Thursday, May 23, 2019

Predator Week, part IV: The day the Earth stood up, walked out of the theater, and asked for its money back



THE PREDATOR

So now I can see why I might have dragged my feet on finishing this particular retrospective—it must have been a premonition of utter shit.  Not only the worst film in its series, The Predator is quite probably the worst film of its whole year, and damned if I didn't expect much, much better from this franchise and from these creators than that.

2018
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black

Spoiler alert: high


The Predator begins almost exactly the way its legendary 1987 predecessor does.  Almost.  It's all a matter of presentation.  Predator has the doom notes of its Alan Silvestri score; its barely-glimpsed spaceship; its Star Wars pan that reveals an upside down Earth.  And it has an object released from that aforementioned spaceship, so tiny you can't make out exactly what it is, becoming a brief fiery line as it streaks through the atmosphere and crosses the terminator into night.  In other words, Predator loads its first few seconds with some pretty damn heavy mystery.  The Predator does no such thing, of course.  In fact, achieving a sense of mystery, or adrenaline, or horror, or even rhythm—so much as a faded copy of the original's atmosphere and artistry—is about the furthest thing from The Predator's mind.  It operates under a handicap, being a sequel.  But so did the other two, and Predators managed it, at least for a while.  Even Predator 2, in its way, still conjured up a genuine sensation of supernatural danger, of something lurking invisibly just outside of your ability to perceive it.  I guess those half-sequels, Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, didn't.  But I'm not the first to point out that of all the five Predator films to precede it, the one the sixth bears the most resemblance to is Requiem, one of the worst movies of all time.  It's maybe better than that.  But it's a desperately near-run thing.

So The Predator opens up with some middling CGI (it'll get worse), some stupidly blaring sound effects, and a big ol' starship chase that promises a whole lot more plot than anyone could hope to have in their Predator sequel; soon—by the end of its very first scene, in fact—the smaller starship has been downed in the middle of an American military operation in Mexico, and the alien hunter it contains has already been just about dispatched by our guy, Capt. Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), all without him even really trying.

It's not the strongest opening gambit for an entry in a film franchise that's heretofore depended on the tension generated by the question of how our hero could possibly kill what can't be killed this time.  On the other hand, it does have Silvestri's score.  Or some of it, anyhow, in the form of artless lifts by composer Henry Jackman, though Jackman only gets around to stealing the military march parts and then shoving them in here, there, and wherever a score might conceivably go, without much of a plan, or much of an appreciation as to why those pieces worked the first time.  So there's that, sure, along with an early flash of visual inspiration such as never shows up again, in the form of an invisible Predator rendered re-visible thanks to getting stuck under a raining sheet of blood.  That was almost cool.  It might've been cooler if it hadn't depended so much on the Predator reverting to type and stringing up corpses the Goddamn instant he landed on the planet, something that makes very little sense once The Predator winds up in the utterly contemptible place it gets to in the end.

Well, McKenna realizes this is all bad news for him even if he did beat the alien, so he hoofs it back to civilization, bullying a local into mailing a very carefully-packed box full of purloined alien goodies to his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), in the meantime surrendering to Deep State officials who mail him off to the brig under charges of, as far as I can tell, "seeing an alien."  En route to prison, he makes the acquaintance of a number of other damaged-goods convict soldiers, none of whom are actually important despite being played by generally good actors (for that matter, none of them are "actually interesting" or "actually well-performed," either, despite being played by generally good actors, though the most interesting/important of them is played by Trevante Rhodes, and there's Alfie Allen and Keegan-Michael Key on the bus, too, though the latter arguably does less acting than he does in those awful Rocket Mortgage commercials).

Anyway: it turns out the military prison is the same facility to which they brought the Predator—because, Jesus Christ, fine, sure it is—and when the monster inevitably breaks free, McKenna and his surprised new pals manage to escape, bringing them headlong into collision with exobiologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn, also very bad in this, and about whose The Predator controversy I have Nuanced Opinions).  Figuring that Rory, custodian of the Predator's equipment, might have been placed in serious danger by his father's actions, they race to save the lad, but what they find is another extraterrestrial hunter, even (sigh) bigger and badder than the one they thought they'd be fighting.

It's around this point that the movie starts to lean on drawn-out scenes of silly-crass humor, which I suppose is the Shane Blackiness of it all.  Though it's less like the Shane Black who wrote and directed The Nice Guys, and more like the character Shane Black portrayed in the original Predator, i.e., the character we were very pleased to see be the first to die.  The Shane Black of Nice Guys, though—which had its own precocious child in the center of its neo-noir machinations, recall—is probably the reason Rory is here in the first place, and the marketing campaign pushed this Stranger Thingsy element far beyond its actual relevance in the movie.  One imagines the kid's adventure Predator the ads suggested would have been a big improvement.  Certainly, there are ideas that sort of seem like they might've worked in some other context: Rory familiarizing himself with the Predator gear, Rory dealing with bullies, Rory wearing a Predator faceplate as a Halloween mask, etc.  Then again, "Predators come to suburbia" was the premise of AVP: Requiem, too, and as noted, that didn't exactly work out.


