The Predator knows how to lure you in.
Kicking off with a bang in the middle of a space battle, an aggressive, semi-retro score soaring in the background, the latest installment of the sci-fi franchise is committed to showing more Predator-y action than any previous entry. Writer-director Shane Black’s ode to the 1987 original (in which he co-starred) uses its alien sports-hunters’ weird bodies and lethal technology in ways many have been waiting to see for over 30 years. Creative, bloody and often hilarious kills, new additions to Predator lore and a surprising quantity of cool sci-fi nonsense are thrown around with the glee of a fan let loose in a multimillion-dollar playground.
[Ed. note: mild spoilers for The Predator follow]
The first time we see a Predator on Earth, it’s invisible, revealed by a drip of blood that plops on its camouflage from a bisected victim hanging from the tree above. The action only becomes more gruesome. Spines are ripped. Heads are taken. Bodies are shredded. There are Predator dogs and new, 11-foot Predator hybrids. Suffice it to say that Predator fans — to the extent that there are Predator fans in 2018 — will adore it. It’s the R-rated movie they’ve wanted for years, made by people who clearly wanted this movie.
The Predator’s narrative weaves together four storylines that collide mid-movie. The major thread follows a sniper (Boyd Holbrook, a vacuum of charisma unable to land a single joke) who encounters a Predator in the field, and is put away with a group of “loonies” (Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, Alfie Allen, Trevante Rhodes, and Augusto Aguilera) the military doesn’t want to deal with. Before being sectioned away, he mails Predator tech to himself, which ends up in the hands of his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay, offering a sensitive portrayal that feels way out of place in this movie). We also meet the alien-obsessed biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn, excellent), brought into a military research project led by the cavalier, Nicorette-munching Traeger (Sterling K. Brown, stealing every goddamn scene he’s in). Then there’s a genetically-modified Predator hunting a rogue member of its own species. The Predator has a lot going on, and not all the pieces land with the same force.
Depending on where you measure from, this is the third, the fourth, or the sixth film in the Predator franchise, though in spirit, The Predator is something of a meta-sequel, commenting on previous films and riffing on franchise conventions. Its cast of twitchy, self-consciously idiosyncratic misfits (every one of whom is introduced via a signature prop or tic, which is as irritating as as it is efficient) is far from the musclebound Bad Dudes of the original, though they’re still afforded more than a small dose of bro-y camaraderie. The existence of a bigger, badder Predator feels willfully, delightfully stupid. Even the characters are Predator fans, either out of scientific curiosity or just because they’re badass.
If anything, The Predator’s greatest sin as a sequel is trying too hard. It’s definitely a Shane Black film, taking place at Halloween instead of his signature Christmas setting, and popping with colorful, comedic, cigar-chomping dialogue. (A kid gets to drop F-bombs, which is a pleasure.) But while the fan service is kept under the radar— this is no Solo: A Star Wars Story — the sheer volume of in-jokes will either enthrall or annoy longtime fans. Numerous Schwarzenegger one-liners are subverted and regurgitated. Jake Busey plays the character his father originated in Predator 2. At one point, a character incredulously asks, “have you seen the new Predator?” All this stuff is fun, but at a certain point, the meta-comedy crosses the 22 Jump Street threshold.
Sadly, those who have seen the new Predator could be forgiven for answering “yes, and it’s got some problems.” The movie’s hacked-to-pieces pacing has the editorial grace of a wrist-blade through the neck. The Predator-only story lacks structure and doesn’t make all that much sense, with characters having to infer the ridiculously complex intentions of their alien foes solely so that the audience can follow along. While the cast may have started out as interesting, three-dimensional characters — and some are still eminently watchable — you get the sense that their development is incomplete. Even the beat-by-beat editing is choppy as hell, with some sequences moving so quickly from gag to gag that it’s clear large chunks of connective tissue are straight-up missing. The movie culminates in a bizarre, sequel-baiting ending that is almost certain to disappoint many viewers, whether it actually generates a sequel or not.
Where The Predator gets really odd — and where it’s most likely to be eviscerated in online discussions — is in its thematic content. Central to the movie is the notion of machismo and its various causes and effects. The Loonies echo Schwarzenegger’s crew from the original film, but each is a subversion in some way, with PTSD a common thread through all of them. Sadly, the movie itself is so bent on delivering kill after kill that its admirable attempts to subvert its macho posturing is buried under, frankly, macho posturing. Characters show hints at depth, but the relentless pace of the edit tends to sweep us on before they can really reveal it.
The same could be said of the film’s two (two!) female characters: Munn’s Casey starts out surrounded by men who don’t understand women, then becomes nearly as macho as they are. Yvonne Strahovski’s character is simply forgotten about halfway through. Munn’s character was clearly intended as a strong woman who can go toe-to-toe with the film’s men, but in execution, it feels like we’re meant to laugh along with the dudes objectifying her. Unfortunately, the scene that was cut due to featuring Black’s friend and real-life sex offender Steven Wilder may have actually mitigated some of these issues, serving as Munn’s character’s introduction and setting up important character attributes that in the finished cut appear out of nowhere.
And finally, as one might imagine from a movie whose characters refer to themselves as “loonies,” The Predator has a somewhat fraught relationship with mental illness. Beyond the jokes at disordered characters’ expense (the Tourette’s-focused of which I assume Black felt he could get away with, given he has Tourette’s himself), the chopped-up script grossly simplifies complex issues. Perhaps Black and co-writer Fred Dekker (Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps) included more sensitivity in an earlier cut, but the released version of The Predator commits some cringeworthy sins in the modern era. As foreshadowed early on, Tremblay’s character’s autism isn’t just a character trait, but a plot point, with autism ultimately presented as, and I quote, “the next step on the evolutionary ladder.” That may have been intended to lift up a misunderstood condition, but it ultimately succeeds only in exacerbating the othering of it. Added to another character’s suicidal tendencies being cast as heroic, it’s sure to inspire discussion — and not in the movie’s favor.
Many of these issues won’t matter to The Predator’s target audience, of course. For the most part, this is a fun, affectionate, R-rated romp, full of Shane Black-style jokes that mostly land and gore gags that almost universally do. Devotees of the franchise will get exactly the kind of creative Predator action they’ve been craving for years. But the movie as a whole feels as though it’s suffered a death of a thousand cuts, hamstrung by rewrites and edits into a shapeless, unfocused mess. It just happens to be, like the remains of a Predator kill, a shapeless, unfocused mess with a whole bunch of gnarly bits floating around in it.
Andrew Todd is a Montreal-based writer, seen at outlets like Polygon, IGN, SlashFilm, Gameplanet, The Spinoff, and Birth.Movies.Death., where he is Gaming Editor. He also makes movies under the Mad Fox Films banner and is an enthusiastic patter of cats.