Debased franchise yields a startlingly brilliant gem
With all the artificial hype designed to sell PIRANHA 3D as the horror hit that delivered for audiences (despite a sixth place bow that barely topped $10-million), now is a good time to pay homage to the film that truly delivered for fans of cinefantastique: PREDATORS. Thought the film has not been universally hailed by critics (it rates 64% at Rotten Tomatoes, compared to PIRANHA 3D’s 81%), it did find a bigger audience, earning over $50-million in American theatres and over $109-million worldwide. This is one of those interesting examples of popular taste proving more accurate than critical consensus: PREDATORS is, in my humble opinion, the summer’s best sci-fi, action, horror flick. Not only that: it’s the most entertaining genre film released so far this year.
That’s more praise than I ever expected to lavish on a PREDATOR sequel. I don’t expect much from the franchise: the first PREDATOR is the only good movie; the sequel PREDATOR 2 was just more of the same, and the crossover films (ALIENS VS. PREDATORS and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM) were even worse – just mindless junk.
PREDATORS reverses the trend. Not only does it match the original; this is the first PREDATOR movie that is good enough to be considered more than just a fun popcorn film. Rather like the first ALIEN (1979) PREDATORS is good enough to stand on its own as a piece of cinema, not just a genre film. Or to put it another way, I would recommend PREDATORS to people who are not into monster movies, because it has some good qualities that will pull in an “outside” audience of non-fans.
What makes me go so far out on a limb for a film that seems as if it were made only for the geeks? My joke response it to call PREDATORS the “Feel Good Movie of the Year.” Despite – or because of – the bloodshed, death, and terror, this film presents a scenario that is ultimately optimistic, with a surprisingly humane point of view toward its characters (and by extension its audience).
This interesting attitude toward humanity is about the last thing one would expect in a film that seems all about using humans as target practice for some bad-ass alien hunters. However, PREDATORS takes characters who are in many cases the worst of the worst – assassins and mercenaries, thugs and murderers – people whom the planet Earth is better off without – and the script and the performances combine makes the this despicable crew engaging, even likable.
These are people who talk tough, seem to be out for themselves, and at least initially are as likely to kill each other as team up against the common enemy. But as the story proceeds, that changes in ways that are entertaining and even uplifting without every descending into bathos. PREDATORS pulls this off by presenting its story in hard-boiled terms that hide the sentiment beneath a flinty veneer that applies to both the individual characters and the film as a whole. (In one of the film’s funnier moments, convicted killer Stans (Walton Goggins)”s objection to the death of Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) is brushed aside by Adrien Brody’s character* with a casual “You wanted to kill him this morning,” to which Stans angrily replies, “This ain’t this f-cking morning!“)
Of course, we expect the characters to bond after initially disliking each other; that’s a standard plot development. But PREDATORS is going after bigger game. The characters are going through their process of recovery that ultimately leads to – dare I say it? -redemption. Although this theme is expressed mostly in secular terms, the religious allegory lurks just beneath the surface. The familiar scenario (trap a group of characters in an isolated location and bump them off one by one) recalls TEN LITTLE INDIANS – but in more than just plot mechanics. The underlying point of the original Agatha Christie novel (mostly abandoned in the film adaptations) is that the victims deserve what they get: they are all killers who have escaped the law. The same is true here; however, these characters – at least a few – will have a chance not merely to survive but to earn expiation for their sins.
PREDATORS cleverly lays the foundation for this interpretation in an early scene, when one character guesses that they might be in Hell. The suggestion is quickly contradicted by the facts of their situation (they have all been mysteriously parachuted onto an alien planet, which turns out to be a game preserve for the Predator species), but metaphorically speaking the initial assumption is not quite so far off: the characters may not literally be in Hell, but they figuratively seem to be in Purgatory. On this strange distant world, these inhumane humans come face to face with the crimes they committed on Earth. Time and again, individuals are able to guess what the Predators are doing to them, because these terrible actions remind them of atrocities they themselves perpetrated on others. In effect, their kharma has come back to bite them on their collective ass.
The Predators of course are not demons, but they fulfill a similar narrative function, forcing the human characters to make stark moral choices they may have avoided before. It is as if the actions of the Predators reflect the characters’ failings back upon themselves. Putting this in psychological terms, the humans are being faced with their Jungian shadow, which they must confront in an externalized form and destroy – and in the process, destroy that evil part of themselves, thus emerging at the other end as better people. Thus, PREDATORS says that, even in the worst of us, there is something good that is not beyond hope, something worthwhile that can emerge. It’s a positive message that is quite unexpected in what could have been just another action-packed bloodbath.