In any event, the context of The Predator we actually got is shtick from all corners, almost uniformly terrible (and despite being omnipresent, somehow always forced), revolving around McKenna's fellow prisoners coming together as a team and, regrettably, failing to die in any particular numbers before the climax.  (The Predator is the first Predator to fail to comprehend that Predator is, at heart, a slasher franchise.)  This shtick manifests as a sloppy parody of 80s badass cinema, in pretty direct counterpoise to Predator '87's extremely-precise parody of the same.  Rory, on the other hand, is given almost nothing to do besides prove his bona fides as a kid genius (Tremblay plays him as a quieter version of his moron brother from the hilariously-bad Book of Henry, somehow still a better movie about a kid genius) by showcasing his supernatural memory and learning Predatorese.  Yet he's nevertheless given supreme plot importance in an almost-amusingly offensive bid to characterize autism as the "next phase of human evolution," or something horrible like that—you get the impression that Black and his collaborator on The Monster Squad and his co-screenwriter here, Fred Dekker (who hasn't been around in a while, and I would've preferred to continue to miss him), genuinely think they're being nice.  In practice, it's an excuse to turn the disabled kid into a maguffin, and to make several "we don't say retard anymore" jokes that are still, basically, retard jokes.  He's also an excuse for indifferent disability signposting that makes him cover his ears in distress during a fire alarm, while navigating gunfights with explosions with ease.

The story isn't the worst thing about The Predator, yet it's still awfully, awfully bad: turns out it's a particularly dumbassed riff on The Day the Earth Stood Still.  The only modestly clever thing about it involves the potential of climate change to make the Earth a viable target for Predator colonization, instead of mere hunting.  Otherwise, it's all just a running battle against an inconsistently-plotted Michael Rennie in Predator gear while ducking the worst parts of every 80s' movie's Evil Government Subplot, represented here with some minimal panache, at least, by Sterling K. Brown.  (Now, Brown doesn't actually play a materially different character than the rest of Black's meat puppets, but Black's tedious snideness works slightly better for his role.)  Ultimately, The Predator leans hard into a huge new mythology for the series, taking it about as far away from "alien sports hunter" as possible (though Black and Dekker's dialogue certainly offers some eye-rolling riffs on the "alien sports hunter" concept).  This is where that twelve-foot-tall Super-Predator (and its dreadlocked dogs) enter the picture—and The Predator goes from rather bad to vastly worse, culminating in one of the most humiliating sequel-hook epilogues ever devised.  They apparently wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the gift of a "Predator Killer," but couldn't get him, perhaps because the idea is faintly terrible; when I didn't know any better, I expected that they'd swerve harder, and close up shop with a different kind of meta-gag, a more nihilistic one, taking advantage of the overlap between the universes of Predator and xenomorph.  Instead, what The Predator actually ends with is something that would induce a bewildered sneer even if you saw it in Power Rangers—and it occurs to me that that isn't fair, because Power Rangers actually was a significantly better and even scarier movie about an alien invader.

So if the plot isn't the worst thing, then the worst thing's the way that plot is put together into a lumpy collection of mostly-ugly shots.  Reshoots plagued The Predator, and it's easy to presume that's part of its problem, with images slamming into each other without set-up or continuity or any understanding of the spatial relationships between virtually anything.  Yet very little in it suggests whatever potentially better movie Black initially had in mind: only one brief scene of a rewakened Predator laying waste to his captors even remotely tacks toward "good, parsable action," let alone "stylish, enjoyable action," and the rest is all muddled and perfunctory, ruined by incredibly lazy Z-movie-style firefight staging even when it's not being ruined by CGI that would barely be acceptable for The Flintstones twenty-five years ago.  There are folks who'll give The Predator a sliver of credit, for being violent and gory in the spaces between its monotonous quips; but I'm not even sure where they're getting that from.  It couldn't possibly be from the the brief little bursts of CG blood and splashes of day-glo Predator juice that attend to all these unreadably-edited and dimly-shot battle scenes, could it?  (I was honestly embarrassed to discover during the credits that The Predator was shot by Larry Fong.)  Ultimately, The Predator doesn't even feel like a theatrical release: its feels like it ought to be have been aired on the SyFy channel, or on Fox as a much-unloved episode of The X-Files, or released by The Asylum itself.  Everything about it—its absent aesthetic, its rowdy, undifferentiated performances, its atrocious effects work, its unserious, careless tone—screams "this is a direct-to-video knockoff."  And it never even so much as whipsers, "actually, we had a budget of eighty-eight million dollars."

Ever since the first sequel, the Predator franchise has been one of reliable mediocrity—movies just good enough to waste your time with, if no more—and you could write off AVP: Requiem as an aberration.  But really, you should expect at least solid mediocrity: as much as the possibilities of the concept were exhausted by Predator, the fundamental notion, "big alien dude killing humans for fun," surely ought to be evergreen.  Maybe it would never be new again, but it should be hard to make it actively terrible.  The Predator makes it more terrible than one would've believed possible.  Many franchises have ended their lifespans in ignominy, but I can't name a single one that's wallowed in its own fetid decadence like this.

Score: 1/10

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