by Philip Price
I was born in 1987 or the same year the original “Predator” was released. One might think this means something more or that it's led to some long-standing connection I feel with that John McTiernan movie, but it doesn't and hasn't. I say this more to point out I was too far behind to now have any nostalgic or appropriated affection for that movie. In fact, I've only seen “Predator” once before in preparation for the 2010 re-boot, “Predators,” and while the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick certainly makes for an enjoyable enough action movie it certainly didn't hit me the same way in 2010 as it likely did those who were in their late-teens to early-20s in 1987. For me, it was fine, goofy fun and very much a product of the time in which it was made. And while 2018's “The Predator” will rank miles below that original for those who adore it and place it on this pedestal of action perfection, which I admittedly can't dispute given the credentials of my birth, “The Predator” is also perfectly OK. There is a lot going on and it wants to do more than its hour and forty-seven minute runtime dares to contain, but at the heart of the issues with the film is the fact the movie itself doesn't seem to know what its heart really wants. Does this mean there is nothing beating within the core of this movie? Does it mean there's no pulse? Not necessarily. There is so much going on that it kind of creates the illusion of this pounding sense of energy and tension, but energy doesn't always equal an understanding or coherence. There are numerous players playing different games, following several different arcs, but none of them thread together to form a satisfying whole despite countless efforts to present a facade that it does in fact do so. “The Predator” puts on that it knows what it is but taking in the execution presented it seems the movie only has ideas of what it wants to be. Writer/director Shane Black knows he wants to make a bloody, irreverent, and fun action movie but for one reason or another everything Black throws at the audience feels like both disparate and sometimes desperate attempts to play to what the masses want never landing a single of the many things as well as he's proven he could have.
A lot of this has to do with the fact the story is too convoluted. It's trying too hard to bring weight to something that never needed to carry any. That original film succeeded in large part at the time of release due to its simplicity and the pure thrill of actors like Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers strutting their stuff; there wasn't much to it, but what was there was maximized to full effect. With “The Predator,” Black has attempted to both pay homage and create something more ambitious. “The Predator” wants to feel bigger in both scope and in intelligence, but by going into so much detail concerning who these "predators" really are, what their mission is, and what role they might play in the larger galaxy-essentially lifting the curtain on the titular creatures’ schemes-it by default removes the simplicity that made the original so enjoyable. Now, I don't much remember 1990's “Predator 2” (which I also watched in preparation for the 2010 flick) and I can remember “Predators” being another largely entertaining action thriller if not being completely memorable, but at least that movie kept the kinship with the original intact. In trying to both pay homage and top that original Black has thrown in all the bells and whistles, all the plot twists, and every kind of hilarious, quirky, badass character he could come up with to create what is more or less an overcrowded buffet of different smells and flavors where much of what is on display has gone bad. That isn't to say “The Predator” isn't an entertaining movie and doesn't feature some solid moments, some good moments even, some genuinely funny moments, and some genuine chemistry between the large cast, but you would certainly never call it a good movie. In short, it's a fine enough movie made by talented people that is trying to be intentionally schlocky but isn't smart enough in its execution to pull it off and thus ends up actually being cheap and inferior.
Black, who is known for having appeared in and done punch-ups to the original Predator script, has gone on to have a well-renowned career as a screenwriter penning hits like “Lethal Weapon,” “Last Action Hero” and “Long Kiss Goodnight” and then after the turn of the millennium going on to direct the likes of cult hits such as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Nice Guys” as well as dipping his toes in the world of Marvel Studios by co-writing and directing “Iron Man 3.” So, while Black has been in the industry for over thirty years this is only the fourth film he's directed (and the third of which that doesn't deal with a huge machine that would have made the movie with or without his voice). What is strange about Black's choice to take on another attempt at re-booting the ‘Predator’ franchise though, was that given his history with the original one would imagine “The Predator” would be something akin to wish fulfillment. And whether it has to do with studio meddling or simply Black's decision on how to approach the franchise the final product results in all the elements coming together in such inadequate fashion that none of it works to the advantage of the story. And so, while the screenplay certainly suffers from being overstuffed and not really settling on a throughline tone what feels weaker on the whole is that of the actual direction. There is a complete lack of any sense of artistry on display. Frankly, the movie is kind of ugly and this is especially true when it comes to the visual effects. First and foremost-and this may be somewhat blasphemous considering there are many who consider the character design of the titular antagonist to be something of an ideal villain-but considering when I was born and the decade I grew up in the Predators themselves have always kind of looked like (and “The Predator” puts a real emphasis on this) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with teeth. I mean, obviously I get it, these creatures are meant to be stealthy, intimidating, scary, super-soldiers, but I'd be lying if I said that every time the practical suit was used that it looked badass in its hearkening back to the original. There are moments where one can easily acknowledge it's a guy in a suit and just have to laugh at how it looks when this poor guy is having to run as fast as he can across a rooftop in this no doubt insanely restrictive costume that has no way of not looking silly. On the other side of the coin, when the movie shows the creature in its "invisible mode" or doing stunts too difficult for the guy in the mask to accomplish the visual effects look cheap and false more often than not-which isn't great when you have a couple of fully-CG predator dogs playing key roles in your movie.