There are parallels here with THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (the 1932 movie rather than the original short story), which also featured a doppleganger theme in which the hunter reflected the hunted, and our hero realized the errors of his ways – even while those violent ways provided him the means to survive when the tables were turned. One of the fews ways in which PREDATORS may be deemed deficient is that it lacks the sort of overt philosophical conflict that gave THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME its kick. By virtue of its set-up, PREDATORS cannot have Adrien Brody and his alien counterpart engage each other via dialogue in order to debate the morality versus the aesthetics of hunting (as Rainsford and Count Zaroff do in the 1932 film). But in a way, this fault has some small virtue, to the extent that it leaves viewers to mine the thematic ore without having it laid out in the open.
This hard-boiled thematic approach to showing the sensitive soul beneath the cynical exterior may seem generic, but director Antal and screenwriters Litvak and Finch make it work in a spectacularly satisfying way. Ironically, their achievement surpasses the more superficial approach seen in the directorial efforts of producer Robert Rodriguez, who tends to depict cartoony violence lacking in any real resonance (with the exception of the hard-boiled SIN CITY). The result – a wonderful distillation of the macho ethos, of characters lost in the existential universe who must define themselves by the actions they take, without any assurance of a God in heaven to tell them whether they are right or wrong – stands comfortably alongside work by the most famous practitioners in the field: John Woo, Michael Mann, Beat Takashi, Christpher Nolan (at least the Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT if not INCEPTION). It’s as if Jean-Pierre Melville had directed a PREDATOR movie.
Redemption is an old-fashioned, cornball concept that many modern filmmakers would not touch with a ten-foot cattle prod (I’m talking to you, Alexandre Aja). To traffic in this kind of story, you run the risk that cynical viewers may laugh at your sincerity; after all, the audience has paid to see predation, not redemption. So I think that producer Roberto Rodriguez, director Nimrod Antal, and especially writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch deserve credit for not taking the easy “it’s only a movie” approach.
To be honest, the filmmakers do hedge their bets but in a way that adds a nice edge of credibility. When Edwin (Topher Grace) mocks Brody’s character for a last-minute change of heart, ironically calling him a “good man,” the reluctant hero replies, “I’m not good – but I’m fast” while dodging a sneak attack from behind. The emphasis on professionalism rather than morality sounds in-character, but we in the audience still see that, in the end, the avowedly anti-social mercenary did the right thing. Only then can he finally reveal his name, Royce, signaling the return of the humanity kept well hidden beneath the cynical survivor’s metaphoric armor throughout the rest of the film.
Of course, thematic analysis can be deceptive: films can be filled with great ideas without being particularly well executed. Fortunately, PREDATORS delivers on the gut level. The music score effectively enhances the beautiful location shooting. Special effects are not over-abundant (or at least not visibly so), instead paying off at key moments, such as a wonderful matte painting of the sky that finally proves to the characters beyond any doubt that they are indeed no longer on Earth.
On a plot level, the film follows a well worn track, but it’s the right track, one that leads where the narrative needs to go. Although not loaded with surprises, the script works in a nice twist with one character who turns out to be not what he seems (he wants to embrace the predators as brothers in spirit). There is also an interesting bit with with Adrien Brody’s character trying to forge a brief alliance with a “Classic Predator” (who is victimized by a different type of Predator introduced here). Something similar happened in ALIENS VS. PREDATORS, but the idea is executed to much better effect here.
Despite its virtues, PREDATORS is not perfect; there are some missteps. The exciting shot in the trailer, suggesting that Brody’s character will be targeted by multiple Predators, shows only one laser sight on his torso in the movie – a terrible disappointment thanks to unmet expectations. The low point arrives via Laurence Fishburne’s appearance as Nolan, a survivor from a previous group transported to the planet. Dramatic convention necessitates a brief respite, which allows the audience to catch its collective breath before heading into the big finish, but this lull is a little too lulling, breaking the tension that suffuses the rest of the film. And as fun as it is to see Fishburne show up in a PREDATOR movie, the sequence gives him little to do except act as an obvious “Johnny Explainer” who provides exposition; his only noteworthy personality trait is a tendency to talk to himself. At least this provides one bright moment: when Nolan, still babbling as if to an unseen other, tries to kill his new friends, Brody’s character fires a gun at him, while delivering a quip that cleverly paraphrases SCARFACE: “Say goodbye to your little friend!”
