The Predator should have worked. Co-written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black, directed by Black and starring an array of great character actors it promised a deep dive into Predator culture, a look at how the events of the original three movies tie together and sets up two potential sequels.
It does all of this, almost without exception, horrifically badly.
Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is a sniper who witnesses a UFO crash. He steals artifacts from it, his team are killed by the Predator who rode it in and he goes off the grid when he sees a covert snatch team come in to grab the UFO. He’s caught, in one of the many scenes we don’t see, interrogated and framed for his men’s deaths. Along with an array of off the peg mental health stereotypes, he runs across the Predator again and they set off to kill it. At the same time, Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), a Project STARGAZER agent who was in the helicopter Quinn saw, brings in Doctor Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) to consult on the Predator they retrieved from the crash site. At the same time as that, the Predator pursuing the one STARGAZER have in custody arrives and begins hunting for it. And just for good measure, Quinn sent the artifacts to his PO Box. Which he didn’t keep up payments for. Which means they get delivered to his ex-wife (Yvonne Strahovski, in a role so non-existent it could be played by a sign saying ANGRY, GOOD HEARTED EX-WIFE) and his son Rory, played by Jacob Tremblay, who has that version of Aspergers only people in terrible Hollywood movies have.
There are so many ideas here, several of them very good that it’s actually even more maddening to see the film fail this totally. Let’s start with Quinn and the other soldiers. The film sketches in some genuinely interesting stuff here. Quinn himself? Bland as hell but the others have a lot of potential. Trevante Rhodes’ Nebraska Williams in particular gets a couple of beats of genuine poignancy and depth. As does Keegan Michael Key’s Coyle who goes from being, well, Keegan Michael Key, to a full on panic attack in one dark, well-handled moment that re-casts his friendship with Thomas Jane’s Baxley. It does so in an odd and successful way that cleverly evokes the Mac/Blaine relationship in Predator and moments like these, honestly, play like the Shane Black movie we deserved. Maybe even the one he thought he was making.
They last just over two minutes.
The rest of the time? Grab bag of mental health stereotypes. Alfie Allen’s Lynch? Irish. Grim. Augusto Aguilera’s Nettles? Head trauma, biblically inclined, kind of a sex pest. Baxley? Comedy Tourette’s sufferer. That’s it. That’s all these men are. There isn’t even finger-tip depth to these characters, they’re just GI Joes being moved around an expensive, badly lit play set. Or to put it another way, remember the original Predator? Every single member of Dutch’s unit is better developed than these men. All of them. Even Hawkins. Which just gives Black even less of an excuse given he WAS Hawkins.
The other characters, incredibly, fare even worse. Tremblay is given nothing. Literally nothing. Rory is a walking definition of TV Tropes’ Hollywood Autism. He’s a plot device with lines, a waste of a talented young actor and a fiercely reductive, idiotic choice in a movie crammed with them. Yvonne Strahovski, as I said, is given nothing to do but roll her eyes indulgently while her Man handles his Business. Olivia Munn, whose treatment by Black was already horrifying before you see the movie, fares even worse. A shoe horned moment of nudity exists to remind us Predators don’t kill unarmed, naked, terrified women. Later an action sequence where she’s genuinely impressive is offset by a comedy beat that fails, utterly, to land. Later still she becomes a fugitive from the law for no reason other than to justify the nonsensical change of approach on behalf of Traeger. The script tries, desperately, to make Casey a vital part of the plot and a coherent character. Just like in almost every other way, it fails.
Then there’s Traeger. Sterling K. Brown has been having a very good year. This may change that. He’s an interesting, even compelling character and in many ways a more fun protagonist than the intensely bland Quinn. But, yet again, the movie lets him and us down. Traeger’s third act is a disaster, his motivation is nonsensical and not even Brown can hold it together. The movie’s extensive re-shoots all seem to have landed here and in doing so have taken out at least two characters, a good chunk of the movie’s narrative coherence and been finished with about half the budget they needed.
Because make no mistake, this is a technical disaster too. Several sequences are so badly lit they reminded me of the risible Aliens vs Predator: Requiem. One character is killed in such an off-hand way you don’t actually notice for five minutes. The end sequence shifts from bad, unfinished CGI to bad, hurriedly assembled set work. All of which leads to a final scene which toys with what you think is the stupidest possible choice this movie could make and then, in a shocking twist, finds something you weren’t expecting which is, somehow, as bad.
Right now you’re probably wondering if there’s anything redeemable in the movie and if I’m overstating the case. The second isn’t a question I can answer for you but the first is. Yes, there are some good ideas here. The movie cleverly builds on all three core-franchise films that preceded it to create an overall justification for everything we’ve seen so far and a means of going somewhere new. It’s a great idea. Its delivery system is one of the least successful movies I’ve seen this decade and whether the first balances the second is a choice for you, not me. For me, I know this is Black’s worst work to date by a big margin and it’ll take a lot for me to trust him as a writer and director again. Not cool, Hawkins. Not cool at all.