Fearful of his own demise, McKenna promptly ships the stolen armoury off to his son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), back in the U.S.

As expected, a scrupulous team of government agents, led by the mysterious Agent Trager (a horribly miscast Sterling K. Brown), soon descend on the crash site, intent on covering up the emergence of “the Predator,” a species of alien known to pop down to Earth every few years since 1987. McKenna is soon apprehended and hauled in for questioning, back at a secret government lab. The agents also enlist evolutionary biologist Dr. Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) to provide her expertise on the still-alive alien, kept in the lab under heavy sedation.

While McKenna is being prepped for prison with a busload of fellow PTSD-suffering soldiers, nicknamed “The Loonies” (the start of many uncomfortable ways this film handles mental illness), the Predator awakes from his slumber, causes all sorts of gory mayhem, and promptly escapes the facility. When McKenna realises the creature’s sights are set on taking back his missing arsenal from the innocent hands of Rory, he hijacks the prison bus and begins to hunt the hunter. And things only get more complicated when a bigger, badder Predator (accompanied by his pair of Predator dogs…yep) arrives on Earth, hell-bent on eliminating his compatriot and anyone else in the way.

If you’re thinking this plot and setup actually sound quite promising, you’re not wrong. The first 20 minutes of The Predator are genuinely entertaining and provide hope for what’s to come. Unfortunately, what follows is a chaotic and messy disaster where dozens of ideas are hastily smashed together, yet nothing ever properly meshes cohesively. The narrative wildly jumps from storyline to storyline, arriving at a point where it has no idea how to resolve a character’s journey, other than to eliminate them altogether.

Outside of McKenna, none of these characters has any semblance of narrative motivation. The screenplay gives The Loonies no genuine reason to join the cause to stop the Predator. They’ve literally just met McKenna, yet we’re expected to believe they’re all entirely invested in risking their own lives to help McKenna save his son from a seemingly unstoppable and deadly monster. Why any of these characters choose to hunt down the beast instead of merely fleeing their inevitable doom is unclear. The film needed a body count, and these hapless fools provide the perfect solution. It’s lazy writing that gives an audience nothing to connect with, and Black should know better.

Look, I’m sure there will plenty who have a very good time with The Predator. It rarely takes itself seriously, and that can undoubtedly be refreshing from a film centred on something so absurd. Black has filled his screenplay with a neverending wave of jokes, gags, and a few cheeky references to the original film plus a decidedly random Disneyland reference that may fly right over your head. But the jokes rarely land, other than to elicit some awkward and misplaced laughter. Even more uncomfortable is the film’s bizarre and mildly offensive treatment of mental illness.

On one hand, The Predator wants to highlight the serious issue of PTSD plaguing returning war veterans, which is indeed incredibly admirable. Yet on the other, it uses this as the conceit for cheap laughs. One of The Loonies (honestly, I feel more nauseous every time I’m forced to call them that) is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, which is consistently used for lame gags at his expense. Suicide is made fun of, as is the revelation one of the character’s middle name is Gaylord. This is the pathetic comedy of something like Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo. What the hell is it doing here?

The film’s handling of young Rory is even worse. While it’s never explicitly stated, Rory appears to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome, which the talented Trembley handles with aplomb. But the narrative has no idea how to treat this character properly, making it unfathomable why it was even tackled in the first place. It presents an interesting theory that Asperger’s may indeed be the next step in human evolution; a notion actually rooted in true-life science. Instead of exploring this idea effectively, it’s poorly used as a tacky plot point. His condition is also used for comedic effect which feels borderline insulting and wildly insensitive.

This all leads to a finale that is as loud and pointless as cinema gets. It’s a catastrophe of incomprehensible nonsense that feels horrendously rushed and haphazardly crafted. The film’s final scene is truly baffling, to say the least. The pacing and editing of the conclusion are genuinely difficult to keep up with, as Black attempts to rescue this film with waves of explosions, bullets, and blood. You expect this style of rubbish from someone like Michael Bay, so it’s genuinely surprising and rather upsetting to see the talented Black let this film get so wildly off-track. That being said, the film has been beset by re-shoots and edits, so perhaps that explains the end result.

There is perhaps a great film hiding within The Predator. Black clearly had grand intentions in mind before things somehow went completely pearshaped. This feels like an experiment to try something entirely different with this franchise, which one has to admire. But the final product is a colossal disaster, from start to finish. The mix of comedy and action tones feel at odds with each other, leaving you feeling exhausted, bewildered, and incredibly disappointed. This film has no idea what it wants to be. You won’t have a damn clue either.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Thomas Jane, Yvonne Strahovski, Sterling K. Brown
Director: Shane Black
Screenplay: Fred Dekker, Shane Black
Producers: John Davis, Lawrence Gordon
Cinematography: Larry Fong
Production Design: Martin Whist
Music: Henry Jackman
Editors: Harry B. Miller III, Billy Weber
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: 13th September 2018 (Australia)