Eight years since a Predator last graced our screens, director Shane Black’s The Predator was unleashed on the public last week, to decidedly mixed reviews. Critics and punters alike praised the gleefully graphic action and lurid one-liners, but recoiled from the tortured plotting, uneven pacing and occasionally shoddy effects work.
Bestriding the top of the list like a dreadlocked, trophy-hunting colossus is John McTiernan’s 1987 original – and let’s face it, nobody should be in the slightest way surprised by that. Starring action legend Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his prowess as the leader of a team of mercenaries (including Jesse Ventura, Carl Weathers, Sonny Landham, and future The Predator director Shane Black) being stalked through the Central American Jungle by the titular extraterrestrial menace.
Although it’s now quite rightly regarded as a genre classic, Predator did not have an easy path to the screen. Star Arnold Schwarzenegger had original director Geoff Murphy replaced early on in the proceedings, while emerging action legend Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was tasked with filling the alien antagonist’s Styrofoam shorts, was also shown the door when it was decided that the original creature design was not working out, and the gargantuan Kevin Peter Hall was drafted in to provide Arnie and company with a more formidable-looking foe. By all accounts the film’s location shoot in the jungles of Mexico was a nightmarishly tough, and the inclusion of a bunch of healthy alpha male egos in the cast only made the conditions tougher.
However, the results speak for themselves: Predator is a lean, relentless thrill ride that combines a gung-ho none-more-‘80s action aesthetic with the (literally!) visceral appeal of the slasher genre, justified with a light dusting of sci-fi and topped with an iconic monster crafted by effects legend Stan Winston (The Terminator, Aliens, Jurassic Park). More than 30 years later it remains one of Schwarzenegger’s signature films, and one of the clearest testaments to its power is that every subsequent attempt to recapture its essence has fallen short to one degree or another.
Indeed, the film that comes closest to matching the tempo of the original didn’t come along until 2010, although its origins stretch back considerably further. Indie genre champ Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Sin City) penned a script for studio 20th Century Fox way back in 1994 when he was tooling up for his third film, Desperado, but the project was quickly shelved, ostensibly due to prohibitive costs. Almost a decade and a half later it was dusted off rejigged, and put into production with Hungarian-American director Nimrod Antal (Vacancy, Armored) calling the shots.
Predators flips the script by sending human warriors to an alien world rather than having a Predator come to ours. A mixed bag of badasses, including Walton Goggins’ gleeful murderer, Danny Trejo’s Cartel enforcer, Mahershala Ali’s death squad trooper, Alice Braga’s Israeli sniper, and, incongruously, Topher Grace’s out-of-his-depth doctor, are let loose in what is effectively an alien big game preserve, to be hunted down by a more colourful selection of Predators.
When it works, Predators is a hoot: the cast all grimace and posture convincingly; a few interesting twists are thrown up along the way, including Laurence Fishburne as a human survivor who’s gone loco hiding out in the alien jungle; and the action is intense and gory. However, the whole thing is somewhat hampered by the fact that Adrien Brody, Oscar winner for his turn in The Pianist, is ostensibly our tough-as-guts primary hero, and it’s kind of hard to take the arthouse darling seriously as a lean and mean mercenary killing machine.
Very early on in the proceedings the Predator franchise dispensed with the notion of cast continuity. When big Arnie passed on the first sequel, Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover took up the reins as hard-bitten LA cop Mike Harrigan, stuck between warring Jamaican and Colombian drug gangs in what was then the not-too-distant future of 1997. Things are complicated when a Predator starts picking off both factions. And so Hartigan and his team, which includes genre stalwarts Bill Paxton and Maria Conchita Alonso, plus Panamanian musical legend Ruben Blades, set out to figure out what’s what before there’s all-out war in the streets.
Under the direction of steadfast journeyman Stephen Hopkins (Judgement Night, The Ghost and the Darkness), Predator 2 is a grimy, sweaty, somewhat sleazy affair, which adds some gratuitous nudity and uncomfortable racial stereotypes to the originals gore and guns.
