Friday, September 14, 2018

Franchise Friday | Predator


John McTiernan's original Predator (1987) remains perhaps one of the most balls-to-the-wall action films of all time. Near constant action, yet McTiernan still makes time to create indelible characters and an even more memorable villain. Consider, for a moment, Jesse Ventura's Cooper. Ventura was never known as a great actor, and he receives minimal screen time before being dispatched by the Predator, but his gruff dismissal when told he is bleeding ("I ain't got time to bleed" he growls) says all we need to know about him.

Then there's the creature itself, one of Stan Winston's most incredible creations, a monster to go toe-to-toe with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator-in-the-jungle, Dutch. It all revolves around such a simple conceit - a group of commandos, tricked into doing CIA dirty work in jungles of Central America, suddenly find themselves being hunted by an unseen creature. McTiernan smartly creates tension, even amidst near wall-to-wall gunfire, by withholding the creature until near the end of the film. Yet there is never a true moment of reveal, rather he teases bits and pieces of the creature before finally stripping away the camouflage for good. It's an effective tactic that makes the Predator one of cinema's most terrifying villains. And by the end of the film we still don't know what it is or where its from.

Later sequels would, of course, attempt to broaden the mythology surrounding the predators and their culture, including two cross-overs with the Alien franchise. But like the original Alien, the less we know about these creatures the better. Predator doesn't quite have the eerie, primal sense of horror that made Alien so frightening, but it makes up for that in sheer brutality, beating the audience into submissive by force, making it perhaps one of the most energetic and intense action films of the 1980s.

As aggressively ugly in spirit as it is visually, Predator 2 (1990) seemingly took everything good about the original Predator and chucked it out the window. Awkward and clunky where Predator was fleet-footed and efficient, Predator 2 brings the action from the jungles of the Amazon to the concrete jungles of Los Angeles. This time the Predator is tangling with a hard-nosed cop (Danny Glover) with a disregard for the rules, who finds himself in the middle of a gang war that has become the Predator's new playground.

Setting aside for a moment the shockingly racist depictions of the two gangs and their Jamaican voodoo rituals (which are pretty bad even by 1990 standards), Predator 2 is a major step down from the original in nearly every way. Predator is a near-perfect action film, pitting a para-military group against an unseen hunter from another world. This time, however, we know the villain and we know what's going on, even though the characters do not. The film chooses yet again to treat the Predator as a mystery, which makes little narrative sense. It also undoes the brilliance of Stan Winston's original creature with some bad early 90s visual effects that aren't just bad because of their primitive nature, they're bad because they're mostly unnecessary.

Predator kept its cards close to the vest, even while providing near constant action. Predator 2 is a grimy, lurid romp in the colorless muck of Los Angeles that not only makes poor use of the city's locations, it also loses a lot of its narrative thrust by trying to paste the original's narrative structure on a film where it doesn't really fit; often trying to shock the audience rather than thrill it. Save for a bit of fan-service the sets up the mostly ill-advised Alien vs. Predator series, it adds nothing to the franchise and feels like a cheap knock-off of its own predecessor.


That being said, AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) is much better than its reputation suggests. It's been retconned into oblivion, of course, by Ridley Scott's Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but that almost elevates it. By not having the burden of explaining the origins of the xenomorphs, or being a legitimate prequel to the events of AlienAlien vs. Predator is free to just be the fun B-movie it was always meant to be.

The idea that Predators have been keeping xenomorphs in a giant, Antarctic pyramid in order to hunt them in a coming of age ritual is admittedly silly, but AVP's unabashed ridiculousness is somewhat preferable to the ponderous pseudo-philosophizing of Scott's recent efforts. Paul W.S. Anderson's direction is refreshingly un-pretentious, crafting solid action sequences and even a sense of awe at times. Whereas Prometheus and Alien: Covenant shroud their mysteries in obfuscating vagaries, AVP's  sense of mystery is still tinged with wonder. Scott's films are certainly more beautiful to look at, grander in scale and thematic scope, but in their attempts to ask BIG QUESTIONS, often get tripped up by their overly convoluted plots, coming  across as more obtuse than profound.

