I came into The Predator with no real reverence for the series—I had seen the original film a long time ago, caught Predators on cable television once, and all I know about Predator 2 is that Gary Busey is in it.
Instead, I watched the film as a fan of director and co-writer Shane Black’s filmography. After writing 1980s buddy cop classics like Lethal Weapon, Black directed what I consider to be an “Incompetent Buddy Detective Trilogy” consisting of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys. When it was announced that Black, who acted in the first Predator, would direct a new Predator movie, I was confused yet intrigued by what the final product might be.
The Predator is a total fucking mess, and easily the worst film that Shane Black has directed thus far. And it doesn’t even take place during Christmas.
Director: Shane Black
Release Date: September 14, 2018
You should know the drill by now: an extraterrestrial Predator touches down on Earth, and we follow a motley crew consisting of people holding guns attempting to take it down. There are some variations to the formula—for one, there’s been a bit of a minor schism within the Predators, the higher-ups attempting to evolve their species even further. There’s infighting between the humans as well, with a faction attempting to take advantage of Predator technology.
In the center of all of this is Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a skilled sniper and soldier who makes first contact with a crashed Predator at the beginning of the film. Knowing he was delving into shady territory, he ships the Predator technology he encounters to his home, where his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) retrieves it and creates a predicament when he begins to play with it. McKenna is your typical macho action protagonist, and so good at killing that he very nearly enjoys it. Cool.
So we have our leading man, the charismatic-enough Holbrook, and a whiz kid, which seems to be another Shane Black-ism (see: Harley in Iron Man 3, Holly in The Nice Guys). Instead of the buddy film approach, The Predator is more like its predecessors in the series than Black’s films in that it focuses on a larger ensemble cast.
The female lead is Olivia Munn as biologist Casey Bracket, who is curious and headstrong as she is thrown into this absurd situation. We only get a few lines of backstory from her, none of which indicate that she’s firearm-trained, but she runs immediately towards action fully armed. It’s a shame that the film puts her through not one, but two “decontamination” scenes that have her strip naked for no good reason—one of these scenes being shared with Gary Busey’s son, of all people.
And then we have “The Loonies,” a group of mentally-ill military veterans that McKenna finds kinsmanship with. It’s from these cast members where the film attempts to find its Shane Black-branded humor. There’s a constant back-and-forth between these five men, played by Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera. They all have their quirks (one smokes a lot! one’s socially awkward!) and their traumas (physical and mental), and the film wants you to consider them to be the heart of the story.
Unfortunately, the film’s constant attempts at humor constantly undercut the constant looming threat. Rarely did I genuinely laugh at any of the gags presented in the film, like when the Predator fooled the driver of a military truck that all was well in the back by using a severed arm to give a thumbs-up. And the banter between the Loonies eventually turned frustrating. Unlike in a buddy film, where you can focus on a growing dynamic between two characters, The Predator just has a bunch of assholes talking over each other. There’s some great individual character work in this ensemble, but it doesn’t mesh well together.
And I haven’t even mentioned the human villain, an agent played by Sterling K. Brown; the film goes out of its way to try to make you hate his character, but his eternal smugness made him quite annoying more than sinister. Also, he chews a lot of gum, which I guess passes as a personality trait these days. It’s possible that the film would have been stronger with just Holbrook and Munn, but then the Predator wouldn’t have enough named characters to slice up.
The action and editing are some of the worst that I’ve seen in a modern blockbuster. The first act of the film is particularly egregious—with all of this exposition and world-building to be done, not a single moment was able to breathe. Scenes would abruptly cut away right before you’d expect something essential or meaty to occur, creating a disorienting effect that repeats throughout the film. Plot points will fly over your head, characters seemingly teleport in between locations, and the film is rushed enough that if, god forbid, you were to use the restroom during the movie, you’d be totally confused once you get back. This movie needed to be about ten minutes longer for anything to make sense.
Even the action sequences, which you’d think would have had the most care in a film like The Predator, were incomprehensible. With constant cutting, none of the action scenes had a good rhythm to them. The blocking and camerawork give a very poor perspective of the geography, and many of the action beats don’t register well (some of the non-suit parts of Iron Man 3 suffered from this as well). There were moments where important characters would die, and I wouldn’t even realize it by how piss-poor the editing was. It certainly didn’t help that some of the CGI was laughable, especially during moments where Predator characters are right next to humans. Action and editing seem to take a backseat to quippy writing in Shane Black-directed films, but it’s particularly egregious here.
You’d hope that with the technical aspects of the film being muddled that the film would at least work from a thematic standpoint—in that regards, The Predator felt a bit misguided. You see, Quinn McKenna’s son Rory is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. And despite the bullying that he endures and the challenges of communication with other people, Rory’s intelligence is essential to many of the problems presented in the film.
It all comes across as an attempt to empower those with mental health issues, with our hero “Loonies” all having something different to deal with. But a big problem is that too much of the humor is at the expense of their mental health: for example, Thomas Jane plays a character with Tourette syndrome, with Key’s character constantly poking the hornet’s nest. Couple that with Rory’s autism being a key element of the final plot developments, and you have a story that’s well-intentioned, but like M. Night Shaymalan’s Split, comes across as ill-informed. This movie completely backfired in its attempts to destigmatize mental illness, in ways that I predict people will find either laughable or downright offensive.
Ultimately, The Predator is a film with an identity crisis: half-Shane Black movie, half-Predator movie, and in its attempt to find itself, destroys everything in its path. It’s fitting that hybridization and evolution are themes for this movie, with this film being a hybrid of styles but a failure to evolve from past iterations.
Sometimes the film is gritty and oh-so gory, but most of the time it has the tone of a standard PG-13 action blockbuster, heroic musical score and all. The middle of the film deviates from the Predator formula before the third act abruptly snaps back to it in quite possibly the most contrived way ever. And if you’re able to stomach this confused jumble to the end, try not to be baffled by the completely ludicrous final minutes.
So those are my thoughts on The Predator, and I somehow got through it without even mentioning the behind-the-scenes shitshow involving Shane Black hiring a buddy of his, a sex offender, for a scene in the film with Olivia Munn. I’ll leave it to a tweet storm of mine to sum up my feelings, but I’ll leave you with a moment from the film that I think perfectly summarizes the entire predicament, both on-screen and off.
At the end of the first act of the film, an encounter with the Predator leaves Munn’s character having accidentally shot herself in the foot with a tranquilizer dart. She’s on top of a bus that McKenna and the Loonies, unfamiliar with her at this point, are leaving to avoid an approaching Predator. McKenna urges Munn to jump off—he’ll catch her, he says. One of the Loonies sees a row of motorcycles, and yells perhaps the dumbest line in the film: “Get to the choppers!” A drowsy Munn drops down while McKenna, saying “sorry,” runs away towards the cycles, leaving Olivia Munn to ragdoll straight onto the ground.
Nice going, assholes.