Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

September 24, 2018

The Predator Doesn’t Live Up to Its Name

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In an early sequence of The Predator, government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) and Dr. Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) facetiously debate about the titular creature’s Earth-given name. Dr. Casey believes the beast should be christened to the more appropriate moniker of “sports hunter,” given the fact that the creature likes to toy with its prey before finally killing it. To this, Traeger quips “we took a vote… and predator’s cooler right?” His surrounding entourage immediately erupts in unanimous affirmation and Casey sighs, accepting this shallow verdict for the sake of quiet.

For such a chaotically and sloppily arranged film, this sole moment of introspection took me by surprise. I imagine a permutation of this very conversation played out between director Shane Black and execs of 20th Century Fox while the former pitched his story. Going merely for what “sounds good” rather than what is truly substantive for the most part accurately summarizes the core issues of this choppily edited and tonally inconsistent sci-fi flick, but such a statement only camouflages its more egregious sins. The Predator is tragically another victim of Hollywood’s addiction to franchise-expansion and is more concerned with getting audiences to pay for the sequel rather than invest in the film in front of them presently. Even signature staples of histrionic violence and quippy one liners cannot cover over its thinly written characters, uninspired storytelling and husk of a plot.

The story involves an “intergalactic game of cops and robbers” between two predators, which eventually leads to conflict with authorities on Earth. Whereas the first Predator film drew much of its thrills from the enigma shrouding the entity that was hunting Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crew of bulging bicep-ted soldiers, Black offers no such subtlety here. From its titular shot, the beast is showcased in all its CGI glory, and rather than rely on its signature stealth tactics (it is a hyper-intelligent, extraterrestrial hunter after all) the predator is reduced to its most feral instincts and leaves a bloody and dismembered-body-parts ridden path in its wake.

Such a choice is an example where Black’s personal and stylistic preferences take preference over the franchise’s mythology. While some of these work in the film’s favor, such as a gruesome scene where a soldier’s entrails fall on a cloaked predator, revealing its hideous face, many others fail to sink in. Black attempts to scarf his signature humor at every point the paper-thin plot is given room to breathe, yet because it is tangential rather than integral, it derails the story further rather than amplifies the experience.

Black, likewise, is usually a pro at crafting likeable, rebel-type characters who color outside society’s lines, and yet with The Predator, he swaps the former adjective for “uninspired.” Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) plays a variation of the trigger-happy, patriotic soldier whom audiences have seen present in countless films, while Olivia Munn’s Dr. Casey wavers between expositional device and sub-par action heroine. Keegan-Michael Key acts like he is in a Key and Peele skit in every scene, which makes the whole movie feel like a long comedy sketch on several occasions. They are not all bad apples, though. Trevante Rhodes’s Nebraska Williams thankfully strikes the perfect balance between crazy convict and tender mentor while Sterling K. Brown delivers his most menacing lines with such suave that make you want to both punch and fist bump him at the same time.

To the film’s credit, while it recycles character tropes and arcs from other flicks, it is interesting to see how these personalities interact outside of their “natural habitat.” There is something comical yet darkly satisfying that much of the action and drama takes place in the suburbs, which are places to which people usually flee in order to avoid the problems of the city. Black’s deliberate choice to stage the action here can be seen as a way to warn people against complacency and the temptation to flee from problems rather than confront them. Likewise, it is touching to see that, although the world has given up on McKenna and his band of “loonies,” they remain the few who are still willing to serve and sacrifice themselves as they fight the predators, even if they risk being forgotten.

It is a shame that Shane Black did not choose to embody the very nature of the monster that his film is named after. Rather than going “directly for the kill” (i.e. telling a straightforward story about one of cinema’s most revered monsters) he deliberately baits his audience and chooses to set up a sequel and draw out the plot, in hopes that viewers will come back for seconds. For a monster as iconic as the predator, why does a film that revisits it feel pressured to do more to hook audiences? This once bold and innovative franchise has ultimately become prey to its own greed.

 

Zachary Lee is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornell.edu.