The Alien films have always tackled ideas of sexual unease, rape, and motherhood, but it has historically done so it subtle, sub-textual ways, which Ridley Scott has attempted to turn into text, with mixed results. AVP doesn't have time for that sort of thing, and while that sets it on a lower plane than the Alien anthology (as well as the original Predator), it's still a hell of a good time. Its characters don't feel expendable, its action is taut and engaging, and its effects are surprisingly strong (oh how I miss practical xenomorphs). There's just something thrilling on a primal level about seeing these tow legendary screen monsters go head-to-head. And even at its most over-the-top (our heroine's climactic team-up with the Predator), it's still just so deliriously entertaining that it can't be dismissed.

Fox clearly wanted to make up for the disappointing PG-13 rating that accompanied 2004's Alien vs. Predator when they greenlit this poorly conceived sequel. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) certainly brings the gore this time around, but that's about it. The idea of aliens running amok in a small town on Earth is certainly an intriguing one, but AVPR does everything it can to screw the concept up.

While the AVP films are no longer considered canon, it's still a bit of a stretch to think that these creatures were running around on Earth in 2004, when the original Alien doesn't take place until 2122. But where the first AVP had fun with its ridiculousness, AVPR is needlessly mean-spirited and nonsensical. It replaces the careworn freight crew of Alien and the military grunts of Aliens and Predator with annoying modern teenagers and their pointless small-town drama, so when they start to drop like flies, the audience hardly cares. In fact, the entire film is so poorly lit that we can barely see what's going on in the first place. AVPR has some of the most god-awful lighting ever seen in a major motion picture. On the other hand, keeping everything under-lit hides how shoddy everything in this movie looks. The only thing that really stands out here is Brian Tyler's bombastic score, which is far better than the film deserves. It then "solves" the problems it sets up by having the army drop a nuclear bomb on a small town, killing everyone in it.

The Brothers Strauss, making their feature film debut here, could have done something interesting with this story. Instead, they tried way too hard to make the film "cool" rather than entertaining, and the result is a complete mess, featuring incoherently edited action sequences and poorly written characters. Paul W.S. Anderson knows how to make trash fun, and the original AVP is a blast. Unfortunately, AVPR steps into every pitfall that Anderson so deftly avoided. It's no wonder, then, that both films have been rejected as official franchise canon. Because, in this case at least, it's better off forgotten.

Finally, 2010's Predators arrived as a belated sequel after two attempts to make Alien vs. Predator happen, an experiment in fan service that didn't quite land the way the studio probably hoped. Predators was something of a correction for the franchise, a direct sequel to the original series that has little connection to either Predator or Predator 2 (save for a passing mention of the events of Predator), that still manages to feel more in line with what the first film was all about.

The film is once again set in a jungle, but this time there's a twist - the jungle is on an alien planet that serves as a kind of game preserve for the Predators. Eight strangers are dropped into the middle of the forest - mercenaries, gang members, murderers, each an example of the worst of their respective societies, each hand picked to be a formidable adversary in a ritualistic hunt. By introducing a new, larger breed of Predator, and a new planet (that is not the Predators' home), Predators manages to deepen the mythology behind the monsters without answering too many questions, leaving enough mystery behind them to show that they can still be frightening, formidable opponents.

Director Nimród Antal doesn't get nearly enough credit for how beautiful this film is. The samurai sword fight between a Predator and a Yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien) feels like something out of a King Hu film, both thrillingly choreographed and lyrically shot. If more of the film had sustained that level of heightened lyricism it might have been something truly special. Even so, it's still a solid sequel, more than making up for the drab grunginess and casual racism of Predator 2. It brings the series back to the basics of the hunt, while turning in something that's almost more of a suspense thriller than an action film - revealing the Predators early on but still keeping them in the background, using their presence wisely and effectively for creating maximum tension. Antal has a keen understanding of what makes the Predators frightening, and he leaves enough mystery surrounding their origins and enough question marks at the end of the film to keep the audience wanting more. It's an under-appreciated entry in a series whose high points have unfortunately been few and far between.

Series Ranking:

1. Predator

2. AVP: Alien vs. Predator

3. Predators

4. Predator 2

5. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

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