Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
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The Franchise: Predator: following the deadly encounters between a tall, dreadlocked alien race that scours the galaxy in search of dangerous species to hunt and kill — dangerous species such as man! Dun dun dunnn! The proper franchise spans three films, from 1987-2010, as well as two ancillary cross-over films featuring the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise.
The Installment: Predators (2010)
Soldier of fortune, Royce, awakens to find himself inexplicably plummeting through the air in free-fall. A parachute deploys, and he lands in a jungle. He soon discovers that he is not alone — a Festival-of-Nations of other badasses have also parachuted in his area: a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), an Eastern European soldier, Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a soldier of I guess let’s say virtue or whatever, Isabelle (Alice Braga), an African soldier, Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a death row inmate, Stans (Walton Goggins), a Yakuza gangster, Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and doctor who is very obviously going to turn out to be a serial killer or something along those lines, Edwin (Topher Grace). And soon this group also discovers that they are not alone — a trio of Predators dumped them on what turns out to be an alien big game reserve. The hunt begins! Then eventually ends.
Demonstrating that even toss-off in-jokes should be given respectful consideration by filmmakers, those few seconds of the xenomorph skull in Predator 2 killed the Predator franchise. Sure, it certainly didn’t help that a lot of people thought Predator 2 was a sorry disappointment, but the film made money and a crappy sequel has never stopped a monster franchise from pushing forward. The real problem was that, similar to what happened with the Jason and Freddy franchises after Freddy’s gloved-hand appeared in Jason Goes to Hell, 20th Century Fox had a raging boner for making an Alien Vs Predator crossover. By the time they had attended to their priapism, twenty years had transpired since Danny Glover wheezed and sweated all over those Predators in 1990. A Predator 3 probably wasn’t exciting anyone at the studio. This is the 21st-century, after all, and execs were surely thinking reboot. Dusting off a story concept Robert Rodriguez had whipped up back in the mid-90s, Fox tried to meet fans halfway and do a reboot that also acknowledged the existence of the original Predator. The title is obviously supposed to conjure thoughts of Aliens, and to their credit the filmmakers at least tried to pull a James Cameron and tackle the franchise from a different perspective. Many Alien franchise fans felt that Alien 3 had been a step backwards after Aliens. Where was Earth? Or the xenomorph homeworld? Well, Predators can’t be accused of that. We’ve gone abroad. The filmmakers had their hearts, if maybe not their heads, in the right place.
Despite what the brevity of this first section would seem to imply, overall, there isn’t anything overwhelmingly wrong with Predators…
What Doesn’t Work:
…which makes its failure to connect a prime example of that elusive je ne sais quoi factor that makes a good movie good. Predators has less of a “bad movie” stink than Predator 2. Yet, Predator 2, for good and ill, managed to bring something to the table. It added substance to the franchise mythology. And it had peaks and valleys of quality, both pleasing and displeasing me. Whereas Predators is the kind of film that I would describe as “fine.” And sometimes being “fine” is more frustrating than being “bad” — there is some emotional gratification in disliking something, at least.
The film isn’t bad, it just feels trivial, like a straight-to-video sequel that wound up with a $40 million budget. It fails to engage at every turn, lending a fluffy weightless feeling of inconsequentiality to every scene and plot point. Scenes like Hanzo (the Yakuza gangster) and a Predator facing off with just swords should have been bitchin’, a highlight of the film, but instead the scene hangs there as run-time fodder. “Well now this guy is going to die I guess. Annnd now he’s dead. Next.” The whole film feels that way. I saw things happening that seemed like they should be intriguing or exciting, yet I floated like a ghost through the film until the end, never really getting pushed or pulled one way or the other. I’d file Predators under the “Boy, that sure was a movie” classification.
