After more than 20 years and five motion pictures, moviegoers still know very little about the alien species called “Predators.” They’re big, they’re tough, they hunt humans for sport, and that was all most filmmakers needed to crank out butt-kicking sci-fi/horror movies.
But times have changed, audiences love mythology, and now we have “The Predator,” a film that reveals more than we ever knew about these iconic movie villains — and more or less ruins them forever.
“The Predator” stars Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”) as Quinn McKenna, a sniper whose latest mission is interrupted when an unidentified flying object crash-lands into his line of fire. A Predator emerges, kills Quinn’s whole troop, and Quinn escapes with a valuable piece of its technology, which he mails to himself for insurance, just in case the government tries to cover it up. (He also swallows another piece of it, for no other reason than he’ll need to poop that out later for plot purposes.)
Sure enough, a cover-up commences. Dr. Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) gets called in to analyze the captured, living Predator. Quinn gets institutionalized for seeing aliens. And his mysterious package of alien mystery accidentally winds up in the hands of his young son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay, “Room”), who immediately opens it up and begins unlocking its dangerous contents.
Before too long, the Predator escapes, Quinn goes on the run with Casey and a therapy group filled with soldiers suffering from comic-relief mental illnesses, and they’re all looking for Rory and the missing alien technology. Along they way, they learn more about Predators and almost nothing about themselves.
There is a lot to unpack in “The Predator,” but we have to start somewhere, so let’s start with the movie’s tone. John McTiernan’s original “Predator” was a funny film, but the humor served a purpose. It was about wise-cracking tough guy mercenaries who bragged about their sexual prowess and their capacity for violence. So when a vagina-faced alien showed up and slaughtered them one-by-one, and all that bravado faded away, it had a dramatic impact. “Predator” subverted all the macho expectations of the 1980s.
“The Predator” is also a funny film, but its humor is in service of itself. The quips never stop flying, even at the film’s most serious moments, telling fans of the franchise that director Shane Black (who co-wrote with Fred Dekker) isn’t taking this film seriously. And as we learn over the course of the film why the Predators keep coming back to Earth, why they take trophies, and why one of the Predators has turned rogue, we also see that Black doesn’t take the stories and themes that the previous “Predator” movies explored seriously either. The film’s final scene would be laughable in fan fiction, but now it’s actual canon.
It’s possible that some audiences take the “Predator” movies less seriously than others, and those audiences might find something to enjoy about this new installment. There are lots of jokes, even though they’re only sporadically funny. There are lots of action sequences, even though they’re edited haphazardly and sometimes hard to follow. There are lots of monsters, even though the more we learn about them, the harder it is to care.
But there is also a strange attitude in “The Predator,” one that thinks mental illness is serious enough to be the basis for a movie, but not serious enough to take seriously. Quinn’s therapy group consists of hard-working actors like Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”), Keegan-Michael Key (“Keanu”), Alfie Allen (“Game of Thrones”) and Thomas Jane (“1922”), but despite all their talent, and despite appearing in a franchise based on exploring the fragility of the male ego, they’re reduced to comic relief quip machines.
Their suicidal thoughts, their PTSD, even their Tourette syndrome are exploited for superficial humor, until the film finally suggests that they can overcome all their mental-health issues by simply soldiering up and killing some monsters. (Which, again, betrays the original point of the series.)
Meanwhile, young Rory has Asperger’s syndrome, which Black and Dekker treat like a superpower. Rory manages to decode alien languages on the fly and crack extraterrestrial technology by feel. So when “The Predator” isn’t dismissing real-life, complicated psychological conditions as stupid jokes, it’s dismissing real-life, complicated psychological conditions as convenient plot points. And it’s basing the entire movie on those characters, so it’s hard to ignore just how troubling its attitude really is.
And the film’s attitude towards women is troubling as well, and not just in light of the recent controversy. Olivia Munn’s character is mistreated left and right. She’s drugged and wakes up surrounded by strange men, in a scene that’s played for laughs and is the opposite of funny. The movie insists that she needs to lighten up and accept their immaturity, and that’s not funny either. And poor Yvonne Strahovski (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), who plays Rory’s mother, gets only one big moment, and it’s when she gives a passionate speech about how the ex-husband she doesn’t like is the true hero the world needs.
Fans of the “Predator” movies were largely disappointed by the first “Alien vs. Predator” movie, which reduced an exhilarating, intelligent monster movie franchise into jokey matinee nonsense, aimed at Saturday morning audiences. Shane Black’s “The Predator” does more of the same. It’s violent and foul-mouthed enough to earn an R-rating, but there’s a big difference between “for mature audiences” and actually being “mature.” This is an insipid, superficial movie in a franchise that mostly avoided those unflattering distinctions in the past.