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Non-Review Review: Predators

It must be genuinely one of the toughest and most unforgiving tasks in moviedom to produce a belated sequel to a beloved franchise. Even Spielberg and Lucas messed up in producing the long-delayed Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Lucas’ prequels to Star Wars. The original film has just been lying there so long that it has built up its own legacy and reputation – to the point where it’s arguably not so much a film as a legend. Okay, maybe the original Predator and the modern Predators shouldn’t really be classified as legends in the same way as the earlier examples (or, say Chinatown and its disappointing follow-up The Two Jakes), but this is undeniably a cult franchise. The good news is that – while far from perfect – Predators actually lives up to its legacy quite well.

Preying for a way out...

Predators isn’t a masterpiece. It’s not the best film of the year and I don’t hold out hope for it even being the best blockbuster of the year. What it is, however, is consistently and solidly entertaining. Which is, in fairness, really enough and puts it solidly above the slew of disappointing films which have featured the iconic critters – Predator 2, Aliens vs. Predator, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. It helps that the film treats its legacy as something cheeky to be played with, rather than an altar to be worshipped at. The tried and tested series catchphrase (“You are one ugly mother…”) is decidedly absent, as are alien skulls or other conspicuous examples of nerdiness.

On the other hand, its homage to the original film is more in spirit – it’s offered with a wry smile and a defiant fist pump. The characters are consciously modelled on the archetypes of the original film, even down to their weaponry, but there’s always a subtle nuance – replacing Arnie as a muscle-bound leading man with Adrien Brody, an actor so physically light you fear a wind might carry him off, is a risky move, but it works. More fundamentally than that, this sequel has the guts to play with the expectations of the original. Remember that moment in the original where one member of the party decides to stand his ground to leave the others to escape? McTiernan’s movie cut away from the scene (giving us only a scream echoing through the jungle to let us know how that worked out for him), but here director Nimrod Antal takes the risky decision to show us a similar fight scene – a conscious attempt not to treat the original as sacred, but a thrilling challenge to up the ante. Similarly, the movie shapes its finale around that of the original film, but also inverts it in a fashion. There is, of course, a respect there – the soundtrack appears to have been directly lifted from the original, but it still works – but never one that over powers the film. Which is a smart choice and probably the braver one.

The movie is smart and economical with its cast of characters, and introduces each one quickly and efficiently in an opening sequence which effectively sets the stage quite well. We are, along with the characters, dumped straight into the midst of things and it’s perhaps in the opening half hour that the film succeeds most. Unlike all the other films in the saga, save the first, the movie makes an event of revealing the situation and the hunter. Bit by bit we discover exactly what is going on (it’s easy enough to intuite, but smartly enough constructed to be interesting). Tension builds up and we begin to suspect that not everything (or everyone) may be as they appear.

Once the film has settled in, it never really matches that level of anticipation again, but it does keep you engaged. There’s a lot of talk comparing the Predator franchise to the much more successful Alien franchise, and this perhaps would seem a logical companion to Aliens, James Cameron’s contribution to that science-fiction saga. I’m going to just say that’s unfair. Predators isn’t going to stand up to comparison to Aliens, but I’d suggest that John McTiernan’s Predator would not survive comparison to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Very simply, Alien had a lot more going on under the hood than Predator – mostly as an exploration of gender and sexuality in horror – much as Cameron’s Aliens was bristling with ideas and insights that there simply isn’t room for here. Such a comparison is unfair and unjust. Aliens is a classic. Predators is simply a good time.

In fairness to the film, which is much smarter than it may let on, it does offer some interesting ideas and resists the urge that often kills such long-term franchises – it doesn’t explain too much about its monster. We can figure things out from what we are told, and using our own frame of reference, but relatively little is expressly explained. I like that, it keeps the mystery and prevents the movie from getting bogged down in pointless expository dialogue. However, the film’s central idea – and one it handles quite well until it bluntly and explicitly states it, removing any subtlety – is the notion that humans are inherently predatory. Indeed, many of the characters recognise traps and tricks because they use those same techniques themselves – “that’s what I would do”. It doesn’t do anything particularly insightful with the idea, but it’s there bubbling away underneath the surface. It’s not quite as powerful as the “Aliens-as-Vietnam” metaphor that James Cameron had going, but it’s nice to know that the movie does have its own ideas. The film gets bonus points for acknowledging the original’s somewhat more literary roots in Hemmingway.