However, it does bolster the Predator mythos considerably, giving the eponymous beast a range of new weapons with which to dispatch hapless humans, while hinting at a deeper backstory and, thanks to a joke by the props department, providing the first tangible on-screen link between the Alien and Predator franchises when we see, in the Predator’s trophy room, a xenomorph skull on the wall. Plus we also get Gary Busey as a cocksure CIA spook, which is more than enough to knock this entry a little further up the list.
Directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3), who co-wrote the script with Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps), the latest franchise entry is, to be frank, a hot mess – but it’s a tasty hot mess, like chili. Black gleefully pilfers from every entry up until this point, throwing in warring Predator factions (swiped from Predators), a suburban setting (more or less lifted from Alien vs Predator: Requiem), a less-than-serious tone (Alien vs Predator), over the top violence (Predator 2), and a lot of macho, alpha male bonhomie (finally, Predator) to produce something that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, even though those parts are, case by case, a lot of fun.
Once again boasting a great ensemble cast, The Predator sees Boy Holbrook’s special forces sniper packed off to a military funny farm after a Predator offs his entire squad, only to be forced to team up with his fellow GI loons (Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, Trevante Rhodes, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera) when an even bigger, badder Predator arrives on the scene to menace our heroes wife (Yvonne Strahovski) and son (Jacob Tremblay).
The reasons why are convoluted and, ultimately, pointless – the plot really exists only as a loose framework upon which Black can string lashings of his trademark tough guy dialogue, plenty of action, and the by-now requisite buckets of gore. Which sounds great, but the film bears all the hallmarks of heavy studio interference, including a terribly choppy and haphazard final act and a dangling sequel hook that should never have made it to the final cut. Still, if your idea of a good time is a posse of trademark Shane Black damaged heroes facing off against alien serial killers, that good time can be found here.
Following on from the Alien skull easter egg in Predator 2, Aliens and Predators spent a happy decade and a half tearing the stuffing out of each other (and any unfortunate humans who got in the way) in the pages of the licensed comics published by Dark Horse (which actually predate Predator 2 by a full year – the first issue of the Alien vs Predator comic was published in November 1989). However, while fans could get their fix in the funny pages, it took a lot of to-ing and fro-ing before the two extraterrestrial terrors made it to the big screen together – and the results were less than ideal.
Not that Alien vs Predator is entirely without its charms. If nothing else, its central idea of tying both species into an Erich von Daniken Chariots of the Gods-style backstory in which ancient Predators seeded other planets – including Earth – with Alien eggs in order to hunt the adult xenomorphs is a bit of inspired lunacy, even if it doesn’t really pay off.
Still, the first couple of acts are solid as we follow a modern day investigative team who are dispatched to an alien temple buried under the Antarctic ice, only to run afoul of the horrors within. The problem is that when said horrors do emerge, the film quickly devolves into a WWE cage match. Once a Predator is swinging an Alien around by its tail, it’s hard to take anything too seriously.
That’s no capital crime and, indeed, there are jokier entries further up the list, but you’d think when two such iconic creatures finally face off on the silver screen, a modicum of decorum is called for. Still, extra points for having the great Lance Henriksen in a supporting role.
And so we come to the nadir, and the only film on the list with almost nothing to recommend it. Written and directed by filmmaking brothers Colin and Greg Strause, who also gave us the rather dire Skyline (2010), Requiem carries directly on from AvP and sees a “cleaner” Predator heading Earthward after one of his species’ ships crashes near a small Colorado town, unleashing, among other things, a hybrid “Predalien”.
His job is simply to destroy all evidence of the crash – and that includes witnesses. Said witnesses already have their hands full, of course, because of the numerous facehuggers that were also unleashed when the ship went down.
Requiem is a particularly mean spirited film, and if you ever wanted to see a chestburster erupt from the thorax of a small boy or an Alien stalk through a neonatal ward, you’ll find that here. However, those atavistic thrills are not enough to make up dull, unlikable characters, clunky dialogue, no sense of stakes and, crucially, lighting so murky that half the time you can’t even tell what the hell is going on. At the end of the day, if you’re going to set two such titanic terrors against each other for our delectation, its kind of crucial that we should be able to see the damn things.
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