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The Predator

I’m out of town this weekend, but I want to get in one more blog entry before I go. And what better movie to cover than what may be the most mixed bag presently in theaters?

The Predator (or Yautja, if you want to be formal about it) has two central gimmicks. First, they’re a horror movie slasher so badass that they prey on teams of well-trained and heavily armed cutthroats instead of hapless coeds. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they’re intelligent alien life.

The Predators have their own technology, fashion, architecture, and even their own written language. They have a code of honor, which implies that they have their own laws and rules. By every metric known to humanity, the Predators are a true civilization. In fact, what makes the Predators so terrifying is the fact that they appear to be a civilization far more advanced than we are, and we’ve seen enough world history to know what happens when a more advanced civilization encroaches on a lesser one.

But on the other hand, the Predators appear to be more deeply in touch with their primal side — cold-blooded and powerful killers with advanced intelligence and wondrous technology. So if humans try to beat them at their own game, are we sinking to their level or rising above our own?

There have been a few attempts at revitalizing the franchise over the years, but we never got a sequel as interesting as the namesake aliens. Yet hopes were high for The Predator, mostly due to the involvement of writer/director Shane Black, formerly a supporting actor in the original film. And in the time since, Black has since grown into a respectable auteur with ample filmmaking cred in action, mystery, and comedy pictures.

Sure enough, Black’s signature comic wit is in full effect here, with well-placed lines and sight gags throughout. Black even found a way to throw in the “Get to the chopper!” catchphrase in a creative and funny way. This wicked sense of humor extends to the action scenes as well, as massive explosions and bloody death scenes are presented with gleeful aplomb.

But that’s where my praise has to end, because this whole movie’s a goddamn mess.

I think the basic kernel of an idea here was the notion that through climate change and whatnot, humanity is in danger of destroying itself within the next generation or two. This crisis has led to a schism among the Predators, as some want to preserve us and others want to destroy us, each for their own reasons. In theory, it’s a fascinating idea. In practice, it’s a complex idea that requires massive amounts of exposition into the politics and mindsets of a species that doesn’t speak any human language. Thus we need a top-secret government-run science project with agents who’d rather shoot first and ask questions later, and we need a spaceship crash so the agents have something to study, and the crash has to involve our protagonist so we have a reason to get the hero involved, but then we need to get the hero’s son involved so the hero has some motivation, and as long as we need someone to interact with the alien tech we might as well make that person the hero’s son, except he has to be super-intelligent so he knows how to work the thing…

This premise spirals out of control so far and so quickly that our cup runneth over with bullshit before ten minutes have passed. There’s simply too much ground to cover in the space of 100 minutes, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from trying as hard as they can with every trick they know how. The editing is a fine example, as it often seems like we’re missing a reel that explains how certain characters know something, obtained something, or got to where they are. Couple that with the stolen Predator tech, the stolen lab sample, the missing crash-landed spaceship (Seriously, it’s not even cloaked, what the hell?), and all the other MacGuffins flying around, and it’s borderline impossible to keep track of who’s doing what and why.

Naturally, all of this has a tragic effect on the characters and their developments. The two female characters, played by Olivia Munn and Yvonne Strahovski, probably get the worst of it. Munn doesn’t look or act remotely like the genius bioscientist she’s supposed to be playing, while Strahovski looks and acts more like the big sister to a 12-year-old boy than the mother to one. Granted, the filmmakers clearly did their best to try and make these female characters into more than helpless eye candy, but the franchise is so thoroughly fried in testosterone that only so much could be done. Munn’s character gets Nerfed by shooting herself in the foot with a tranq dart, for God’s sake. Though at least she was never positioned as a love interest, I appreciate that.

Neither Strahovski nor Munn are strong enough to rise above such paper-thin material. Compare that to Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Keegan Michael-Key, and Trevante Rhodes, all of whom are proven talents more than charismatic enough to leave a memorable impression in spite of everything. But Boyd Holbrook as our protagonist? Sorry, no. I was never impressed with him as a supporting player, and he’s sure as hell not ready to be a leading man.

Of course, it must be mentioned that the actors aren’t really playing characters so much as they’re playing quirks. That’s really all they have time for. Each of our main and supporting characters gets one quirk apiece to make themselves distinct, and that’s all we get. This is especially prominent in our main crew of five or six trained gunmen, each of whom is a mentally ill former soldier picked up from the mental ward of the local VA hospital.

Again, that’s not a bad idea in theory. There’s a lot of potential in the idea of a victim pool full of mentally disturbed nutjobs and outcasts, finding solidarity in their misfit status and shared military background. But in practice, we’re talking about soldiers with wartime traumas. We’re talking about soldiers with PTSD, suicidal tendencies, and so many other mental problems that our underfunded and hopelessly dysfunctional Veterans Affairs department doesn’t have the money or manpower to address. That’s a very serious issue, and seeing it reduced to a bunch of character quirks for the sake of plot convenience and comic relief is frankly offensive.

I was particularly insulted by Jacob Tremblay’s character, a bully target who’s smart enough to figure out Predator technology because he’s on the autism spectrum. It always upsets me to see autism presented as a superpower and/or a series of oddball quirks, and that’s exactly what the filmmakers go with here. I really like Tremblay and I know that he can do so much better playing a character with a serious disability (Seriously, if you haven’t seen¬†Wonder, get on that.), but the filmmakers were at once so rushed and so lazy that this autistic character is presented in a way that doesn’t feel even remotely authentic.

Even so, my anger toward this character didn’t really crystallize until Munn’s character — who I’ll remind you is supposed to be a genius bioscientist — remarked that “according to some scientists, those on the autism spectrum could be the next step in human evolution.” Speaking as a lifelong Aspergian with nearly two decades of education in bioscience and work in medical billing, I could swear that Shane Black wrote that line specifically for me, just to see how royally pissed off I could get. Because that is some outrageously patronizing bullshit.

Show me someone who seriously believes that autism is the next step in human evolution, and I’ll show you someone who knows nothing about autism or evolution. Seriously, Shane Black, FUCK YOU.

The Predator is entertaining on a surface level, with plenty of good jokes and sweet action moments, but the plot is a bona fide trainwreck. The filmmakers tried to cram way,¬†WAY too much plot into 100 minutes, resulting in a totally incoherent story and characters who range from bland to wretched. I can’t even recommend the movie for its action, because trying to untangle the labyrinthine plot kills the momentum.

This one is absolutely not recommended.

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