The Predator 

Writer/director Shane Black reboots Schwarzenegger’s 80s alien nemesis in The Predator

As a child, R-rated horror films were terrifying to me. The thought that any of the generally tense, unhappy people onscreen might explode in a mess of organs and blood meant not averting my eyes was an almost spiritual ideal. I felt utter dread. A movie that caused this frozen quality was 1987's Predator. Balanced on the knife edge of horror, Schwarzeneggerian self-parody, and a sci-fi Most Dangerous Game, it showcased director John McTiernan and writer/actor Shane Black at their best.

Like most movie monsters, the Predator has been watered down in repeated attempts to wring cash from the intellectual property. McTiernan went to jail for perjury in the Pellicano wiretapping case, and Black ascended as a director (despite his own scandals, including a new one during this film's release) making well-received action comedies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys.

click to enlarge Is it a reboot? A sequel? Whatever its relationship to the original, The Predator honors its sci-fi action formula.
  • Is it a reboot? A sequel? Whatever its relationship to the original, The Predator honors its sci-fi action formula.

With screenwriter Black now in the director's chair, the dialogue in The Predator is quippy and witty, and the people being split open onscreen spill unusually chunky blood. Characters in life-or-death situations share his trademark concern with the nuances of language, debating when to use the term galaxy or universe and whether the Predator, who hunts for sport and not survival, should really be called the Hunter. ("What you described sounds more like a bass fisherman.")  

But it can't be as urgent as it once was. The original was about a team of mercenaries slowly being revealed not as ultra-macho badasses, but horror movie victims, killed off one by one.

Here, a Mexican jungle encounter with the dreadlocked alien leads to sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) being sent to an insane asylum, but not before mailing the Predator's gauntlet and helmet to his ex-wife and autistic son. Another Predator chasing the first converges on their suburban town, along with a busful of mercenary soldiers escaped from a mental ward, an evolutionary biologist (Olivia Munn), and an amoral special ops guy (Sterling K. Brown). The arenas of battle include an elementary school, a nicely lit suburban house, and a street full of trick-or-treaters. The resulting tone is more like Monster Squad, Black's previous partnership with co-writer Fred Dekker: relatively cute and light.

While the dialogue is quirky, the action is less idiosyncratic. There's less of the perversity that had Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's Robert Downey Jr. accidentally peeing on an innocent person's corpse or shooting someone in the head when trying to interrogate them. Acknowledgement of failure in the realm of murder makes an important moral point: Small physical actions have big consequences when it comes to violence, even if they don't always lead to ethical, grandiose, or climactic outcomes. 

Some actors get better material than others. Sterling K. Brown, who was in Memphis recently filming for This Is Us, does great as the gum-chewing CIA fiend. Keegan-Michael Key sings out dirty jokes as Black's character did before. Thomas Jane plays a character with Tourette's, which results in the non sequitur "Well fuck me with an aardvark! I want to be famous!" when someone points a gun at him. He seems more like Jane yelling than an actual character.

Though out of place, I liked the moments with Jacob Tremblay as the autistic son, holding his ears during a fire alarm and facing off bullies. "I'm sorry I didn't grow up the way you wanted me to," he tells his father, and the movie responds with Munn's reassurance that being on the spectrum is "the next step in the evolutionary chain." In a movie filled with puerile, nostalgic vulgarity, it's a moment of cutting-edge progressivism: It reflects the modern neurodiversity movement of those of us labeled mentally ill who denote themselves more positively.

But such things are about building people up, while The Predator is mostly about dramatizing neurotic fears over an inability to be macho. Our lead, Holbrook, barely suffers any qualms. His team befriends a giant mutant hunting dog the Predator brings with him, and everything is copacetic.

One idea the movie does dramatize is Stephen Hawking's warning that we should not send messages into space for aliens, for fear they might be malevolent. Humanity is just in its childhood phase now, able to develop tech that expands into the universe, punchdrunk with the idea of being able to talk. Freezing, turning invisible, usually negatives when it comes to Predators and autism, might be a good idea.

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