Where Did the Hunt Go Wrong?

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

For such a popular film, Predator hasn’t been well-served by sequels. Unlike its cousin series, Alien, it hasn’t had nearly had a follow-up that’s as well-loved as the original. It took a couple of decades for the stink of Predator 2 to wash away and for Hollywood to have another stab at making a “pure” Predator film. (Let’s just put the Alien vs. Predator movies aside and pretend they don’t exist for now). Predators is that attempt to kindle new life into the franchise, but in reviewing it I also wanted to take a look back and work out where things started going wrong for the series, and whether the long quest to produce a decent follow-up is necessary, or even achievable.

Predator

Predator has one of those iconically simple premises that people were really good at cooking up in the 1980s – Arnold Schwarzenegger is Alan “Dutch” Schaefer, a Delta Force Major in charge of an elite search and rescue team, called in to rescue a Guatemalan cabinet minister and other hostages captured by Soviet-backed guerrillas. The hostages don’t make it, but the team is able to make it out with valuable intelligence and a prisoner in the form of Anna (Elpida Carrillo), sole survivor of the guerrilla camp the team annihilates, who they take along at the insistence of Agent George Dillon (Carl Weathers), a former teammate of Dutch turned CIA agent who seems to know more about the real reasons behind the mission than he’s letting on. But their trip to the extraction point turns deadly when they are stalked and killed one by one by an alien creature with heat vision, superior weaponry, and perfect camouflage, who’s come to Earth because there’s nothing more fun than stopping by a primitive planet during a hot year and killing the quaint little natives.

What makes Predator such a joy to watch over and over again is the way it turns the conventions of 80s action movies inside out. Without the Predator’s intervention, the film would basically follow the playbook established by the Rambo sequels and most of Chuck Norris’s 80s work to the letter. Dutch’s team is the greatest concentration of testosterone ever assembled onscreen, a pure distillation of Reagan-era machismo – you’ve got Arnie and Jesse Ventura in one place for the starters, and then there’s Shane Black’s character with his incredibly crude and misogynistic jokes, the constant dick-waving between Agent Dillon and various team members, and of course the ludicrously oversized guns to contend with, and at the close of the Cold War there was no activity which could possibly be more manly than strolling into the jungle to blow the shit out of some Commies. Sure, the deception Agent Dillion engages in is troubling, but aside from that if you took out the Predator you’d be left with a glowing endorsement of American military adventurism, like so many other action movies of its era. It’d almost be as though Vietnam never happened.

The presence of the Predator changes everything because it utterly inverts the position of the protagonists. At the start, they are the technologically superior outsiders picking off guerrillas like it was nothing, but when the Predator takes control their strategies of overwhelming force and overwhelming technological capability are completely neutralised. By the end, when only Arnie is left, he’s left in exactly the sort of position that the guerrillas in the start of the film were in – forced to use stealth, the landscape, and whatever advantages he can improvise and scratch together to take down an enemy with far greater resources than him.

Moreover, the Predator itself is, as far as I can tell, pretty much unique as far as SF alien attack movies go. Normally, aliens straying onto modern-day Earth in SF films fall into one of two categories: there’s your animalistic hunter, who’s just rampaging around looking for food and killing anyone that threatens the territory it establishes for itself, and there’s the intelligent invader, who’s come to take over Earth and has most likely brought all of its friends along to help out. The Predator is different from either of these because even though it is an intelligent, technologically advanced foe, it’s not here to conquer us at all. Nor does it want to do the whole Day the Earth Stood Still thing of teaching us primitive monkeys to play nice with each other, or recover any lost alien technology, or really engage with us humans in any significant way. It’s here for fun – it’s on a jolly hunting trip, stalking, shooting and skinning people as your average rifle-toting American on a hunting trip might skin a deer.

The fact that the Predator is doing all of this for fun is key to the film’s timelessness. The Cold War, Guatemala, the US, the USSR – not only is it not aware of any of these concepts, it simply doesn’t care to find out about them. And that’s why the jingoism of the early part of the film isn’t as unpalatable or problematic as it might be – because all of it, the guerrilla warfare, the military adventurism, the sexist jokes, everything – turns out to mean no more in the grand scheme of things than where the deer choose to crap in the woods. In this light, you can see Predator as a warning against American hubris at a time when America seemed completely unstoppable – which is, after all, the time when you need a warning against hubris most of all.

This could, of course, all be by accident. John McTiernan is a competent director but not an unalloyed genius, and whilst the script by brothers Jim and John Thomas – their debut feature film script – is sharp, their later work is much patchier – I mean, they wrote Executive Decision, which has the dubious distinction of being the smartest Steven Seagal film ever, but they also wrote Predator 2 and Wild Wild West. I’m sure all the participants regarded it, to an extent, as just another Schwarzenegger vehicle, and coming as it did hot on the heels of three undistinguished films in a row – Red Sonja, Commando and Raw Deal – perhaps they didn’t have very high hopes.

