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To Catch a Predator: Why Is It So Hard to Franchise the Predator?

The Predator is one of the most iconic creations of the past thirty-odd years.

The creature created by Stan Winston for John McTiernan’s 1987 action blockbuster is instantly recognisable. It is striking and distinctive. Even people who have never sat down and watched a movie featuring the creature are familiar with the design. This is especially notable given that it could have been a disaster. The original design for the creature is something of an internet urban legend, part of the pop cultural folklore. Predator narrowly averted disaster when Stan Winston redesigned the monster from scratch, so it is all the more impressive that it became such a classic.

It is no surprise that the Predator was quickly franchised. After all, that is how the film industry works. Although modern prognosticators decry the modern era as one defined by sequels and remakes and reboots, but they have always been a feature of the landscape. So the Predator became the cornerstone of an impressive multimedia franchise; even outside of games and comic books, the creature anchored Predator 2, Alien vs. Predator, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, Predators and The Predator. That’s an impressive list, in terms of quantity and variety.

However, it is decidedly less impressive in terms of quality. Of those five sequels, Predators is the only one with a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. Similarly, Predators is the only sequel with a vaguely positive rating on MetaCritic, scraping just over fifty percent. This is the kind of showing that audiences and critics expect from low-rent horror sequels like those starring Freddie Kreuger or Jason Voorhees. (Indeed, the latest sequel starring Michael Myers is critically outpacing The Predator.) It is not exactly an impressive track record for a reasonably big budget mainstream high-profile science-fiction franchise.

Indeed, the stock comparison for the Predator is the Alien franchise, and for good reason. The xenomorph from Alien is another iconic late twentieth-century alien design housed within an R-rated science-fiction action-horror franchise. Both properties are owned by Twentieth Century Fox, allowing them to intersect and crossover within a shared universe. Both have spawned a variety of sequels, and are loosely linked in the popular mind in the way that the Universal Studios films linked Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster with the Mummy or the Invisible Man.

However, this stock comparison does not flatter the Predator. After all, the xenomorph has been at the centre of a franchise that is consistently interesting and at best innovative. There are sequels to Alien that are rightly regarded as classics such as Aliens, while other have launched great careers such as Alien³, and some still cause fierce debates. For all the criticism of films like Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, they at least engender passion in their audiences, in a way that the sequels to Predator do not. Why is it so hard to make a good Predator sequel?

The answer may lie with the Predator itself. The Predator is undoubtedly a fascinating creation. It is an extraterrestrial big game hunter that ventures to foreign planets in order to hunt the most dangerous prey. Inevitably, Predator movies suggest that humans make particularly engaging prey, although xenomorphs are a lucrative sideline. The Predator provides everything that a good action movie needs from its antagonist; it is sadistic enough to extend its kills, mysterious enough to hold the audience’s interest, imposing enough to provide a real threat.

The Predator is undeniably a cool design, even with its armour on. Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack (and the sound design of the creature’s equipment) suggests a tribal aspect to the creature. The helmet is imposing, but the face underneath the helmet is even more striking. The creature has green blood that is thick as goop and which glows in the dark, a nice little touch that establishes the creature as “other” even beyond its clammy reptilian skin and the pincers around its mouth. It is striking, and a creature that it’s fun to imagine in a variety of different settings.

However, there is also something very superficial and shallow about the Predator, something very generic and surface level. After all, what does the predator represent, on a primal and emotional level? The Invisible Man taps into anxieties about identity and privacy; the Mummy speaks to fears of colonial powers that they might awaken some some dormant primal force in conquered lands; Dracula is tied up in ideas of immortality and sexuality; Frankenstein’s monster represents nervousness about unchecked and unguarded scientific progress.

Even the xenomorph represents something very primal and very basic. It is the living embodiment of the fear of sexual assault and perversion. The life cycle of the xenomorph taps into latent fears about sexual violence; the facehugger is a vagina that assaults a person’s face, ramming itself down the throat to implant eggs that will lead to a violent (and fatal) birth that produces a creature that might best be categorised as a penis with teeth. The xenomorph is loaded with symbolism and subtext, suggesting deeper meanings and hinting at various unarticulated nightmares.