This is all to say there is no real sense of legitimacy to either side of the large effect that is the main character and that certainly detracts from the overall experience. This also extends to the spaceships that get a fair amount of screen time here as many times they look like miniatures against computer painted backdrops. There is a degree to which this seems intentional as one can see where Black is trying to wink and nod at where the franchise began and where it came from and there are other, frequent nods, in the movie-making as Black executes certain moments as if it were '87 and he was making this movie, but while this is fun in individual moments the movie as a whole doesn't play to the style in which these moments are executed well enough for general audiences to know or understand what is being done meaning it just comes off as cheap. The score is also intentionally reminiscent of eighties action movies, but when every time you see young Jacob Tremblay on screen playing this kid with Asperger's and the music automatically swells every time he goes through something stressful or anxiety-inducing one can't help but to feel this false sense of empathy rather than viewing it as cute by virtue of nostalgia. While Black is undoubtedly a talented screenwriter and a capable director if not a well-rounded filmmaker he falters for the first time here in that his movie only feels interested in the character dynamics whereas the massive amounts of action sequences throughout are each so messy and relentlessly edited to the point it's difficult to comprehend how and why certain actions even happen that none of it gels. There are a lot of logic jumps in these action sequences to say the least and as a result it largely feels slapped together and completely haphazard. Where the action comes up short though, the movie luckily thrives on the chemistry between the characters and the scenes where they are able to play off one another and within this franchise world shine the brightest even if this world doesn't construct as good a movie as maybe not the franchise itself would, but certainly the creative force behind it-would suggest.
Speaking of the characters, the story is centered on Boyd Holbrook's Quinn McKenna. Holbrook, who doesn't necessarily have a face that stands out in a crowd, overcame his lack of a distinct look with his performance in the last Wolverine movie as he was able to manifest this memorable character that the audience felt threatened by despite being years younger and not nearly as jaded as the hero of the piece. With expectations in place, I was intrigued as to how the actor might play the flip side of that role. The fact he kind of looks like your run of the mill white dude who fits the bill of effective military personnel works more against the actor here though as the character has plenty of interesting factors, but doesn't do a whole lot with them outside of show how effective his military training has made him in killing people while being surrounded by a heard of other, more interesting people any one of which could have just as easily been the lead. It feels as if Black was really close to making Olivia Munn's Casey Bracket the protagonist as she is something of a co-lead with Holbrook. Bracket is a biologist recruited by Sterling K. Brown's Will Traeger, a federal agent who works and has worked in the field of alien life for some time. In what is one of the few, genuine pleasures “The Predator” offers we have Brown's over-the-top performance as the typically serious actor hams it up in every scene in which he appears and seems to be loving every minute of it. Brown plays this character one would normally expect to be super professional and super by the book as the most irreverent guy in the room that laughs off the fact that even though by nature these creatures aren't technically "predators" that name sounds cooler and so that's what they're going with. It's really fun to watch Brown in this kind of role but having known McKenna's original team came into contact with this alien life form he brings in McKenna for questioning and Bracket to assist in identifying what this predator's original intent might have been as it's acknowledged this isn't the first time they've made contact. As these things go, the "predator" escapes and leaves mountains of bloodshed in its wake. Bracket is one of the few survivors and is dedicated to tracking the alien down for means of study and research while McKenna has been assigned to a unit of misfits that includes Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan Michael-Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), and Lynch (Alfie Allen) whose issues range from self-destructive behavior to addiction. Worlds collide given McKenna wants to track the alien down and kill it for having killed his friends with the catch being McKenna came into possession of some of the alien's gear upon initial contact and shipped it to his home so as to be able to prove he wasn't losing his mind, but it quickly becomes apparent the creature wants his stuff back and tracks it to McKenna's home where his wife, Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), and son, Rory (Tremblay), reside.
And that's just the basic outline of the plot, so one can see how things might become unnecessarily difficult to follow. This lack of simplicity ultimately detracting from the stronger elements. The camaraderie between McKenna and his gang of misfits and all of the distinct personalities that reside within that and in turn, the friendship they form with Bracket who compliments this rag tag group of guys really well with a different, but not opposite kind of energy is where the movie is at home and if it were to have made these dynamics more of a focal point with brief encounters with the monster sprinkled throughout it might have made it easier to forgive some of the films greater transgressions. It probably would have worked better as a whole. It's in the scenes where these players get to have fun and show off these distinct personalities that play up the outlandishness of the situation that are the most effective; they're the ones that make it feel as if Black actually had a hand in crafting this movie whereas the actions sequences more often than not feel as if they were shot by the second unit without having much input from Black leaving the two biggest pieces of this puzzle to not complement one another in any way. If nothing else though, it's clear Munn's Bracket was meant to be an MIB, so if that crossover doesn't happen “The Predator” will feel like even more of a missed opportunity than it already does.