And Predator is not a perfect film by any means – all my waffle about the hubris of masculinity can’t quite cover the fact that there’s only one woman with a speaking part in the whole cast, and although Carrillo does do a fine job as the guerrilla who starts out as a captive but ends up winning the respect of Dutch and the others through her superior knowledge of the Predator’s activities, the fact remains that she’s pretty fucking disempowered as far as female characters go. Whilst Dutch’s team is neatly ethnically diverse, the Native American team member is subject to move than a hint of the Noble Savage treatment. At least one of the characters dies by deliberately sticking his head direct in the path of the Predator’s red-dot sights, and I’d have thought any special forces soldier would at least recognise a targeting reticule when they see one. And perhaps I was wrong about the whole hubris deal in the first place. But either way, somehow Predator takes a bunch of fairly undistinguished ingredients and brings them together in a mixture which just plain works, and I love it for that.

It hasn’t been matched since.

Predator 2

Written once again by the Thomas Brothers, with Stephen Hopkins stepping into the director’s chair, Predator 2 transfers the action to the mean streets of LA, in the futuristic year of 1997, presumably to cash in on the idea of the “urban jungle” that was in currency at the time. Ice Cube would later sample dialogue from the film liberally for his own The Predator CD, an album which focused mainly on the Rodney King riots and their aftermath, and the film opens with a scene which resembles what white suburbanites probably imagined gang warfare in Los Angeles looked like at the time – mainly-white cops facing off against mainly-Latino psychopaths, with exploitative journalists popping up on scene to give their opinions. If you squint you can almost see something resembling a Robocop-style satire of right-wing doomsaying about social order breaking down, except Hopkins isn’t quite as adept at using cheerfully straight-faced parody to lampoon the right as Paul Verhoeven, so you’re left with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps the filmmakers actually believe this shit.

Danny Glover comes on the scene – his character is basically Mel Gibson’s character from Lethal Weapon in Glover’s body, Glover presumably having accepted the part because he thought it was his turn to be the maverick cop rather than the straight-by-the-book one for once. In an improvised outburst of excessive violence Glover manages to defuse the riot – and get the attention of a Predator who happens to be holidaying in LA. Naturally, the Predator’s got tired of all the tourist attractions and can’t exactly pop over to Vegas to gamble hunt trophies at the casinos, so instead it’s headed into deprived neighbourhoods to kill gang members, like an invisible white supremacist militia member with heat vision, and it’s down to Glover and his team of investigators to bring him to justice.

Just as the original movie was stuffed to the gills with nods to Rambo and similar action movies, Predator 2 is littered with cop show cliches like the raw rookie being transferred to the unit, the lead character getting extra crazy when a long-term colleague with over a decade on the street under his belt gets killed, and dialogue like “God damn it Mike, the Feds are calling the shots on this – my hands are tied!”. The fact that film set in a city, with science labs and forensics experts on call, provides an opportunity to stuff in more SF cliches than the first film, so there’s the occasional reference to things like the Predator’s equipment being made out of elements not found on Earth, and Gary Busey is on hand as a disarmingly polite Federal agent who’s on a secret mission to capture the Predator (the government’s plan seems to be to sit in a cold beef warehouse hopping it will show up eventually). The inclusion of the extra SF tropes doesn’t work especially well; whilst the first film provided a cliched scenario which was turned on its head when the Predator was thrown into the mix, Predator 2 starts out following one cliched pattern, and the involvement of the Predator is only used to throw in more cliches from a different genre, rather than turning the cop movie genre inside out.

Predator 2 also has the distinction of being one of the most incredibly racist films I’ve ever seen – in particular, in its treatment of the Jamaican gang, the charmingly-named “Jamaican Voodoo Posse”, who are even more of a grotesque caricature than the one in Marked For Death (which at least shoehorned in a scene where they said “by the way, not all Jamaicans are psychotic voodoo drug dealers). They’re introduced when they charge into the apartment of one of their enemies and immediately set about raping his girflriend; when they are done, they sacrifice him in a voodoo ceremony. The Jamaicans’ dreads and the way they hang the guy upside down exactly like the Predator likes to hang people upside down establishes some seriously unfortunate parallels between them and the Predator, parallels which are simply inexcusable.