After all, Alien riffs on the idea of distorted gender roles; the cold and clinical “mother” computer, the version of Ripley so masculine that she was originally written as a male character, the brutality of male pregnancy. Similarly, Aliens plays with the idea of unconventional family units, having Ripley find a new family at the same time that the Alien Queen is introduced as a grotesque mother to these monsters. Alien³ plays into the idea of religious repression, positioning the monster as a force of divine retribution. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant imagine the creature as the embodiment of thwarted, frustration creative ambition.

So, what exactly does the Predator represent in these terms? It’s a difficult question, and one that the films have struggled to answer. Predator probably comes closest in tying the creature to the idea of colonialism and opportunistic violence, paralleling the intergalactic big game hunter who kills for sport with the Reagan-era government-sanctioned interventions into Central America. There is a sense that the Predator has as much right to be in that jungle as Dutch and his commandos, perhaps even more. At least there is a philosophical purity in the destruction that it cultivates, unlike the crass politicking of the CIA.

This approach to the Predator is tied up in racial anxieties as much as any political commentary. The Predator is a figure from colonial literature, the ultimate big game hunter. He is a science-fiction Allan Quatermain. However, in an especially ironic touch, the creature is coded in terms of colonial depictions of native populations. The creature has advanced armour, but often wander around in little more than a loin clothe. It is mostly mute. It rips the skulls and spines from its victims. It engages in the sort of psychological warfare that colonial fiction expects of hidden tribes. The drums on the soundtrack reinforce this suggestion.

Race is a very sensitive subject in American popular culture, particularly in recent years. The Predator is certainly not ideally positioned to explore these anxieties in a nuanced or delicate way, as Predator 2 demonstrates. Predator 2 is a very interesting film on a number of levels, if not an especially good one. From the outset, it is very clear that the production team have no idea how exactly to make a sequel to Predator. Part of this is simply down to talent. The Alien franchise had the luxury of going from Ridley Scott to James Cameron to David Fincher. In contrast, Predator went from John McTiernan to Stephen Hopkins.

More than that, the sequel to Predator demonstrates remarkably little self-confidence. In transitioning from Alien to Aliens, the xenomorph demonstrated its flexibility. It could be the star of both horror movies and action movies, it could almost reinvent its life-cycle and core concept between films, it could demonstrate remarkable thematic resilience. Alien and Aliens are undoubtedly part of the same universe, they are radically different films. In contrast, Predator 2 lacks that same sense of creativity or inventiveness.

Predator 2 is very consciously and very conspicuously borrowing from Aliens. There are a host of aspects from the xenomorph sequel that are ported almost directly into Predator 2: the stereotypical “tough latina” supporting character, the motormouth posturing hotshot played by Bill Paxton, the soundtrack by Alan Silvestri that sounds very influenced by James Horner, the presence of multiple Predators within the same film. Even the climax of the film features a winking, knowing easter egg that nods towards the franchise’s bigger and more popular elder sibling.

This all feels deeply frustrating and unsatisfying, as if Predator 2 is more interested in being like Aliens than it is in finding something new or interesting with the premise established by Predator. There is no radical reinvention, no inspiring innovation. There’s nothing in the film that really pushes the boundaries of what the eponymous creature can be or what it can be used to do. If anything, Predator 2 does the exact opposite. It serves to set very firm boundaries on what the eponymous monster can be and to cut off various avenues of exploration.

Predator 2 effectively doubles down on the racial subtext of Predator, but removes all of the postcolonial commentary. The 1990 sequel moves from the jungles of Central America to the “urban jungle” of South Central Los Angeles. Those are notably two very different contexts. They require two very different approaches. The Predator means something very different when dropped from Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy into the crime-ridden inner city. The creature’s racially-coded subtext requires a much more careful and measured approach in this new environment.

After all, Los Angeles was a hotbed of racial anxiety during the nineties. The late eighties had seen an explosion in gang violence (and fears about gang violence) within the city. The city was two years away from the Rodney King riots, and five years away from the O.J. Simpson trial. California would become a hub of nativist sentiment that would arguably provide the basis for the modern wave of ethno-nationalism. These anxieties often simmered to the surface of popular culture, such as in the way that Star Trek: Voyager approached the concept of the Kazon.

Predator 2 doesn’t just lean into these racial anxieties. It embraces them. The film unfolds in the midst of a gang war over Los Angeles between the Columbians and the Haitians, a detail that adds very little of material value to the plot and which is completely forgotten by the climax of the story. Although the mainstream adoption of the phrase “superpredator” to describe a speculative wave of young violent offenders (who never materialised) was several years away, Predator 2 seems designed to tap into these same basic fears.