To repeat, despite how this all looks, I don’t believe Predators is a film that deserves derision. Director Nimród Antal, bang-for-your-buck producer Robert Rodriguez, and a solid cast lend the film a strong air of polished – if robotic – competency, but there are simply a host of problems holding the film back that deserve illumination and discussion. So here we be. If Predators had been Predator 3 and Rodriguez had directed it back in 1995, as originally intended, the film very well may have worked in that context. And while I guess I appreciate the thought behind a rebootquel, pragmatically speaking it just isn’t a great idea. When in doubt: do an actual sequel, or start from scratch. Trying to make a film that can be equally effective for both new and old audiences is extremely hard, as fans and neophytes want/need completely different things from a film. So despite a lot of big ideas at play, Predators gets stuck in second gear. It tries to be too many things at once. A classic decent-at-everything-master-of-nothing scenario.
As a sequel, Predators two biggest advances in the franchise are: 1) the alien planet setting, and 2) the revelation that there are two different kinds of Predators. But, for what reads as big news on paper, both advances are in reality extremely slight, verging on valueless. Both of the previous two films, not to mention both of the AVP films (which were released before Predators), were set on Earth. It was time to get off the rock. Yet the game reserve planet (or moon or whatever) that we get is a cheat. We’re still back in the jungle, which given the film’s modest budget looks exactly like an Earth jungle. Aside from a couple smallish sculptures, there is no presence of the Predator civilization. Now, mind you, I’m not saying the film should have dropped Royce into a Planet of the Apes-esque setting, smack in the Predator home-world capital. But considering the technically huge leap the franchise has taken in this installment, it doesn’t feel like we’ve gone anywhere. Since film’s title opens itself up for comparison with Aliens, it seems apt to use Cameron’s film to highlight what I’m saying. Cameron sent Ripley right back to LV-426, which sounds redundant, but he completely altered the story conditions. Nothing is the same. The planet is terra formed now, so no space suits this time. Ripley never even enters the horseshoe ship. We aren’t on the Alien homeworld, but the existence of the Queen’s hive gives off that feeling when compared with Alien. And Ripley is on the offensive this time. She has armed back-up too. Rodriguez and his team merely found a sneaky way of replicating the format of Predator, while getting to tell us everything is different.
Then we have the new race of Predators — a classic case of sequel over-thinking, and the film’s most telling bit of rebootquel confusion. Since it isn’t a remake, Predators clearly felt it needed to earn that raison d’être. Aliens gave us the Queen, which was bigger and badder than the xenomorph in Alien. So now we have new Predators that are bigger and badder than the Classic Predator. This is a standard “forget everything you thought you knew” sequel move, and it is a dumb choice from top to bottom. Foremost, it does that most annoying of sequel crimes — it undermines the previous installments. So the Predator that we all fell in love with in Predator is actually from the pussy race of his planet? And not just that, he isn’t even going to be the underdog here? When he fights a New Predator, he gets his ass handed to him and his head fucking chopped off? Jurassic Park III committed the same sort of sacrilege when the retarded looking Spinosaurus made the T-rex its bitch. And it failed for the same reasons. People love the Predator; love him enough that the character is a Movie Monster Legend and franchise goldmine even though he only had two proper films up til this point. That means something. Adding another race of Predator is one thing, but why the hell would fans want to see the Classic Predator fucked over so unceremoniously? And this mythology offense is there only for fans, mind you, because…
To new viewers none of this means anything whatsoever. In fact, it probably is even a little perplexing because the two races serve no purpose in the story; it is superfluous detail. Not everyone was a fan of the Queen in Aliens and how she altered the mythology of the xenomorph, but whether you liked the alteration or not, the revelation of the Queen’s existence is a fantastic scene and story complication. When Ripley stumbles into the Queen’s nursery, it is a huge moment. In Predators, we learn that there are two kinds of Predators because Noland (Laurence Fishburne) tells us so. And the “revelation” of there being two kinds of Predators has no impact on what is happening or how our characters behave — at that point in the story Noland could have said there were five races of Predators or that the Predators were actually robots. When Royce frees the Classic Predator the New Predators had tied to a post, for a brief moment it seems like all this may pay off with Royce and the Classic Predator teaming up against the scarier New Predator. But Royce and Classic Predator team up for literally several seconds before the story moves on and Classic Predator dies. The Queen didn’t roll in and bite the head off a normal xenomorph, and more importantly, the Queen did not preclude using a normal xenomorph successfully in future installments (the Alien franchise already demonstrated that). But what of a Predators 2: Even More Predators Yet? If we only have a Classic Predator, isn’t there the feeling of, “Phew! Our heroes got off lucky that it is only the tiny, shitty Classic Predator! They’re so much easier to defeat!” The character is permanently bitched now. Not to mention, now the precedent has been set that franchise expansion comes from adding a new type of Predator. Like Hellraiser fans, fans of Predators have every right to expect that there will be even more types of Predators out there. Fat Predators! Dwarf Predators! A giant Super Predator!
