Here’s the good news: casting a registered sex offender in his film is not the worst thing about Shane Black’s The Predator. And, yes, that is also the bad news.
I was prepared to write about this film in the context of the complicated news cycle that swirled around it following 20th Century Fox cutting an entire scene featuring the actor Steven Wilder Striegel. Striegel is a friend of Black’s who has appeared in small roles a number of his films, including Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. He also served jail time in 2010 for attempting to seduce a 14-year-old girl into bed via the internet and was registered as a sex offender, a fact Olivia Munn notified Fox about when she found out last month, after which the company swiftly cut Striegel’s scene. Those involved gave their statements, they erased the offending material and hoped they could move on. I was optimistic. I love the Predator movies. The trailers for this one looked great. Yes, there is this problematic element to it, I might have written, but let me explain why it’s worth your time.
But I don’t have to do that now. The Predator is probably not worth your time, and I’m surprised actors of the caliber of Sterling K. Brown, Olivia Munn, and Boyd Holbrook even thought it was worth their time. On a surface level, the script makes a meager amount of sense, as long as you just shut up and don’t think about the plot too much. None of the characters are particularly interesting, and some are downright offensive. (More on that in a bit.) To top it all off, the digital effects, which this film relies heavily on, look only slightly better than a well-constructed video game.
A brief plot overview, though I am loathe to revisit it, goes something like this: Quinn McKenna (Holbrook) is a military sniper on some drug cartel mission, tasked with taking out a high-powered kingpin meeting with his fellow bad hombres in the jungle. The mission goes awry when a spaceship crash-lands in the trees behind them, loosing a desperate Predator, who seems to have been running from some bigger, badder force. Fortunately, some Men in Black types swoop in and collect the specimen, bringing it to a secret laboratory, and spiriting McKenna off to a “reeducation facility” where they’ll no doubt do what they can to erase all memories of his close encounter. Crafty McKenna, though, has shipped some of the Predator’s armor back home to his estranged wife (Yvonne Strahovski) and son (Jacob Tremblay), who is on the autism spectrum. (“Oh no,” I whispered when this was revealed, and, dear reader, I was right to be afraid.)
The Men in Black types (a group that includes Sterling K. Brown and… Jake Busey?) invite plucky girl scientist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) onboard to examine the alien specimen. Bracket is a whip-smart everything-ologist who “basically wrote the book on evolutionary biology.” (Not to contribute to the diminishing of women’s accomplishments or anything but didn’t… Charles Darwin… do that? Anyway.) The Predator gets loose and Bracket has to escape it by taking off her clothes and crouching in a decontamination stall. (Someone find Olivia Munn a better agent. Please. I’m begging.)
The creature escapes the facility just in time for McKenna to get acquainted with his new buddies on this journey, a busload of failed, trigger-happy military types whose one shared character trait seems to simply be “rude.” Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) makes a lot of homeless person jokes and might have PTSD. Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes) shot at a superior officer because he didn’t like him. Thomas Jane plays a man with Tourette’s. Shockingly, his portrayal is not particularly nuanced.
Which brings me to maybe the worst thing I have seen in a film this year. The aforementioned son, Rory, played by Tremblay, is the kind of Hollywood autistic character whose disorder is played as a superpower. I’m not exaggerating when I say that his disability — which causes him to fear dogs and loud noises and also enables him to read alien language because autism = really smart — is literally treated as if it’s “the next step in human evolution,” a line that Olivia Munn says in the film, and a plot point that becomes important later on when the Predators’ true plan is revealed. Considering the number of eyes that read a script before a movie is ever financed, I am appalled that many people looked at this idea and said, “Sure, that sounds cool, go for it.” I can’t even do the film the favor of calling its portrayal of mental disorders “misguided.” In the year 2018, when our understanding of the mind is better than it’s ever been and our portrayal of mental illness in pop culture is growing more empathetic by the day, what ends up in The Predator is something that a lot of people will likely find disgusting.
Other than that, and some loud, interestingly choreographed fight scenes that feature a lot of guns, there’s not much else to it. There’s a Big Predator, but the worst thing it does is bore the viewer to death. The Predator is scary when he’s a man in a suit, more or less normal-sized, the kind of creature that can leap silently through the trees and ambush a human with its color-coded heat vision and invisible camouflage. When things are just bigger things made of pixels, stomping through the trees and roaring every five seconds, they lose that sinister air.
Lots of people die, occasionally in funny ways. (It’s a Shane Black movie, after all.) There are some genuinely hilarious moments and zippy dialogue fueled by a sharp cast that make this movie a little less disappointing than it already is. But even the cast can’t save it.
Here’s the thing about creature-feature revivals: the main thing the fans are excited for — the fans, the people who have followed whatever series from its very beginning, collected the action figures, memorized the lore, doodled the scenes all over their notebooks — is the creature. The Predator is an icon that spawned two sequels, a comic book run, a novel, and a franchise crossover. When I’m in the theater for the next installment in a series about some big bad beast, all I really want to see is the creature that, though it may be a bloodthirsty villain, has slipped its way into our hearts nonetheless. That’s what Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla got so right, and that’s what 2017’s The Mummy remake and The Predator get way wrong. The Predator kills the Predator in true alien sport-hunter fashion: gleefully smearing glow-in-the-dark entrails all over something beloved before finally ripping out its spine.
‘The Predator’ opens nationwide on September 14.