The result is a sequel that serves to demonstrate why the Predator cannot be built around these core anxieties in the same way that the xenomorph is built around sexual violence. In his review of Predator 2, Roger Ebert noted that the creature was “a work of subtle racism. Subliminal clues are slipped in to encourage us to subconsciously connect the menace with black males. One not-so-subtle scene has the predator threatening a Bernhard Goetz type on the subway. This time, the Goetz type meets his match.”

As such, Predator 2 seemed to serve as a limit case, demonstrating that the franchise wasn’t ready to embrace a postcolonial approach to the creature. The Alien franchise got a lot of mileage out of turning sexual violence back on the most frequent perpetrators of sexual violence, imaging a horror landscape where men were assaulted by vaginas and in which men could be impregnated against their consent. It’s no coincidence that the early Alien films have the creature unleashed (and thriving) in stereotypically macho environments; the truckers in Alien, the military unit in Aliens, the prison in Alien³.

Predator suggested that the Predator could do something similar. In a Central American jungle, the monster is unleashed against a squadron of elite soldiers engaged in the late twentieth century equivalent of colonialism, the creature at once both more primitive and more advanced than the imperialist forces that it was hunting. However, Predator 2 bungled the metaphor and instead presented the creature not as an ironic boomeranging expression of colonial violence, but as an example of barely concealed racist anxieties. Predator 2 effectively dismantled any sense that the Predator could be about something.

The other films featuring the Predator have often groped in the dark trying to figure out what to do with the creatures, and what they might represent given that Predator 2 had unceremoniously stripped out the most obvious avenue of commentary. Predators offered the most earnest attempt at constructing a metaphor around the creatures, trying to present a bigger philosophical idea of what the monsters represent. This might explain why Predators is both the most successful of the sequels to the original film and regarded as somewhat middling in execution.

Predators tries really hard to understand the concept of the Predators. As with Predator, it understands that irony is the key to any successful movie monster; the implication that the monster is perhaps us and we are perhaps it, that the monster represents some form of higher poetic justice or reckoning delivered upon the cast. Predators has a big central idea, and it commits to it. As played by Adrien Brody, the character of Royce is much a poet as a warrior. He liberally quotes from Hemmingway and ruminates on the similarities between himself and the monsters pursuing the group.

Predators somewhat belabours the point, often seeming like a thesis statement more than an action film. It is very much a post-Nolan action movie, where it is not enough for a film to have a theme, the characters have to actually explicitly and seriously explain the theme for the benefit of the audience. Predators takes itself much more seriously than any other movie in the franchise, which means that it stands out. Then again, Predators felt like it was consciously trying to restore some sense of meaning to the iconic creature, after the triple whammy of Predator 2Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.

The only issue is that there’s really not anything particularly insightful about the way in which Predators approaches the concept of the creature. Indeed, the theses statement of Predators can arguably be boiled down to “the real Predator was the the friends we made along the way”, a rumination on the idea that man is both the most dangerous game and the most fearsome hunter. It’s hard to fault Predators too much for focusing on a very basic and very simple core idea of what the creature represents, if only because it is the only movie in the franchise apart from the original to actually think about it.

(Predators is somewhat undervalued and under-discussed as far as modern monster movies and franchise films go. Despite its problems, there is a lot to recommend it. Adrien Brody is wonderfully cast against type as the most unlikely person to hunt and kill a Predator, doubling down on the casting of Danny Glover in Predator 2. More than that, there’s a wonderful creeping sense of dread that permeates the movie and director Nimrod Atal very effectively uses his ensemble. At the very least, it is the only Predator sequel to include an honest-to-goodness shout-out to Akira Kurusawa, and that has to count for something.)

As such, it can often seem like the Predator is a rather shallow concept, particularly when compared to the enigmatic and unsettling xenomorph. The Predator is a big monstrous alien creature that shows up and hunts things with advanced technology. There is no subtext, there is no symbolism. There is just a cool design and a lot of gore, which has been around long enough to be cultivated as a source of nostalgia. This empty approach explains the use of the Predators as plot devices (and even supporting protagonists) in Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this. There is a lot to be said for the concept of a big dumb action movie without any deeper meaning or purpose. It’s not too hard to imagine a universe populated with Predator sequels that consist of little more than the creature hunting a random selection of human characters in a variety of different settings, unburdened by big ideas or weighty themes. Think of it, Predator as a vague concept in the same fashion as John McTiernan’s Die Hard; Predator… in suburbia, Predator… in the desert, Predator… in the ocean, Predator… in space, Predator… in a skyscraper.

