By Preston Wilder
A Predator, as movie fans have known since 1987, is an alien creature that kills people for sport – though that’s actually not a very accurate description of a predator (it should really be killing for survival, not sport), as gets pointed out more than once in this lavishly – and laddishly – entertaining reboot; trust Shane Black to muddy a popular franchise with smart-ass semantics. Black (writer-director, most recently, of the much-underrated The Nice Guys) has the most freewheeling sense of humour in blockbuster filmmaking, neck-and-neck with James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy. His films aren’t especially visual – his main contribution as director is to make sure his scripts aren’t diluted – but who cares, when the jokes land so gratifyingly.
And the action? That’s not bad either, though the violence is self-consciously splattery – eyes impaled, heads split open, bodies sheared in two, etc – and the film is a touch overlong, capped by a drawn-out, sequel-enabling ending. Jokes don’t belong in a Predator movie, of course – fans of the 1987 original would be outraged by the thought of a spoof – and The Predator takes its job seriously, adding a few welcome tweaks like an autistic kid (11-year-old Jacob Tremblay) who’s also the son of heroic-but-troubled soldier Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook). “You feel like a stranger on your own planet, don’t you?” Quinn is asked at one point – and the kid also adds to this theme of alien-ness and alienation, though he also goes out trick-or-treating with an actual Predator helmet as a Halloween costume. It’ll end in tears, or at least a ginormous explosion.
There’s more than one Predator now (they talk in Predator-ese, with Greek subtitles), including a “space dog” who turns out to be semi-friendly – but the film’s glory lies in its heroes, not its monsters. Like a more profane version of The Expendables (speaking of 80s throwbacks), The Predator flanks Quinn with a quintet of unreconstructed tough guys known as ‘Group 2’, whose reactions to the prospect of doing battle with the alien range from macho glee to too-cool indifference. One of the group has Tourette’s, another is a Bible-basher and probable virgin (a lady scientist, played by Olivia Munn, also enters the picture). Yet another is a Brit, introducing himself with the line “Entropy: that’s my game”, yet another a cackling comedian with a line in tasteless yo-mama jokes: “If your mum’s vagina was a video game, it’d be rated ‘E’ for Everyone!”
The film is a gift for your inner 14-year-old boy (even though the script was written by two men in their late 50s), blending ultra-violence and political incorrectness. One guy calls another ‘retarded’ – uh-oh, the r-word – and is duly rebuked: “Have a little sensitivity, man! [indicating Quinn] His son’s retarded!”. The language is salty. The lady scientist gets manhandled. Wonder Woman this is not. Yet The Predator comes across as knowing rather than crass, a film with a fine awareness of doomed, self-destructive machismo and its own status as a needless reboot – and Black is such a daredevil writer, grabbing any weird idea that takes his fancy. Autism is touted as the next stage in human development. There’s a passing mention of climate change that’s a little shocking in its casual pessimism. Future generations (if any) will view 2018 as a time when humanity made films on the clear assumption that its days were numbered.
Enough blather; what about the plot? It’s a little muddled, to be honest, with the Predators now hybrid creatures carrying human DNA (as well as DNA from the top species in each of the planets they’ve visited); there’s also some business with a pellet that makes you invisible, swallowed by Quinn (for safekeeping) in a glass of tequila. To be honest, I didn’t really care. The Predators are amusing beasties with bright-green blood and twitching insect mandibles, and the chief Predator is – as the film might put it – a major asshole, using a severed human arm for a thumbs-up and giving our heroes a seven-minute head start before proceeding to butcher them. “That’s the thing that killed my men,” says a CO. “Yeah, they do that,” comes the blithe reply. Like I said, knowing.
It’s a dirty little secret that none of the five previous films in the Predator universe (no, not even the original) were all that great. The Predator isn’t great either – but it’s made by a card-carrying smart-aleck, which at least makes it entertaining. “Been a long time since I held a gun in my hand,” muses one of the guys. “What’s it feel like?” asks another. “Like a gun!” comes the snarky punchline. Maybe there’s a touch of Predator as God, a higher species primed to take over from our weary, self-destructive species; maybe not. Higher meanings pale into insignificance when creatures are exploding in green splatter and our heroes are debating the correct use of ‘ostensibly’ – or indeed ‘predator’. Harvey Weinstein cameo in the sequel, Mr. Black?
DIRECTED BY Shane Black
STARRING Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay
US 2018 107 mins