Posts Tagged ‘Predator’

Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (probably not showing at a cinema near you, but available to stream on Mouse+) is set in the early 18th century somewhere in continental North America. Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche woman who burns to be taken seriously by the rest of her tribe – every day she goes off and practices with the tomahawk she inherited from her late father, and with which she has attained an alarming degree of proficiency, but there never seems to be much question of her being allowed to hunt with the young men of the tribe. This is particularly galling given that her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) has just been chosen as their war chief.

One day Naru is about her illicit practice when she is disturbed by an ominous rumbling from the sky: fire flashes there. Not long after, another young hunter is attacked by a lion and disappears. Taabe leads a party of young men to find the lost hunter and kill the beast, and Naru manages to persuade them to take her along. But something has scared the big cat off before it can finish off the wounded man. Taabe and the others see this as good news – only Naru pauses to wonder what could be responsible. Huge footprints and strangely-mutilated animal carcasses only add to her concerns.

Still no-one will listen to her, as she is only a young woman and not taken seriously by the men around her (there may possibly be a bit of a socio-political subtext here), and so she and her dog end up going off into the wilderness in pursuit of whatever this strange new beast may be. She is naturally more than a little surprised when it proves to be an horrific ogre which takes body parts as trophies from the men it hunts, has phosphorescent green blood, and can turn invisible at will…

The cockroach-like qualities of the Predator franchise are, of course, well-known – John McTiernan’s original movie is a no-debate-necessary classic of action sci-fi, but as far as all the sequels go… well, let’s just say that every time it seems like the bottom of the barrel has been reached and the series has finally expired, something new crawls into view. But the consistency of the downward trajectory, in terms of quality, is actually quite impressive – the only uptick, probably, being that 2010’s Predators was better than the second Alien Vs Predator movie (it would be difficult to be worse, or at least more revolting). I suppose we can credit the franchise’s refusal to do the decent thing and just expire to the sheer quality of the first film.

Now, however, I find myself obliged to do a complete rethink of my attitudes here, as Prey – which is, as you have probably figured out for yourself, technically Predator 7, a prequel to all the other films – is the first entry in the series which isn’t somehow a bit dispiriting in at least 30 years. I might even go so far as to say that it’s actually rather good.

Novelty goes a long way when it comes to revitalising these old franchises, of course. Doing a ‘historical’ Predator movie is, with hindsight, such a no-brainer that one wonders why it has taken so long for it to happen; if Prey does well then I would expect a slew of these things over the next few years. This film, set in the great American wilderness against a backdrop of conflict between Native Americans and French trappers, sometimes feels rather as though the Predator has crashed into the middle of The Revenant – an intriguing and rather exciting idea. (It got me thinking as to what other worthy historical movies could be thus improved by the insertion of hostile extraterrestrials. I’ll let you know what Julian Fellowes thinks of my pitch for Downton Abbey 3: Flayed Alive.)

The shift in setting has necessitated a slight rejig in the usual aesthetics of one of these films – there is still gore and dismemberment aplenty, but less heavy firepower: lances, arrows, axes, and so on, do most of the work. In a nice touch, the Predator’s own equipment is a bit less high-tech than in the present-day movies – the Yautja don’t seem to have invented that shoulder-mounted plasma cannon yet, but the (dare I say it) iconic invisibility screen is still present and correct. In many ways this is absolutely all the things you want to see from a Predator film, with none of the extraneous stuff that started to creep in from the first sequel onwards. (Well, now that I think on it, the classic Alan Silvestri theme isn’t there.)

The really neat thing about the premise of Prey is that not only does it shake up and revitalise a franchise which has felt moribund for over a decade, it also allows 20th Century Not-Fox to score some easy points for making a film which is built around a powerful message of feminine empowerment and also showcases performers of Native American heritage. (An alternate dub of the film where the Comanche characters speak their own language, rather than English, is also available. I gave that a miss, but I can see how it might work better than the ‘mainstream’ version.)

I would be lying if I said that Prey handles its feminist subtext with enormous grace and subtlety, but I’ve seen this sort of thing done much worse elsewhere, while the tribal background to the story only seems natural given the premise of the film. It’s a very different presentation of Native American life to most that I can think of – I watched the movie with the spousal co-unit and she was quite complementary about the careful depiction of just how the Comanche lived – and I almost regret the decision to advertise the film as a Predator movie in advance; getting the audience to watch what seemed to be a rather earnest drama about Native American society only to confront them with a ravening big-name monster would be tremendous coup de theatre.

As it is, it can still come across as worthy and perhaps sometimes just a little bit slow – the beautiful landscapes and Midthunder’s engaging performance go some way to making up for this, and the script is also quite cleverly constructed. The action sequences and visual effects are also well up to expectations. It’s a shame this film isn’t getting more of a cinema release, but nevertheless – I’m not sure it quite qualifies as an exciting new dawn for the Predator series, but it’s still the most interesting thing to have happened to it in decades.

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Just before I went off on this most recent trip, I made a stern promise to myself that I would stay strong, hold fast, remember my principles and not go to see any new movies in Russian no matter how much I regretted not being in the UK to see them. As it turned out, the only one that even came close to testing my resolve was Shane Black’s The Predator. There is some historical irony to this, as one of the films which led me to swear off the whole dubbed experience was watching Alien Vs Predator: Requiem in Italy, ten years ago. What can I say, I must just be a sucker for the Predator franchise.