And just from a storytelling standpoint, having multiple Predators makes them each less interesting individually as villains. It is only once the other two New Predators are dead that we start to view “Berserker Predator” as the primary foe who must be killed. And by then the movie is almost over.
Another facet of the rebootquel collateral damage is the set-up of our heroes. It is a cool idea that the Predators snag the most badass humans from around our planet. It is also cool beginning a movie with our heroes mysteriously awaking to discover themselves together in a strange place with no memory of how they got there or why, like Cube. But unlike Cube, Predators isn’t a mystery. Everyone seeing the movie knows what is going on already, and the filmmakers know that too. In Cube the slow reveals of the characters’ identities, and what made them “special,” was part of the very fabric of the concept. In Predators, the filmmakers want us to know we’re dealing with a motley crew of super badasses as soon as possible, so the characters all immediately introduce themselves and reveal their backstory and what makes them “special” through a series of clunky “back where I’m from…” dialogue exchanges. And 23 minutes into the film they learn they are on an alien planet. And 43 minutes in Isabelle connects us to Predator, telling the story of Dutch and giving details on how Dutch defeated the Predator (yay, more speeches and exposition!). So fans need to twiddle their thumbs as the film cycles through a surface-level “best of” Predator bits, waiting til the film can start doing something new, and meanwhile new viewers get treated to an incredibly half-assed and rushed “mystery.” Furthermore, unlike Predator, which showed us (instead of just telling us) how badass our badass heroes where before they ever encountered the Predator, we don’t get such luxury here. It wouldn’t have been as flashy of an opening, but seeing our various heroes fighting and killing in their natural habitats before getting dropped into the group would have strengthened each of them considerably. And this is a nitpick, but — not a single one of our heroes noticed all that crazy shit in the sky when they were, you know, falling through the sky? I realize they each had bigger concerns at that exact moment, but it seems unlikely that none of them spotted all this nonsense consuming the skyline…
As long as we’re still on the characters… The title Predators has a double meaning. The Predators are predators, but so are our heroes. One of the various “too many” things Predators loads onto its plate is giving the film a “man’s greatest enemy is man” thread. I understand the desire to explore the concept, but like everything here it is under-cooked. Almost none of it plays plausibly. When we meet Mombasa and Stans, Stans is trying to kill Mombasa already, cause apparently that’s just what Stans will do in any situation, no matter how mysterious. I know that audiences love seeing a bickering team slowly pull together, but this isn’t a heist movie. I can only buy so much antisocial behavior when characters fall from the sky onto an alien planet and are stalked by monsters. Details like Royce thinking the group is holding him back work well, but then the film lost me when Royce is portrayed as asshole for not being compassionate enough. The way the film keeps pressing that compassion issue, making it the basis for Royce’s arc, does not make a lot of sense to me. Just at the surface level it is hard to get overly invested in Royce becoming a “new man” when we never saw the “old man” version of him. Isabelle self-righteously gives Royce shit from the get-go about what a bastard he is. “What happened to you? What made you so fucked up?” But in what way is Royce so fucked up? From what we see during the course of the movie Royce doesn’t do anything that horrible. His big “heartless” moment comes when he sort of uses the other humans as bait without telling anyone. Aren’t their bigger fish to fry here? He’s trapped on a fucking alien planet being fucking hunted by fucking aliens. I’m supposed to hold his decisions against him here? I don’t know, I think this might qualify as an extreme situation. And on a deeper level the whole compassion issue fails to generate any kind of thematic relevance. Is compassion supposed to be a human strength, one the Predators don’t possess? And thus presumably giving the humans an edge over the Predators during the climax? I don’t think so. Yet it also kind of plays out that way.