As well as being racist, Predator 2 is littered with continuity errors. Why can you see the Predator’s reflection in a puddle when its invisibility is turned on? Why, when Danny Glover grabs a head mic to talk to the government team hunting the Predator, the replies to his questions clearly came from someone standing in the same room as him rather than coming over the radio like all the other radio contacts? And how does the Predator know the “one ugly motherfucker” line from the first film when the Predator in that movie died? The script also misses a number of opportunities to salvage itself; the Brothers could have made much more of the whole “if the Predator sets off its self-destruct device, LA gets nuked” plot device than they actually did, for starters.

But that’s just the flaky shit topping on this enormous latte of crap. Predator 2 takes a bad script and gives it a bad execution. Nobody’s especially trying to do a great job, but there’s nothing especially worth salvaging anyway so I can’t really blame them. The script is so awesomely bad that to attempt to dignify it with a decent performance or high-quality direction would be to give it more than it deserves.

Predators

Let’s get the lying to the audience thing out of the way first. If you’ve seen the trailer for Predators, there was one scene which probably stood out as a highlight of it – the one where Royce (Adrien Brody) is standing there whilst a ridiculous number of Predator three-point red dot sights play over him.

That doesn’t actually happen in the film. In fact, there’s only four Predators in it. Robert Rodriguez, who produced this attempt to breathe new life into the series, has wittered on about how he wanted to give viewers a taste of what to expect without throwing in spoilers, but that’s just the weakest fucking excuse I have ever heard. The fact is that it’s a universally accepted and understood position that trailers consist of scenes from the film they are advertising, and if you doctor them to not only include scenes that look like they are from the film but don’t actually appear in it – and worse, to imply things about the film that are absolutely not true (like there being more than four Predators) is just plain false advertising. Sorry, Rodriguez fans, but it seems like the man is a lying, deceptive fuck, admits he’s a lying, deceptive fuck, and has no qualms about being a lying, deceptive fuck. Bear that in mind next time you see a trailer for one of his films.

But let’s not let his glee in his misleading and manipulative practices affect our assessment of the film, scripted by Michael Finch and Alex Litvak (based on a script Rodriguez wrote in 1994) and directed by Nimrod Antal. The concept is simple – eight people from varying backgrounds are snatched from Earth and are literally dropped on a jungle planet, a game reserve maintained by the Predators for their sport. They are hunted by a group of Predators and have precisely the sort of bickering and in-fighting you expect from groups of total strangers flung into this sort of situation in the movies; said bickering is given an edge by the fact that, except for mild-mannered doctor Edwin (Topher Grace), all the abductees very obviously have a background in killing.

Now, in principle, that concept gives you a lot to work with. Throwing in multiple Predators certainly ups the ante, and there’s a great opportunity to be had in throwing in a rag-tag ensemble cast: it gives the script writers a chance to create some mystery as to who’s going to survive and who’s going to bite the dust. In the original film, there was never any question that things were going to boil down to a one-on-one match between Arnie and the Predator, which meant that for the first two thirds of the movie most of the tension came not from whether the supporting cast members would croak, but when. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters seem to have decided to play it safe and put forward jaded mercenary Royce as lead character, Israeli sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga) as romantic lead, and everyone else as bait.

Incidentally, Alice Braga’s the only female character present at all, and spends most of her time doing the time honoured female character thing of being the peacekeeper sort who tries to keep everyone together and ends up having to be rescued by the male lead. The original film at least has some reasons for being male-dominated – the whole hubris of 80s masculinity thing I was talking about earlier, and the fact that US combat units performing covert operations in South America under Reagan were basically all-male. I would like to know what Finch and Litvak think their excuse is.

The ensemble cast’s problems do not only extend to the obvious pair of survivors and the vertigo-inducing gender imbalance. The other problem is that the cast never quite manage to establish any chemistry between each other. In some respects it’s interesting how, as well as not actually seeing anything of the characters’ lives before they get dumped on the alien planet, they also eschew telling each other very much about their former existences, but the upshot of that is that we’re dealing with a crew of eight enigmas who don’t really open up to each other very much, and consequently when one of them dies we just don’t feel anything. It says a lot that far and away the most interesting character in the film is Noland (Laurence Fishburne), who’s gone completely insane after being trapped on the Predator world for years, and he gets yanked out of the film about as abruptly as he’s thrust into it.

The humans aren’t the only culprits here, though – the Predators let down the side too, mainly through the scriptwriters struggling to come up with much to do with them. They’ve got some new tricks, of course – their hunting hounds are a lot of fun, even though they essentially disappear after the one scene they are used in, whilst their flying spy-drones are an interesting concept that never actually gets used for anything. But the Predators themselves don’t really do very much we haven’t already seen them do. We ultimately don’t learn anything new about the Predators this time around that we didn’t see in the first film, which makes you wonder what the point of making another sequel was.