Fortunately, it is easy to overlook the occasional stumbling when the film delivers beautifully choreographed action built upon a solid dramatic foundation. One memorable highlight is a great set-piece that deftly combines Kurosawa with Tarantino: Hanzo (the Yakusa character played by Louis Ozawa Changchien) remains behind to cover the escape of his comrades. On the one hand, the scene is pure cinematic contrivance – an excuse to stage a fight scene between a Predator and a man armed with a samurai sword.
But it becomes something larger, almost mythic. When Hanzo sheds his suit, it is as if he is attaining archetypal status, becoming a larger than life character (like Will Munny at the end of UNFORGIVEN). He is shedding the man he was – the Yakusa assassin – and becoming the samurai warrior of legend, no longer a killer for hire but a soldier laying down his life for others. It’s an awesome transformation, and though it may be hokey, it is the kind of trascendant melodramatic moment that makes movies worth seeing. It’s the rapturous ecstasy of of losing oneself – and perhaps one’s better judgment – inside the land of cinematic make-believe. And the beauty of it is that it is utterly predictable, in the sense that the perfect outcome – the only satisfying outcome – is the outcome that had to be.
This leads to a nicely staged finale that deliberately echoes the ending of PREDATOR: Isabelle (Alice Braga) has earlier delivered exposition based on a debriefing of the character that Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the previous film, and Brody’s character puts the information to good use. The interesting thing is that, despite the repetition, the sequence works because we are now seeing the action performed not by an action star but by an actual actor. PREDATORS is all about transformation, about becoming something better, and nowhere is it visualized more perfectly. You cannot watch Brody on screen without remember his Oscar-winning turn in THE PIANIST (2002). If Adrien Brody – man who ran away from Nazis for two hours, the man who was a useless wimp in KING KONG (2005) and was completely pussy-whipped in SPLICE earlier this year – can suddenly morph into a muscle-bound sinewy titan with the speed, agility and strength to take out a Predator, then truly there is hope for all of us.
In conclusion, I want to admit that, in a summer that contains Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster INCEPTION, which is immensely popular with both audiences and critics, I may be exposing myself to potential scorn by raving about PREDATORS. But the simple fact is that I found INCEPTION to be a technically astounding but emotionally empty exercise in visual effects; as much as I wanted to enjoy the ride, the film lacked the underlying substance that made Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT so great.
PREDATORS, by virtue of its franchise association, is not the sort of film that earns respect; the fans just want to have fun, and most critics probably don’t even want to know about it. And yet, for me, the film worked in ways I did not anticipate. That sense of surprise might have overwhelmed my better judgement; I will have to see the film again to determine whether it holds up to a second viewing. But for now I am willing to risk derision and stand by my declaration. In case, the heavy-handed analysis above leaves you in any doubt, I think that PREDATORS offers viewers a great time, fulfilling the basic requirements while offering something more; and judging by the justly awarded audience applause that concluded Hanzo’s duel with the Predator, I don’t think I’m the only one.
UPDATE: My designation of PREDATORS as the year’s “most entertaining genre film” may seem confusing in light of my having called SPLICE “the season’s best filmed science fiction.” Let me clarify: I see the relationship between the two films roughly the way I saw the relationship between MOON and STAR TREK last year. MOON was the best cinematic science fiction, because it carefully examined a science fiction concept in a fascinating way; however, STAR TREK was the most entertaining science fiction film, because it provided a joyously good time at the movies. In the same way, I may rank SPLICE slightly higher as an artistic achievement, but I find PREDATORS to be the more thoroughly satisfying piece of entertainment. Making distinctions between art and entertainment may be a dubious business, but in this case I think it makes sense.
- The character played by Adrien Brody does have a name (Royce), but since he reveals it only at the very end of the film, it seems misleading to use it throughout this article. Hence the awkward use of phrases like “Brody’s character.”
PREDATORS (20th Century Fox, July 9, 2010). Produced by Roberto Rodriguez. Directed by Nimrod Antal. Written by Alex Litvak & Michael Finch, based on characters created by Jim Thomas & John Thomas. Cast: Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurenc Fishburne, Danny Trejo, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Carey Jones, Brian Steele, Derek Mears.
This article has been clarified since its original posting.