Since Predators can’t give the element enough room to breath or take root, ultimately the man versus man conflict is a waste of time that should have been spent focusing on the core concept. I think the characters would have ultimately been better served too. Even though the film goes out of its way to make the characters completely different, they manage to feel significantly less defined than the cartoonish characters in Predator. Which is all the more odd considering the difference in caliber of the two casts. There are Oscar and Emmy wins and nominations in this group. Adrien Brody is unusual casting for Royce, but as with most things in this film he is “fine.” All the actors, with the exception of smarmlord Topher Grace, are fine — with Fishburne giving a fun little performance (even if his paunch makes him rather unbelievable as a man struggling from meal to meal). It is the characters that bog things down. Grace has the worst character. One of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is when a good guy is revealed to be a bad guy, and then the actor starts playing the character completely different (the worst example of this ever may be Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath). I’m sure it wasn’t as painfully obvious to everyone out there as it was to me, but at no point in the film did I believe Edwin had mistakenly been tossed into the group. He was going to turn out to be a serial killer. The fact that this played out as a last minute twist is both useless and silly. When Edwin finally reveals his true self, attempting to kill Isabelle for no reason while they’re trapped in a hole, the idiocy of the twist is compounded by Grace’s suddenly droopy-eyed sinister performance. I don’t know, wouldn’t it have been far more interesting if everyone knew he was a serial killer the whole time? They’re all murders. What’s the difference? Also, while I guess I can accept that Edwin was able to identify a poisonous plant on the alien planet by its similarities to an Earth plant (even though this was never expressed in the film), how the hell was he able to accurately deduce the exact effects it would have on the human body?
As I already said, the film has a “best of” vibe to it. The mini-gun is back. Hanzo basically has the exact same death as Billy, even taking his shirt off. Even Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” is back (ending the movie in a truly embarrassing fashion). But none of that bothered me. This is a rebootquel. Mini-guns are cool. I get it. What surprised me was how little the film had to add. We get some Predator hounds, which are neat in theory, but dull in execution (it is another pet peeve of mine when creatures that are presented are mere animals are completely unfazed by being shot with bullets). But considering the huge leaps in special FX technology since Predator 2, the filmmakers don’t seem eager to spread their wings. There is one fun bit where Stans tosses a flare down a corridor and it bounces off (revealing) a cloaked Predator. But that’s about it. And that fun bit is actually less impressive than the cloaked Predator walking through a puddle in Predator 2. How about a cloaked Predator getting sprayed with mud or paint? Or submerged under water? We have computers now. Let’s kick this shit up to 11, guys.
Predator Kills: 6, plus one unfortunate dude who dies when his parachute doesn’t open (technically the Predators’ fault).
Best Kill: None are very noteworthy, but I did enjoy seeing Stans’ spine and skull get ripped from his body after he was already dead.
Best Scene: When Noland turns on our heroes and Royce is forced to give away their location to the Predators to save everyone.
Talking with Edwin…
Stans: You know, man, if we ever make it home, I’m going to do so much fucking cocaine. I’m gonna rape so many fine bitches. I’ll be like, “What time is it? After 5:00? Damn. Time to go rape me some fine bitches.”
Best Predator Weapon: None of the new gizmos we get deserve mentioning.
Evidence That the Predator is a Lousy Hunter: I’m not sure I see the logic in dropping the prey by parachute, given the dangers involved. Presumably it takes a fair amount of research and effort to acquire each quarry and transport them to the game reserve. You’d think the Predators would want to insure that each quarry arrived in the preserve safe and sound and at full strength.
Should There Be a Sequel: Not going further down this current path, no.
Up Next: Alien Vs Predator
previous franchises battled
Planet of the Apes