It doesn’t help that there is pretty much never any scene where the heroes are fighting more than one Predator at once, partially because (as I mentioned previously) there are only four Predators total in the film. The problem is that the scriptwriters feel constrained from unleashing an epic amount of Predators, because then the humans would just be mincemeat – except then, they don’t have the massive difference in scale you had between Alien and Aliens, and surely the Alien/Aliens parallel was the whole idea behind calling the film Predators in the first place. I’m going to get a little counterfactual here and say that the film could have been helped had they amplified the idea that the Predators are a society riven by inter-clan warfare – if the planet had, in fact, been a designated combat zone, a place where packs of Predator warriors could hunt each other with honour rather than wastefully blasting entire star systems to ashes in an uncontrolled war, with the humans basically having been brought in as entertainment between clashes, that might have provided some scope for including the hordes of Predators the title and trailer and the constant Aliens comparisons made us hope for whilst giving the human protagonists a fighting chance to survive.

The weakness of the script doesn’t just extend to the lack of party chemistry and the uninspired action on the part of the Predators. Some of the plot twists are a little too easy to guess. So, it turns out that the Predators picked people from Earth who were also, in their own way, predators – commandos, gangsters, death row inmates, that sort of thing. Except wait, that lovable doctor doesn’t seem to fit that profile! Gosh, I wonder if he’s secretly a serial killer or something? Most of the actors do their best with what they’ve got – Brody and Braga do a respectable job trying to make the two blandest characters interesting, Oleg Taktarov as Spetsnaz commando Nikolai resembles a Russian Schwarzenegger with better acting chops, Louis Changchien uses his real-life kendo skills to make his Yakuza character’s inevitable sword duel with a Predator one of the standout fight sequences in the film, Walton Goggins is typecast as a redneck death row prisoner and has a lot of fun with it. The only firm thumbs-down I’d give on the acting front is to Topher Grace, whose serial killer act is just plain goofy. Likewise, the special effects and scenery work are pretty decent – the best shot is probably the one where the protagonists come out of the jungle to find that the cloud cover has dispersed, and the sky overhead is absolutely not Earth’s.

No, the big problem with Predators is that the script just isn’t up to much. Perhaps it could have been salvaged a little by trimming the cast a bit, to allow a bit more character development, or perhaps it could have been helped by bringing the wars of the Predators more to the fore and bringing in scores of the blighters, but either way, as it stands, the writers struggle to come up with a way to fill up the script. The ending doesn’t even provide very much in the way of closure – there’s leaving things open for a sequel, and then there’s just not bothering to resolve the main issue of the film one way or another, and this does the latter – and the nicest thing you can say about it is that, whilst it’s incredibly mediocre, it is at least not horrendously bad. Hopefully next time we’ll actually get a good sequel for once. But I fear the odds are against it.

The Bottom Line

The first film was fun because of the implication that the Predator was doing what it was doing for fun – hunting the Most Dangerous Game was how the Predators enjoy themselves, not their day job. The problem with Predators, as a monster concept, is that nobody has any fucking idea what to do with the poor bastards – or rather, we all know exactly what to do with them, but that angle was sort of exhausted by the first film. In principle, we know a fair amount about them – we know they are more technologically advanced than us, we know they hunt less advanced species for shits and giggles, we know they have some sort of fucked up sense of honour, in Predators we get confirmation that they fight wars amongst themselves.

The fact that they have clans, technology, and warfare suggests that there are Predators out there doing a whole lot more than just hunting, which seems to be something they do simply for enjoyment – but there’s a horrible catch-22 there. If you base a film around the Predators doing stuff that isn’t hunting, you’ll upset the audience because we came to watch them hunt shit. If you do base it around them hunting, you’ll bore the audience because we already saw them doing it in Predator. The consequence is that it’s really tricky to come up with material for a Predator movie – you really need to find some way to inject life into a concept which the earlier material has covered pretty well, and unfortunately neither the Thomas Brothers or the writers of Predators weren’t quite able to do that.

So far, both of the sequels have tried to find new ways to refresh the Predator’s bloodsport activities, and both have inevitably fallen short of the original film, mainly because it explored that territory so thoroughly and so well that it left nothing but scraps for future sequels in the same vein to take on. It might be that the best way to make a Predator sequel is to just give up and not try. It’s not an idea which really lends itself to multiple treatments.

In conclusion: if you’re at a friend’s place and they suggest putting Predator on, agree enthusiastically. If they offer Predators, see if they’ve got the original available – but failing that, Predators is worth sitting through once if you don’t expect to much. If they actually propose watching Predator 2follow Arnie’s advice.

2 thoughts on “Where Did the Hunt Go Wrong?

  1. Pingback: From Box Office Hell to Gaming Heaven – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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