Shane Black is known for his clever and subversive storytelling. The Predator, sadly, is neither of these things. If I was a more superstitious person I would say it’s because Black, along with co-writer Fred Dekker, was writing out of his wheelhouse. The Predator takes place during Halloween instead of Christmas. But I don’t think it’s fair to lay the numerous sins of The Predator at the feet of All Hallow’s Eve.
Christmas in Black’s movies usually serves as an ironic setting. It serves as a contrast to the cynical, vulgar, and socially undesirable characters Black populates his movies with. You have to admit there’s something inherently funny about a violent bare-knuckles boxing match in a front yard ornately decorated with Christmas decorations.
But in The Predator, Halloween serves no purpose. Black may as well have set the story during Arbor Day. At the very least trees play a bigger part in the movie than All Saints Day. Aside from a scene where a young boy Rory (Jacob Tremblay), wears a Predator mask and goes trick or treating, the festival of Samhain, plays little to no purpose for the rest of the movie.
Weirdly, purpose is the one thing none of these characters have. Rory’s father Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) is an Army Ranger and a sniper who happens to be nearby when a Predator ship crashes. Like any reasonable person, Quinn searches through the rubble in awe and confusion. But when he picks up an artillery armband, he puts it on his arm.
The Predator is the type of movie where our hero randomly ingests or wears alien tech without so much as a second thought. I get that it’s meant to be a visual shortcut to show us his bravery and his mental process—he doesn’t think of the consequences. But when he shoves the Predator mask into his backpack and then mails it to his P.O. Box, I began to wonder if The Predator wasn’t so much a sequel but a parody of the Predator franchise.
The government tracks down Quinn and proceeds to interrogate him and classify him as insane. Quinn is then thrown onto a bus with other soldiers who have been classified mentally unfit to serve. We meet Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Will (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). A ragtag group trained in combat who have been deemed mentally unfit by the systems they have pledged their lives too.
Oh, and we can’t forget Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) the beautiful and capable biologist called in to study the Predator. Like most women in movies, her capabilities fluctuate depending on the needs of the scene. She’ll be strong and resourceful at the beginning so we can see she is strong and resourceful. But eventually, there will come a time when she’ll open the wrong door or hit the wrong key. Like accidentally firing a tranquilizer dart into her foot while atop a bus full of recently discharged soldiers while chasing down a rogue Predator that has escaped from a top secret government lab; for example.
If you’re reading this and thinking I’m being unfairly snarky, understand “snark” is the language of Shane Black. Underneath the snark, however, is an attempt to try and dig at the odd ever oxymoronic center that is “masculinity”. I should add “usually”. When Quinn arrives home, his ex-wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) tells him Rory has taken the mask out trick or treating. He goes after him; his buddies from the bus elect to stay at the house.
After Quinn leaves, Nebraska asks Emily, “I don’t know your husband-but is he the man I think he is?” Emily gives a short rundown of Quinn’s military career. “He may be a lousy husband but he’s a great soldier.” Nebraska nods and turns to the other men and calls them “pu**ies”. Nettles gets up and says to Emily, “I didn’t like your speech. It was kind of pedantic and uninspiring. But he just called me a pu**y in front of these other guys and…I don’t know I have to go prove my manhood now.”
Subverting expectations is one of Black’s hallmarks. But the scene above is a rare exception. In the beginning, we see not one but two Predator ships crash land on Earth. Yet, we are only shown the wreckage of one. So we sit, expecting the second Predator to show up. When it finally does it is merely, “There it is,” moment instead of a “Holy Mackerel! Didn’t see that coming!”
In a way, it’s sort of funny how in a culture terrified of spoilers The Predator seems hellbent on spoiling its own surprises by telegraphing almost every moment of the movie. As one of the ships land the camera holds briefly on a pod. We’re meant to think the escape pod ejecting from the ship is the same pod but that would go against basic cinematic law. If a camera holds on something, it’s implying Chekov’s MacGuffin Predator Pod. If you see it in the first act then it’s probably going to be the thing everybody is after in the third act.
I haven’t even mentioned Rory’s autism. Tremblay is not autistic. He is given the unfair and frankly offensive task of playing something he or Black have no understanding of. Tremblay’s performance is reminiscent of the type we used to see in action movies of the nineties. Back then we said autism meant you were really good at counting cards or solving complex encrypted computer code. Black has managed to one-up all of this. Rory’s autism means he can read an alien language with ease.
Believe it or not, everything I’ve just described is purely plot mechanics. The Predators, we learn, are a hybrid species. They take the best parts of other species and absorb them into themselves. The plot of The Predator is that an advanced alien race crash lands on Earth discovers Rory, and then kidnaps him so they can absorb his autism.
“Are you f**king kidding me with this horses**t?” may have been words I muttered under my breath as I watched it unfold before me. All of this nonsense is compounded by the fact that one of the men on the bus, Baxley, has Tourettes. The type of Tourettes not seen since L.A. Law. Baxley walks around randomly cussing and twitching more for our amusement than anything else. At one point Casey walks past him and he blurts out, “Want me to eat your p***y?”
Casey seems appalled and engages with a forced “comedic” conversation as she calls him out. The Tourettes bit is offensive if only because it is played solely for laughs. Odd though that Casey is a biologist who is unaware of Tourettes but yet still knows about autism.
Olivia Munn is an actress who never seems to catch a break. She is usually the one actress in a movie surrounded by men lusting after or vilifying her. Almost always she is the best part of whatever movie she is in. Despite the script’s attempt to undermine her at every turn, her Casey is fun to watch. She is the most believable in a cast of unbelievable characters.
I will say for a movie that takes largely at night, Larry Fong’s camera work allows us to see what is going on. Though Black’s direction is oddly sloppy. During the action sequences, it’s impossible to tell who is where. I thought a key character had died only to see them pop up later on. Still, credit where credit is due, Fong allows us to see the actors and the surroundings in such a way that is both atmospheric and visible.
The underlying theme of The Predator is the utter lack of tension. When about half an hour into a movie you realize none of the main characters have died, you cease to care when they are in danger. Not to mention even Shane Black isn’t going to kill the child, autistic or otherwise. Towards the end characters start to be picked off but by then we’ve all but lost interest.
The last scene of the movie is easily one of the worst of the year. It’s not just bad but embarrassingly bad. It is so bad that whether you had watched The Predator or just walked in on the last scene, it would make about as much sense.
The Predator is another in a long line of big budget Hollywood movies that are somehow neither boring or good; but rather tediously entertaining. Despite their flaws, they move at a brisk clip, have enough moments of wry humor or well-done action. At the time it is enough to get you through the slog. But as soon as the credits roll the movie starts to fade from memory. It says a lot about your movie that when the lights come on you have to struggle to remember what you liked.