Thursday, January 17, 2019

Predator Week, part III: Space what now?


Predators presents one big new idea for the franchise, with a lot of littler new ideas that dovetail into it, and most of those ideas range from good to honestly great... and yet, what we get with this film is not really too much better than what we got in 1990, or in 2004 (and if it's better than what we got in 2007, dude, so are several varieties of cancer).

Directed by Nimrod Antal
Written by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch

Spoiler alert: moderate verging on high

In 1987, there was a film called Predator, made by one of our fallen auteurs, John McTiernan.  It was a seminal classic of 80s badass cinema, and, other than Terminator 2: Judgment Day and (maybe) Conan the Barbarian, it was that movement's finest achievement.  (So if all of those films share a Schwarzennegger, obviously that's no coincidence.)  In 1990, Predator got a sequel, Predator 2, which more-or-less remade McTiernan's masterpiece without any of the good parts besides the titular monster itself.  It was, you know, fine.  Then the series gathered dust for a good long while, ultimately being absorbed into the Alien universe, as Fox flailed about with abortive attempt after abortive attempt to drain every last drop of acid blood out of their other major monster movie franchise.  This resulted in a pair of films, one of which was pretty Predator-centric and pretty fun (Alien vs. Predator), and one of which was so Alien-centric you often forget a Predator's even in it, and was also one of the worst studio movies ever made (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem).  Somehow, this revived interest in the extraterrestrial hunter, rather than burying the concept for another decade-plus, and Robert Rodriguez, having nursed a desire to make a straight-up Predator sequel since the mid-90s, was finally given his shot, whereupon his Predator idea was reworked to the point of near-unrecognizability (he didn't even receive a story-by credit), and the directorial duties passed to a Hungarian filmmaker come to Hollywood, Nimrod Antal, with Rodriguez remaining only as a producer.  So it goes.  Not that Rodriguez' movie would necessarily have been something special: as the title Predators implies, it's unclear what if any difference it would have borne to Aliens, other than it would've had Predators (instead of Sigourney Weaver) and would've been made by Robert Rodriguez (instead of James Cameron).

In any event, the film Antal made from the script which Alex Litvak and Michael Finch wrote has the distinction of being the only Predator sequel to have an even remotely clever twist on the Predator formula, and whatever else it does, for a while Predators is a terrifically compelling exercise in using the constrained possibilities of a sequel as a source of actual strength, by contrasting its audience's presumed awareness with its characters' total ignorance.  This is neatly demonstrated in the film's bravura opening gesture.  It begins with a nameless warrior (Adrien Brody) as he falls from seemingly nowhere out of the sky, continues with his animal panic as he tries to get his bearings and successfully operate his oddly-science-fictiony parachute, and ends with him crashing into the ground, only a split second before the title card ("PREDATORS," definitely all caps) crashes into the movie, just as we're starting to watch it.  There is, otherwise, no opening credits sequence; in a very technical sense, Predators may have a first act, but it doesn't really feel like it does.

The man doesn't know how he got to this jungle, or who put him there without bothering to disarm him, or who the corpse whose parachute didn't open is, and soon he's greeted, not usually in a friendly manner, by one new arrival after another, seven in all (for Predators is still a slasher at heart): the Spetsnaz operator Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), the Los Zetas enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo, naturalmente), IDF sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga), American death row inmate Stans (Walton Goggins), Sierra Leonean death squad soldier Mombasa (wow, you guys tried really hard there, didn't you—Mahershala Ali), Yakuza gangster Hanzo (not trying much harder here, but at least it's an in-joke—Louis Ozawa Changchien), and, last and seemingly least, the American doctor Edwin (Topher Grace).

I'm sure the Predators just gave them a medic.  That seems like their style.

So we follow this thrown-together collection of hardened killers (and their noodly, almost-comic-relief mascot, always getting himself into scrapes), and we have the pleasure of knowing everything, while watching them figure it out the hard way.  We know where they are: a faraway planetoid.  That fact is keenly implied through Antal's direction and Gyula Pados' cintematography, which uses "off" compositions to alienate us from the landscape, but it's also a fact kept hidden from the characters for as long as possible (or, actually, much longer, considering that they pass through several clearings before they notice Predators' never-again-seen alien sky).  We also know what this planet is: it's a game preserve for the Predators, populated from time to time with prey.  And we know why they're here, specifically: because they've each racked up massive body counts, and their reward is to test their skills against the most perfect killers of all.

Predators is at its best when we're still watching our heroes (or whatever) drown in their mystery, and as long as they still are, it's a worthy sequel.  The downside is that Predators is not at its best for most of its second half, after they've come to grips with their situation.  Most of the reasons why this is are already apparent from the opening onward, even if the uncanny vibes generated by Predators' "Five Characters In Search of an Exit" premise are worthwhile, and even if it (initially, at least) wants to suggest that it could be just as good a movie if it simply ran with that instead.  (In fact, Predators might be at its very best when Mombasa wonders aloud if they're dead—and yeah, of course it's the African who voices superstitious worries, but you have to admit, other than the parachutes, his theory fits the facts.)  Unfortunately, the problem with Predators is that its characters and writing are garbage, and it can barely sustain either, even through the expected and obligatory beats where most of them horribly die.  (Stans is a particularly potent offender, prattling on about rape and such while being so worthless and untrustworthy they won't even give him a gun, and you wonder why they don't just carry out his sentence themselves.  Clearly, Litvak and Finch never saw Assault on Precinct 13, and he's as unlikeable in Goggins' performance as he is on the page.  On the other hand, it is Stans who puts together two words I never thought I'd hear, and while 2010 was a little late for this kind of homophobia to play, it is a memorable line.)