However, the realities of modern movie-making mean that the Predator cannot be consigned to the same empty cheap thrills as the lower-tier movie monsters like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees or Freddie Kreuger. The Predator is not a B-list movie monster, and so is unlikely to ever find itself going direct-to-video. Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem might feel like direct-to-video films, but they are too expensive and too high-profile. Thanks to both the success of the original Predator and its close association with the xenomorph, the Predator is simply too big and popular to stoop to that level of schlock.

As a result, the Predator finds itself constantly marked for franchise reinvention and reconceptualisation. Not for nothing is the creature’s most successful film to date the monster movie mash-up Alien vs. Predator. Even outside of the shared universe crossovers of Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, the creature has seen itself marked for franchise success in both Predators and The Predator. Notably, and perhaps predictably, both efforts failed to properly jumpstart the Predator franchise. Even the controversial and divisive Prometheus was successful enough to get a sequel.

There is a sense that the Predator is simply not built for the demands of a modern film franchise, with its world-building and cross-media saturation. This might explain why earlier Predator sequels borrowed so liberally from Aliens, as if trying to take a template that worked from another franchise instead of building one tailor-made for this creature. As reconfigured following the disaster that was Predator 2, the Predator is an exceedingly simple concept. It is a hunter. It tracks characters down, and it kills them. Bonus points if those killings are especially creative or gory. It is not rocket-science.

However, modern franchise films increasingly insist upon mythologies that are very close to rocket-science. Perhaps reflecting the internet era, and the very vocal criticisms of a subset of film fans preoccupied with “plot holes” and “logic”, modern blockbusters are aggressively dedicated to over-explaining everything about their films to the audience. After all, a persistent complaint about The Dark Knight Rises concerns how Bruce Wayne could possibly have gotten back to Gotham in about two weeks with nothing but his wits and the clothes on his back. (The answer, which was not spelled out to the audience: he’s Batman.)

So modern franchise films have to explain everything. The long-term spiritual companion of (and sometime creative collaborator with) the Predator knows this only too well. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are effectively extended origin stories for the monster in Alien, glossing over the fact that the monster from Alien did not actually need an origin story. Indeed, this world-building is deeply frustrating, and by some distance the least interesting aspect of both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. (Michael Fassbender’s David is the most interesting aspect, and he has very little to do with continuity and world-building.)

Still, whatever issues Prometheus and Alien: Covenant might have in over-explaining the xenomorph, at least the xenomorph has enough textual depth to support some of the interesting ideas underpinning the films. The warped sexual violence of the xenomorph serves to effectively parallel the repression and frustration felt by David in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. In the world of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, if the xenomorph is the threat of sexual assault, then David embodies a perverted and warped masculinity rooted in frustration of his sexual identity. (David is an incel.)

The Predator is not complex enough to support this sort of development, which makes The Predator a deeply frustrating attempt at franchise building. Watching the film, there is a sense that Shane Black might be in on the joke as he goes to incredible lengths to over-explain and to over-complicate the legacy of the Predator in order to build a movie around the creature that superficially resembles contemporary franchise films. The Predator is alternatingly too self-serious and too self-aware, but the film as a whole demonstrates how ridiculous the idea of a modern film franchise built around the Predator truly is.

There is an absurd amount of continuity in The Predator, which seems to exist purely so that The Predator can anchor itself in the previous five films. This is most obvious early in the film, when the audience visits a laboratory that doubles as a museum dedicated to the creature. The scientist in charge of research is Sean Keyes. He is played by Jake Busey. The audience is to understand that he is the son of Peter Keyes, a minor character from Predator 2, played by Gary Busey. It is a connection that exists for no other reason than to nod towards a film in the franchise that nobody especially cares about.

Little details like these suggest that The Predator is trying to position itself in terms of contemporary blockbuster franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Conjuring Shared Universes, complex interconnected continuities where films are all subtly interlocked with one another, full of small winks and nods that add nothing to the individual films except to provide a sense of context. It would be one thing to affirm the connection between The Predator and the original Predator, but the link to Predator 2 seems like the height of franchise self-indulgence, a bold assertion that this is all one big epic story.

