Bigger, Not Better: A Predator’s Tale
I remember a time, not so long ago, when we were all united. The inferno-orange poster for The Predator was revealed. No one yet knew that Shane Black had hired a sex offender for a brief role in his new film. The world simply saw a film starring Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, and Keegan Michael Key, with Shane Black at the helm. Seemingly everyone agreed Black’s specific directorial voice would be perfect for this franchise’s second reboot inside a decade. Was the prodigal prince of pre-franchise, gory, cheeky, schlock not fulfilling his destiny here?
Now, I hate to get all ontological with this, but let’s consider the actual Predator for a moment: that intergalactic sportsman with his bouncing locks and crustacean mouth. Was he a star worth returning to a sixth time? Five movies had featured Mr. Predator — Predator, Predator 2, Alien Vs. Predator, AVP: Requiem, and Predators. Four of those movies are bad. One is arguably quite good, and upon rewatch of the oiled up 1987 original, it’s debatable whether it’s iconic because of the Predator, whose lasers look more like CGI roman candles by the year. No, the original Predator is a movie that sneaks up you, regardless of its monster, like a green beret with a knife between his teeth and knocks you out with the technical craft of a prime John McTiernan, the density of the real jungle, the sparse and unhurried dread of the script, and what amounts to a technical exercise in Arnold silently besting a baddie his own size.
So wait. Is that a recipe for a Shane Black takeover, or exactly the opposite? Yes, Black played Hawkins, the bespectacled, dirty-joke slinging, neurotic one in the original movie (he’s also the only one under 200 pounds), but the film itself maintains none of the writer’s essential qualities. For one, Predator was never an intellectual endeavor at all. It remains a bizarrely erotic movie about beefcakes acting in ways that flatter their physiques and then getting those same physiques torn to bits by Sir Predator’s knives and sickles and stuff.
Let’s delay no further then: 2018 Shane Black is actually a terrible fit for a movie that’s trump card (revealed in the trailer) is an even bigger Predator than your standard, shrimpy 7-foot-tall Predator. Yes, The Predator is one of the mouthier big budget films I’ve seen in some time. Black succeeds in that sense, and there are a handful of serviceable quips and sight gags — Sterling K. Brown popping nicorette gum like Skittles the first moment we see him comes to mind.
The Predator is also one of the messiest blockbuster films in recent times. Even less so than grim DC nonsense, this movie doesn’t appear to be striving for visual, spatial, narrative, faux-mythological or basic human coherence. Like a lot of lazier Shane Black, it’s just gunning for a feeling, a certain velocity of action and dialogue that both adores its violence and immediately shrugs off the implications of said violence.
But there are more basic problems. The Predator fumbles all of the technique of the McTiernan original — and what more do you really need for a movie that’s just a hunt that turns into a last stand? Then, ask anyone who’s seen this movie where it’s set. Hmm. Let’s try and name the settings in order. Jungle. Lab. Parking lot. School. Basement. Lab. Suburb. School. Baseball field. Basement. Forest. ONE MORE LAB.
It’s an unmemorable blur of nondescript places that makes the original Predator’s use of Central American rainforest look like Lost City of Z. In Black’s film, characters simply hurtle into the next scene for another round of some of the least specific, least compelling hyper violence I can recall. I may not have realized it up front, but a movie in which people’s intestines are shredded as a matter of course is more callously disturbing than one fixated on actual body horror. All the slicing and dicing done by the Predator here recalls grotesque but disinterested video game carnage.
And for having such a deep, enthusiastic bench, the cast comes off as a blunt object, like an even dumber version of the Aliens space marines. (Sadly, there is no Ripley among them.) Boyd Holbrook is fine at being a troubled sniper with an autistic son, the way you’d expect Garrett Hedlund Lite to be. Olivia Munn is panicked and unconvincing and has clearly memorized technobabble via phonetics, the way Wahlberg memorized romantic poetry for The Gambler. Keegan Michael Key is over-enthusiastic and ungrounded, the way he always is with lacking material. Trevante Rhodes is pretty good as, wait for it, Nebraska Williams!, and never should have covered up his incredible grin in Moonlight. Sterling K. Brown, bless his heart, seems to understand just how steroidal and toxic this whole endeavor is and savors the opportunity to be the kind of asshole who gleefully tells a little boy he’s going to kill that boy’s dad.
This is a loss for pretty much everyone involved, but it needn’t be for us, the audience. We can learn not to be duped again: neither by the Predator nor Shane Black. It’s entirely possible the 56-year-old director makes another very good movie in his career. (Some people think he did with The Nice Guys; I don’t quite agree.) As we saw with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black needs real inspiration in order to focus his supreme skill with dialogue.
It’s the idea of Shane Black that seems to have run out of real room to operate in 2018. That timbre of shit talk, self-awareness and action-comedy chaos lacks a meaningful way to self-actualize in the world of franchise propagation, where those qualities no longer feel novel but rather requirements for movies like The Predator. They must constantly draw attention to their meaningless existence without changing much about that existence.
What we want for in 2018 is actual creativity, not attitude. So what if Iron Man 3 is the best Iron Man movie; it’s still the third Iron Man movie. So what if you can assemble a wonderful crop of B and C listers to really light up the sixth movie about the Predator. You can’t hide that what you’re doing has worked 1 out of 5 times and that the Predator doesn’t believe in change. Make it 1 out of 6.