Eventually, of course, it becomes something close to the Predator retread we've already seen, and occasionally it's even mildly boring for it, because whatever Antal's bona fides at creating suspense, he's a middling action director, with Predators suffering a lot from mushy editing and dull staging, though at least Pados' photography is usually pretty enough to enjoy on its own (strange not-quite-motivated overlapping sheets of green and orange light abound).  Besides, if earthbound slashers have taught us anything, it's that it's actually really hard to completely fuck up a body count movie.  It's harder still to fuck it up in spaaace, and Predators doesn't, adding at least a few cool new wrinkles to the Predator brand (notably their hunting dogs, which look like radioactive boars, plus some infrared vision that doesn't look like butt).  These ideas go well with the neat notion of a cosmic game preserve that's frequented by a lazier and rather less-sportsmanlike breed of alien hunter than the ones we met in Predator and Predator 2.  One might've appreciated it if it had managed to stay weird, though, or at least enigmatic: the scene where it shifts from good action-horror to okayish action-action is where they run across a Predator camp, with one of their number tied to a stake.  This is, briefly, very damned weird; so perhaps the shift comes slightly later, when Predators goes out of its way to explain this franchise's bid for Space Jockey inscrutability, and we realize, with a frown, that it wasn't anything for our imaginations to latch onto—ritual hazing? torture? kink?  No, that Predator was just a plot device, belabored into existence along with Predator politics.  I like the redesign for the "antagonistic" faction of Predators (it's more, let's say, Lovecraftian); but, like, aren't all Predators antagonistic?

So the second hour (Predators is the same length as Predator, but feels like a full two hours) is lumpy as hell.  That's true even if one appreciates just how many kitchen sinks the screenplay throws in—the best of them being a much-longer-term survivor played by Laurence Fishburne, who's given the film's only interesting character and offers the film its only proper performance in return (it's edge-dancing camp, and, amusingly, most of his dialogue is with himself).  But as charming as it is to watch a studio film made in 2010 that feels like a Roger Corman New World picture made by one of the Movie Brats on the ass-end of the industry in the early 80s, only with forty million bucks and 2010's special effects technology (and, sadly, with 2010's indifference to gore—only the Predators ever get interestingly destroyed), you're always aware that while Predators has many rad ideas, it isn't often living up to them.  Fishburne's off-kilter survivor is basically a one-scene wonder; when Hanzo embraces his stereotype and Antal has the temerity to throw a chanbara riff into the middle of the last act of his movie about space monsters, that's dorkily awesome, which is why you really wish they'd hired a better choreographer of action; and when the squirrelly doctor's secret is finally revealed (something else we figured out long before the characters, except this time you do blame them for coming to it late), there's only five minutes of movie left and no space remaining to have any fun with it, wasting (a pretty shitty and discontinuous, but theoretically enjoyable) performance from Grace in favor of just pointing at the good idea he represents—that is, the Predators, being ignorant aliens, committing a funny category error.

The movie tries to even its tone, which is not necessarily desirable, or even valid, by layering themes on top of it, basically the ones you'd expect (mirroring our various human killers with each other and with the Predators themselves, those themes are anti-militarist, but nowhere near as artful or as grounded in history as the original's).  Certainly, Brody's Christian Bale/pirate impression, though sufficient for the ordinary business of Predators, isn't up to epiphanies.  So the best you can say about it politically is that it goes out of its way not to objectify its sole female warrior, and even this is odd, given that it's heterosexist as fuck in other ways (and also kinda racist) for a film of such late vintage, and it's odder still, because I'm not sure it actually benefits from its selective forbearance: because if this were a New World picture or (better yet) an American International, it would've turned out the alien planet was Earth in the past, our Israeli sniper would've been named "Chavah," and our hero ("Royce," we finally learn) might as well have just been named "Adam."  Yet it's not clear that this movie even notices the goofy trope it's using.  I don't know what to make of one of the lousiest last lines in action movie history; it's naturalistic enough, in the sense that the characters don't seem to be aware their story is over, but in such an arch context, it makes Predators feel incomplete.

It's usually said that Predators is Predator's best sequel (or its best as of 2010), and I get that: I suppose it's better than Predator 2, in that it's better-photographed and more consistent; meanwhile, nobody respects the AVP films at all, as they shouldn't.  Still, AVP itself is probably more likeable, though it really might just be a matter of the mood you're in when you're watching it—or even a matter of which series you're following.  (AVP on the heels of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection is a badly-needed breath of fresh air; whereas there's not much more than a dime's worth of difference in quality between any of Predator's direct sequels so far.)  So if you want to call it Predator's best sequel, that's fair, but... so what?

Score: 6/10

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