Why Predator is the most underappreciated monster franchise of our time
On the surprising charms of a very tall alien ripping out spinal columns for sport
There are now six sci-fi/action movies starring the armored, tendril-sporting alien hunters known as Predators, but it would be a stretch to call them a multiplex fixture. This weekend's release of The Predator trails its immediate predecessor by eight years, a stop-start longevity owed to the big-studio environment that has produced five Terminator movies and only two good ones. The original story being milked endlessly is 1987's Predator, an action-thriller about a team of mercenaries on a jungle mission who are tracked and mostly killed by a mysterious alien with a cloaking device and a variety of gruesomely effective weapons. Only one of the men — naturally it's the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger — makes it out alive.
The 1987 film's status as the only good one won't likely change with this year's The Predator, released Friday and co-written and directed by the original's bit player Shane Black; so far, it's received a mixture of mild fan enthusiasm, shrugs, and derision similar to 2010's Predators. The reviews for the first follow-up, 1990's Predator 2, were even worse.
The simple explanation is that these sequels needlessly complicate the elemental, dialogue-light simplicity of the first film's Arnold-versus-alien skirmish. The less accepted but correct view is that the Predator sequels are, by and large, pretty solid.
Part of this has to do with the inflated reputation of John McTiernan's original, which is a well-directed B-movie that's nonetheless not as taut or entertaining as McTiernan's Die Hard or Schwarzenegger's first two Terminator pictures. It's still easy to scoff that Predator 2 pits the creature against an amped-up but less imposing Danny Glover instead of declaring a rematch with Arnold. But that movie gets its weird, garish energy from forcing Glover's Los Angeles cop to outwit an extraterrestrial foe in a markedly different environment (also, muscles aren't as much of a perquisite as they appear; no one, not even Arnold, beats a Predator by challenging him to a fistfight). It's not as smoothly crafted as McTiernan's film, but director Stephen Hopkins is the kind of '90s journeyman whose work has aged well.
What Predator 2 establishes with its relocation to Los Angeles is the series' willingness to re-arrange its few core elements. Predators goes back to a jungle, but instead of a cohesive merc team, it follows a band of disparate killers abducted from Earth and brought to another planet for survival games, utilizing an eclectic cast (including two Oscar-winning actors) and the confident direction of the underappreciated Nimrod Antal. Antal's film also introduces the idea of feuding amongst different Predator factions and the idea of monstrous Predator-owned, dog-like beasts, both picked up by Black's new movie.
To the indifferent, this might all just read like endless tinkering with shlock. The rotating directors recall a B-movie version of the Alien series, which may be why the Alien vs. Predator offshoots seemed in the Predator's wheelhouse more than the Alien's. But the four core films' modesty (they're all right around 105 minutes) is surprisingly charming for a series about a very tall alien ripping out spinal columns for sport — or, as we learn in The Predator, for additional, more complicated reasons.
Black's film has the most pointlessly elaborate plotting of the series so far, with at least four sets of characters who despite brisk pacing take awhile to get properly entangled. But its ragtag ensemble is so affectionately drawn by Black that the movie's muddled geography during fights and chases doesn't much matter. Olivia Munn plays a tough biologist, Boyd Holbrook leads a team of troubled soldiers who stumble into the path of multiple Predators, and Sterling K. Brown plays the government antagonist tracking the creatures' latest visit to Earth; they all have fun tossing off Black's sardonic quips, and in some cases stealing the Predators' hunting gear, another one of those minor but clever twists on the Predator formula.
This is a funnier, more self-aware installment, with multiple conversations about why the government calls the creature a Predator when it's really “more like a bass hunter.” But the series, with hallmarks more superficial than subtextual, is flexible enough to accommodate this tone shift, and Black's love for his characters keeps the movie from becoming a one-kill-at-a-time slasher. He even wrings some touching material out of people grappling variously with PTSD, Tourette's, and autism, though its depictions of all three are conveniently movie-ish, which is to say quip-friendly.
The Predators themselves get to show off some new tricks while remaining mostly unsympathetic. As monsters, they're not as expressive as, say, the Universal classics, but while there's not a Predator movie on par with the likes of Bride of Frankenstein or Dracula, it still shares a kinship with those series. The Predators are grotesque figures that are more humanoid in appearance and action than plenty of other contemporary movie aliens. They're durable.
That's why the very end of The Predator, which ignores several of its major characters in order to tease another sequel, feels like a bum, redundant note. There's no need to promise more Predator movies. There will always be more Predator movies. Some franchises run themselves into the ground, but Predator's resilient shlockiness is what makes it so much fun.