The ’80s had its fair share of movies where huge men, guns, explosions, homoerotic undertones and quite a bit of steroids all collided in a cacophony of man-stuff. These films were legendary, from Rambo (1982) to Commando (1985) and Lethal Weapon (1987), Cobra (1986) and Action Jackson (1988), and, of course, Predator. The 1987 film was a crown jewel in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing repertoire, while simultaneously being the beginnings of a franchise that would span over 30 years. In that time, its had its ups—Predator 2, Predators—and its downs—Alien vs Predator 1 & 2. But now, more than ever, the time seemed ripe for a new entry. After all, sci-fi and horror may just be receiving the critical acclaim they deserve. But for the more kitschy monster movie franchises like Predator, the question has always remained: what direction can it go without alienating core audiences or newcomers? Director Shane Black seems to have found the answer with this year’s release of The Predator.
In the introduction to the film’s premiere at TIFF, our emcee stated that it was “in conversation” with its progenitor, recapturing the settings and personalities of the original story. And he didn’t lie. Set initially somewhere south of the border, the film follows Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who, after a run-in with a crashed alien hunter, must return home to save his autistic son from more alien hunters. Meanwhile, government spook Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) enlists Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) to understand what the Pred-Heads are up to and how to stop them. As the situation quickly escalates, McKenna enlists the Loonies, a band of veterans deemed unfit for combat for their various traumas, to save the day.
Using some unorthodox pacing and an empathetic approach to the men and women at the heart of the story, Black’s latest addition to the franchise cashes in on high-octane action scenes, comedy, self-referential moments and pathological mapping that draws you into the Loonies’ psychology, questions of ability and the mission at hand.
Having a bunch of traumatized vets fight space aliens seems antithetical, but Black’s casting choices make it quite the opposite. Trevante Rhodes’ Nebraska Shaw oozes charisma, cementing him as the Dutch we deserve in 2018 while proving that his previously reticent role as Moonlight’s Black/Chiron undersold his ability to capture your attention with dialogue and quips; Coyle (Keegan Michael-Key) and Baxley (Thomas Jane) recreate the classic dynamic between Bill Duke and Jesse Ventura but with a twist—their symbiosis is played up by their shared PTSD, making for several scenes where tenderness–not violence–pulls them together again; Lynch (Alfie Allen) and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) round out the group, adding muted but similarly empathetic moments to the raucous crew that provide a full spectrum of woundedness which feels both timely and respectful to real-life veterans. Augusto Aguilera spoke directly to this when Shadow and Act asked about his process of embodying these criminally forgotten people in the military industrial complex, saying “I talked to a lot of people who were suffering from PTSD, and I did a lot of research, but really with acting, you’re never sure what’s going to represent someone accurately. It’s almost impossible. But it was a combination of everything: the training, the camaraderie with people, the conversations I’ve had with people; it really was all of that.”
It’s clear that the idea of disability and what it means to be a man is an undercurrent of the film that is in direct dialogue with 1987’s debut. Where Predator extolls a particular kind of mannish violence and Darwinian survival of the fittest, The Predator asks who’s fit to survive if we’re all so busy killing and not healing. When asked about this, Keegan Michael-Key and Thomas Jane dug in, especially about a scene wherein Quinn tries to rally the Loonies, and they refuse to stick their necks out to kill super hunters from space.
“It thrilled me to see this sense of let me play the damage. To say ‘oh dude, I’m sorry about your kid, but do you know what kind of wringer we’ve been through? Why would we ever want to do that again? We’re locked in chains after our group therapy sessions. We’re persona non grata after we gave our entire lives to our country. Why would we do this again?’” Keegan said, with Jane adding, “We’re damaged goods.” Keegan went further, “If the original (characters from Predator) survived, they’d be (the Loonies.) They’d come to the same conclusions.”
While it’s simplistic when compared to countless other depictions, The Predator punches up when it comes to Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay). Approaching the topic of autism is a movie unto itself, but The Predator finds just enough bandwidth to make Rory the key and center point of its many allusions to evolution, definitions of what abled-ness is and manhood. While Rory is bullied for his peculiarity, the film ensures quick retribution and championing of his character, which is all we can expect from a movie of the midnight horror tradition.
Of course, let us not forget the action: The Predator ensures that it lives up to the idea of being a monster movie, with enough kills, spills and thrills to entice franchise fans, stans and newbies. Shadow and Act asked Trevante Rhodes how his previous background in UT Austin’s legendary track & field program prepared him for his stunts and more action-centric moments. In his words, “athletics and acting are the same thing; it takes the same dedication, the same research, it’s synonymous.” He conceded that he had a more eloquent point, but considering we were the penultimate interview of a 9-hour junket, we can’t blame him!
The Predator has plenty of explosions, but the film also takes care to be smart in its referential moments, and it’s pretty carte blanche with its central cast. As an ensemble, they play into their strengths, and you get a real feeling that there was less direction as there was chemistry caught on camera in nearly ever take. There are quite a few quips that will be definite fan favorites–one line, in particular, from Brown’s character might be the best ad-libbed moment of the year.
Sadly, the film’s much-needed contributions to a storied but recently anemic film franchise cannot overshadow the politics of its director’s hiring practices and workplace coda. The ironic naming of the film aside, Shane Black’s betrayal of consent and trust forced Olivia Munn to expose a tight-lipped world, wherein whistleblowers–and specifically women–are obliquely punished and isolated for being outwardly vocal. Despite tepid public apologies and other actor’s attempts at damage control and understanding, it’s clear that her co-stars, the Hollywood machine and the fandom at large have a long way to go when it comes to evolving to a point where doing the right thing isn’t as hard as fighting hybridized big game hunters from the ether.
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.