Further proof is lent by the fact that, finding myself back in Britain, the very first film I trundled along to see was Black’s new offering, the fourth in the series – or possibly the sixth, depending on how you feel about those little-loved Alien cross-overs. Well, I say little-loved, but one of the weird things about the Predator franchise is that it seems to go on and on and on without ever making a film which is actually, um, much good or especially popular. The last (and indeed only) Predator film generally agreed to have any significant quality to it came out in 1987, which was so long ago that the likes of Emma Stone, Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Lawrence were not even born at the time (Jason Statham was 19), that the Tory party was still winning sizeable UK majorities, and that Donald Trump had yet to go bankrupt even once. Possibly only Highlander is a better example of something that was mildly popular a long time ago managing to hang on seemingly indefinitely, more like a cockroach infestation than an actual franchise.

The movie opens in the traditional fashion with a Predator arriving on Earth, in Mexico (presumably a deliberate call-back to the original film, but who knows), and thus spoiling the evening of US special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose mission is thrown into chaos as a result. McKenna manages to lay his hands on some of the alien’s kit, which he promptly posts off to his ex-wife and son (as you would), before he is grabbed by shadowy government types and thrown in a rubber hospital to ensure his silence. Meanwhile, biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is recruited by the same agency to investigate some strange anomalies discovered by an examination of the Predator, whom they have managed to capture.

Well, it’s all going reasonably well (for the shadowy government types at least), until another starship shows up. The captured Pred takes advantage of the panic and confusion this causes and busts out, heading off in search of its purloined equipment. In pursuit of the creature are Bracket and McKenna, the latter having teamed up with a busload of wacky army veterans suffering from various psychiatric disorders. The hunter has become the hunted! Although, to be strictly accurate, the hunters hunting the hunter are also themselves the objects of some hunting from another hunter. What could be simpler?

‘A very large number of things’ would be an honest answer. It is slightly baffling that they have gone for this particular story for the new film, especially given that it’s the work of someone with at least a passing connection with the original (good) Predator movie – Shane Black had a small role back in 1987 as the first member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team to get disembowelled. The thing about the first Predator is that it is a deceptively simple story – sure, there’s a not-very-deeply-buried subtext about the Vietnam War, but mainly it’s about tough guys in extremis, in fear for their lives as they are picked off one by one by a terrifying and mysterious alien force. It’s a great SF-action-horror movie, but how are you supposed to come up with a sequel to it that isn’t just an empty retread?

They have, of course, had several goes at finding a follow-up to that classic Predator hunts people in a jungle scenario: Predator hunts people in a city, to start off with, followed by Predator hunts Aliens at the South Pole, then Predator hunts especially disgusting Aliens in small-town America, and finally Predator hunts a bunch of people on a fairly boring alien planet. Most of the preceding films are really not very good, but they are still easier to summarise than the new one, which is never knowingly under-plotted and seems to be deeply conflicted about the idea of letting the Predator ever actually do any hunting. For most of the film the only reference to this is a running gag about how the Predator is really badly named, as it actually behaves more like a trophy-bagging sports hunter than an actual predator in the biological sense – it’s a typically smart and cynical Shane Black line, but comes perilously close to the film sending itself up.

You really do get a sense of a film scrabbling around trying to find new ideas to justify its existence. Too often these come at the expense of demystifying the creatures too much, of explaining things which really did not require an explanation in the first place. There doesn’t need to be a particular reason why the various Predators have been so keen on extracting their targets’ spinal columns: it’s just a memorably scary piece of imagery. The pleasures of the Predator franchise are largely superficial anyway – once you dispense with Arnie as the leading man, you’re basically left with a banging theme tune (which gets played rather a lot in this film, especially when you consider its composer isn’t that prominently credited) and a cool monster suit. Fiddly plotting and complicated back-stories do not really find a natural home in this series.

Nor, to be perfectly honest, does Shane Black’s particular brand of humour. Here he is working with his regular partner Fred Dekker and the usual sort of scabrous, fast-talking, profane dialogue peppers the movie – if you’ve seen The Nice Guys or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you will know what I mean (there are also some quite good pieces of physical comedy, too). But the kind of knowing and tongue-in-cheek humour that worked so well in one of Black’s detective comedies or in Iron Man 3 (one of the very few Marvel movies to attempt to succeed through wit rather than spectacle and actually succeed) always feels in danger of toppling the film over into camp or self-parody, which may be why the script is relatively restrained here: a lot of the film just feels like by-the-numbers action movie machismo. It’s almost a shame, because more and better jokes might have made up for some of the clunkier and more laborious plotting and exposition.

My instinct would be to say that, despite some good moments and interesting ideas, The Predator is a bit of a dud and unlikely to do much for the fortunes of this particular franchise: I might even suggest the films are getting worse, the stories withering away as the scripts run out of ideas. But then I would have said the same, if not much worse, about all the other sequels, and yet here we still are. I guess this is just the kind of film which will always make money, provided they don’t go too mad on the budget – and there’s no reason why they should; past releases seems to have proven that these films don’t need star names to make a profit. If so, then it is a shame that they can’t push the boat out and come up with a more interesting script, because I’m tempted to say that if Shane Black can’t come up with a more entertaining and engaging Predator movie than this one, I doubt anybody can.

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