The Predator repeatedly takes fairly simple and self-evident aspects of the Predator films and then awkwardly attempts to explain them. According to The Predator, the creature doesn’t rip the spines from its victims because it is collecting trophies. According to The Predator, the creature rips the spines from its victims because it is collecting foreign DNA in order to synthesise it into some sort of… superpredator or apex predator. This small detail is an excellent parody of the need of modern popular fiction to over-complicate itself in order to add a veneer of sophistication or intelligence.

To be fair, the idea that the Predator is constantly improving itself was gently seeded in Predators. However, The Predator tries to make it the whole hook of the alien species. This feels like it takes the creature quite far from its basic concept of a big game hunter. The appeal of the Predator was always in its relative simplicity; it is a hunter, and it hunts. In contrasts, the idea that the Predators are invested in genetic enhancement feels like it muddies that straightforward idea. It also feels like a detail cribbed from the xenomorph, where each iteration takes on some of the characteristics of its host.

This isn’t the only example of the way in which The Predator tries to over-explain something that is pretty self-evident. There is an extended conversation about why the sightings of these aliens have become more frequent in recent years. The obvious answer is: because Fox has been making more films. However, The Predator insists on adding the veneer of sophistication, arguing that the Predators are drawn towards global warming and are actually planning to colonise Earth after mankind goes extinct.

This is a ridiculous plot point, one that seems very much at odds with the original suggestion that Earth was really just a holiday resort for these creatures. It makes the Predators more knowable, more understandable, more conventional. It gives them motivations that are at once more complicated and more generic than they had been. The Predator devotes considerable time to getting inside the head of the creature, stripping out any of the mystery or ambiguity that made the creature so appealing in Predator. The audience gets to read subtitles, and the creature itself speaks directly to the human characters.

All of this is simply too much, to the point where it frequently feels like The Predator has simply dropped an iconic design into a generic alien invasion story and smoothed over some of the edges through clumsy dialogue. There are lots of small inexplicable touches; the idea that the Predators are engaged in some “intergalactic cops-n-robbers bullsh!t” or the unexplained suggestion that there is a civil war brewing among these aliens. In fact, it is even suggested that one of the creatures has come to Earth to help mankind. Why? How does any of this fit with the creature that was so memorable in the original Predator?

There is a sense that The Predator understands that none of this has anything to do with actually being a Predator movie. As a result, the movie makes a very sharp swerve in the third act, away from this over-complicated world-building and continuity back towards the basic underlying premise of the Predator films. The last twenty-minutes or so of The Predator feel radically disconnected from all the plotting that came before, as the creature decides to engage in a bit of nostalgia and hunt the human characters for sport through deserted woodland. It makes a welcome break from alien-themed civil war and police procedurals.

Of course, this is too little and too late. The final twenty minutes of The Predator feel radically disconnected from the preceding ninety. They aspire to be a back-to-basics approach to the creature, with a bunch of crack military types being tracked through the wilderness by a monster, but only serve to underscore how over-complicated and ridiculous the rest of the movie had been to that point. There is a sense that The Predator might have been a better movie if it embraced that relative simplicity from the outset, instead of trying to adapt the eponymous creature for the modern franchise landscape.

The Predator argues that the creature is always evolving, but seems to suggest that it is really just an evolutionary throwback.

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5 Responses

  1. All that bullshit, and you ignore the simplest answer to the question of this article. Make an honest-to-God faithful adaptation of a famous Predator comic. Or even Alien vs. Predator comic. No changes, no whitewashing, no deviations from the plot of the comic, no additions or subtractions, no bullshit. Just make an adaptation. Most of these comic writers know what they’re doing better than the damn screenwriters and directors. I mean, for Christ’s sake, they can make a better Batman vs. Predator spin-off comic than they can a Predator movie outside of the first Predator film.

    • I mean comics don’t always adapt well to screen when adapted directly. There’s a reason that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen isn’t a masterpiece despite incredible fidelity to the source material.

      • That’s because he wanted to overdo it on slowmo, over-extend the length of the fight scenes, and a sex scene, and have a different twist on the original ending. That son of a bitch had the budget and the potential, but he fucked it up (though to be fair, the guy playing the villain didn’t fit the part at all). My point still stands: no additions or subtractions or changes or bullshit.

  2. Occam’s Razor. In this case: only the first Predator had Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s ultimately more memorable than the monster can ever be. “GET TO DA CHOPPA!”

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