starring Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key
written by Fred Dekker & Shane Black
directed by Shane Black
by Walter Chaw Shane Black's The Predator is about cultures built around, predicated upon, and interested in the deification of violence and dominance. It talks about how an entire alien civilization owes its technical and biological evolution to the refinement of tools used explicitly on big game, not unlike how our own technologies owe their evolution to porn and forever war. One running joke has a scientist--an evolutionary biologist (Olivia Munn), natch--saying that the things aren't so much "predators" as they are sports trophy hunters, like bass fishermen, say, but of course calling them "predators" is "cooler." All the men in the room agree. The only ones who don't are the woman and a suicidal black soldier (Trevante Rhodes)--not coincidentally, the characters most likely to be predated upon (woman, black, mentally-ill, even veterans) by their own culture. Being in a life-and-death struggle with a predator is cool because it's a question of survival for both; being the victim of one of Donald Trump's inbred children is not cool because it's some rich douchenozzle armed to the teeth hunting you for something to mount in the den of their third mistress's second winter home. The Predator, in other words, has much on its mind, despite that its execution is a trainwreck--a trainwreck overwhelmed by an eve-of-premiere scandal whereby Munn revealed that Black had enlisted one of his buddies, a convicted pederast, to play a scene with Munn as a perv who harasses her while jogging, without informing the production of his past. The layers of irony to this thing are like unpacking an onion.
I really like Shane Black movies. It's probably a product of my upbringing in this culture that his storylines have always appealed to me. I like his gallery of sad-sack loner characters desperate to make a positive impression on the women in their lives who have been terribly disappointed by them. It's almost perverse to think that the MacGuffin of his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is literally the avenging of a little girl's molestation that led to her eventual exploitation and suicide. Black has consistently demonstrated empathy towards the toll that sexual assault takes on its victims (even the opening of Lethal Weapon concerns a little girl lost, throwing herself off a balcony), and none of it managed to counteract this culturally-imprinted instinct to promulgate the myth of masculine redemption. When Louis CK decided he'd spent long enough in time-out for jerking off in front of women, he told a rape whistle joke in his "comeback" set. Louis CK, like Shane Black, has demonstrated at times an extreme empathy for women victimized by predatory men. And yet. And yet. Anyway, I approached The Predator with a great deal of anticipation and enthusiasm. Aside from being one of the worst-edited action films I've ever seen, there are funny bits and interesting ideas, and a central performance from Munn that is more sure and easy than that of any of her male counterparts. She's amazing--and the irony of her emerging as the star of a film about men fighting aliens can't be lost in this moment.
Munn's Dr. Casey Bracket is brought into a "predator project" environment in which she's the civilian expert called upon to aid in the discovery of some alien artifact. It's essentially the framework for Arrival, ported onto what becomes by the last thirty minutes a somewhat standard big-budget effects vehicle. Before that, though, there's little Rory (Tremblay), son of sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook), teased at school for his autism but demonstrating a savant-like ability to decipher the Predator's alien technology. This is a damaging and insulting view of disability, a shorthand that Black, an accomplished screenwriter who recently confided to Twitter that he has Tourette's Syndrome, didn't need to stoop to, but he did and Tremblay does as well as they can with it. Quinn, on a mission, comes across the wreckage of a Predator vehicle and loots a few pieces he ships back to Rory and his estranged wife (Yvonne Strahovski) for safekeeping. Of course Rory opens it and of course he turns something on that alerts the other Predators. This leads to urban mayhem, a prison-bus break that includes the happy-go-lucky jailed soldiers who will be our A-Team (and composer Henry Jackman gives a nod to "The A-Team"'s theme at their introduction to action), the revelation that the real enemies are our own military/industrial complex, and then a lot of explosions and stuff and dead people. Plus a final stinger that sets up a sequel we may get but likely without this team. It's a shame, really, if only for Munn, who well and truly deserves a franchise all her own.
What's really interesting or innovative about The Predator is that it's absolutely timely for this brief little window of time. It's a strong reflection of the attitudes that allow sexual predation, that encourage it in fact, and then engage in rehabilitating the bad actors rather than provide a pathway to success for their victims. By having traditional hero Quinn at the head of a group of mentally-ill misfits headed for military prison and court martial, it highlights indirectly both the toll of violence on the men conscripted to enact it in the name of nationalism, and the lack of care given to those men when those tolls come due. The picture's central plot twist is that the first Predator is itself a rogue actor, acting against the wishes of its own society, while its major revelation is that all either society wants--theirs or ours--is to figure out how to be better at hunting and killing. It's about the transfer of power. In a loaded moment, a naked Dr. Brackett cowers in a decontamination chamber before a rampaging Predator, only to have the Predator spare her for no expository reason. Thematically, though, she is now the victim of sexual assault, who, through the course of the rest of the film, enacts her own emergence and affirms her identity. In a hotel room, one of the soldiers, Baxley (Thomas Jane), who has the movie version of Tourette's Syndrome, offers to eat her pussy. Rather than let that be the punchline, Brackett punches back, asking if that's what he's said as all his friends deny and deflect. She holds him accountable. She refuses to allow mental illness to be an excuse for his violence towards her. It's kind of a seminal moment that men especially should take the opportunity to reflect on.
That's the glory and the difficulty of The Predator. It's a perfect distillation of our moment--and it's an unfortunately perfect distillation of our moment. It shows awareness even as it demonstrates blindness, betraying a desire for progress as well as the reality that undoing centuries of hardwiring is as damnably difficult as it sounds. The Catholic Church is going through it, Hollywood, Washington D.C.: anywhere where power, salvation, riches are concentrated will be sociopaths who have devastated others to gain their posts and crouch, now, to feed on the young and the hopeful. The struggle between alien sport hunters and a woman and her misfit casualties of war becomes a thorny metaphor, then, for the dogs of war, their masters, and the some-would-argue biological sources of their will to power. It's a messy film, but a fascinating one. Too much of it is shot in darkness and, again, the editing is incomprehensible right when it needs to be clearest (one significant character dies so obliquely that it feels like a joke), yet as with other films like it (Jurassic World, for one), what's potentially enduring about it and worth the conversation is everything outside the things most people are there to see. It's a shitty Predator movie is what I'm trying to say; but it's a great film about predators.