Thought experiment: what if Shane Black had directed Annihilation, and 20th Century Fox tapped Alex Garland to direct The Predator? The latter film would have haunting intervals where its dudes with guns contemplated the creative ways the Predator(s) found to kill their friends in the forest; the former would have its female cast cracking offensive jokes and futilely discharging thousands of machine-gun rounds against a wise, mysterious, and all-powerful creature holed up in a lighthouse.
It was never reasonable to have high expectations for a reboot of Predator, the most extravagantly dumb of ’80s sci-fi action classics. The post-Vietnam oily-commandos-in-the-jungle trope was already starting to wear thin by 1987, but John McTiernan sent it out with a bang — a lot of bangs, actually, coming repeatedly to the point of self-parody but never quite crossing over.
The way in which Black’s reboot is truest to its origins is that, in classic Reagan-era fashion, it’s an underwritten, underacted, over-plotted sequel. The Predator doesn’t hold a candle to Predator, but it’s in perfectly suitable company with Predator 2 (1990), Alien vs. Predator (2004), Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007), and Predators (2010).
Black (who played Hawkins in Predator) co-wrote the new film with Fred Dekker; one of their favorite tropes is to have characters point out that “predator” isn’t really the correct term for a being who kills for sport, as the alien Predators do. Yes, despite the title, there are multiple Predators in The Predator, and the relationship between them necessitates most of the film’s exposition.
It’s easy to understand why the producers picked Black for this not-particularly-enviable assignment. He’s helmed major latter-day action flicks like Iron Man 3, but he got his start writing ’80s and ’90s movies you hate to admit you remember: Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, Last Action Hero.
Here, he tries to evoke Predator’s goofy camaraderie with a troupe of military madmen led by sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) — but the tone never quite connects. Keegan-Michael Key is wasted as a funnyman who isn’t funny, while young Jacob Tremblay (Room) is cast as Quinn’s son, a boy who’s described as “on the spectrum” mostly to explain his Predator-like intelligence. He’s the next step in human evolution, we’re told.
We’re also told that biologist Casey (Olivia Munn) has nothing to fear when left alone with a bunch of weapon-wielding men who just broke out of a military mental ward because “they’re soldiers.” Oh, okay. Quinn’s ignorance of the fact that nearly one in 20 women in the military have reported being sexually assaulted might help to explain why, according to Munn, Black has given her the cold shoulder since she blew the whistle on a convicted sex offender being cast for a scene that was cut after Munn spoke up.
Beyond The Predator’s problematic tone, Black just isn’t very good at pacing action scenes. McTiernan (Die Hard) is a master, a key reason why Predator worked as well as it did. In the original film we were drawn into the strange spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger facing down a monster in the jungle, but Black just gives us squirting wounds and flailing limbs (often not connected to bodies). He’s mastered the art of cacophonous monotony.
He also forgoes any sense of wonder or mystery regarding the Predators themselves. The first Predator cannily delayed revealing the creature, who was made manifest through instantly iconic digital POV shots and innovative light-warping effects. Black, perhaps understandably assuming we already know everything about how Predators look and act, trots his out in all its glory just moments into the movie.
This new film’s most innovative idea is to create a sequel title simply by affixing a definite article. Think of the possibilities: The Avatar. The Titanic. The Black Panther. The the Fast and the Furious. They’ll all be better than this movie.