There are problems with the film – some of them serious, some of them not so much. The film seems to be structured almost episodically, and can be broken down into chunks, some of which seem to jut out from the main plot at strange angles. This is only really a problem if these tangents don’t go anywhere, and Predators mostly keeps the interest going – not all of these sections are as engaging as the start, but they do generally keep the tension up.

The movie’s real major flaw is its ending. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad ending – just a very busy. There’s a particular element that I’m still mulling around in my head. I won’t spoil it, but it seems to consciously mock the excesses of the human/Predator relationship shown in Alien vs. Predator – as if to take the idea and offer us an image of what would actually have happened were that film not horribly conceived as a bizarre family project. There are twists and reveals which somewhat clutter the finale, but Antal finds a way to streamline it back into a reasonably solid final confrontation. And, despite some problems with the logistics, I am actually quite happy with the closing line and image – I don’t think it wusses out or offers an easy-out, but it does provide an element of closure.

The cast is solid enough, for what this is. Adrien Brody is great as the lead character, who refuses to introduce hismelf to his companions. His colleagues suspect he’s a mercenary or bounty hunter – somebody with experience hunting men. It’s a tough role and – let’s face it – not one that one would expect from a character actor like Brody. But he makes it work. Alice Braga seems to have  bit more difficulty as the defense forces sniper who offers the heart of the group. Topher Grace isn’t bad as the doctor found hanging from his chute – the odd one out of this assembled bunch of mercenaries. Laurence Fishburne brings just about the right amount of crazy to his role as a particularly long-surviving quarry on this desolate rock.

Predators is a fun film – a very good one. It’s not a classic, but it’s worth considering that the original isn’t exactly streamlined perfection either – it’s just a film which does what it does, very well. Fittingly, this is a movie that does what it does, very well – with only the slightest of missteps along the way. It looks like the mess that was the Alien vs. Predator franchise is behind us. Between this and Ridley Scott’s Alien relaunch, the future actually seems bright for 20th Century Fox’s two iconic monster franchises.

11 Responses

  1. I’ll probably see it on DVD.

    • Yep, if you’re uncertain about it, it’s probably best to wait, but it is the best thing to happen to those beasts since the original film. Not perfect (by a long shot), but thoroughly entertaining.

  2. Excellent review, I’m really looking forward to this. I always felt with Robert Rodriguez on board the film could rise above the likes of AvP. The trailer looked promising and I’m glad it delivered the necessary thrills and spills – it’s all we ask for from this type of film.

    As an aside, I wouldn’t put Predator 2 in with the AvP lot. The sequel for me was one of the best sci-fi actioners of that late 80s/early 90s period. Danny Glover was great, as was Bill Paxton. I thought Hopkins did a great job with the inner-city jungle staging. And, that sequence on the underground train is one of the finest action scenes I’ve seen – claustrophobic, fast-paced, frightening.

    • I can see where you’re coming from, Dan, but I really didn’t like the second Predator film – save Gary Busey. It was just nonsense. The idea of putting a creature like that in an urban environment is great, but wasn’t sold on the execution.

  3. Pretty much the nail on the head for me. I saw it last night and really enjoyed it

    • Yep. Not a classic, but nice dumb fun. I can see myself settling on it while channel-surfing a few years down the line, it’s that sort of film.

  4. I said this in the “Perfect ’10” thread, but it makes me a little sad that this is my most anticipated movie of the season after Scott Pilgrim and Inception. And happy at the same time, especially since it sounds kinda good, something I’m thrilled about given how bad the AvP movies have been.

  5. I wasn’t interested in this initially, but the spots have me curious.

  6. Glad to read that it received your stamp of approval. Looking forward to see this on Monday.

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