Directed by Nimród Antal
Screenplay by Alex Litvak and Michael Finch
Adrien Brody as Royce
Topher Grace as Edwin
Alice Braga as Isabelle
Walton Goggins as Stans
Oleg Taktarov as Nikolai
Laurence Fishburne as Noland
You’re Gonna Need A Better Script
Producer Robert Rodriguez has been developing this picture since he was just beginning to run away with the public’s heart as the director of such films as Desperado and From Dusk Til Dawn. He is renowned as an economical and versatile filmmaker, with an eye for action and a sly, playful sense of humor. When he said he would make a film to follow Predator (1987) and Predator 2 (1990), this reviewer believed in him. His idea, as the film’s title suggests, was to completely overlook the regrettable Alien vs. Predator films and expand the Predator universe in the same way that James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) did for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Perhaps if he had written and directed the final product himself, he could have pulled it off. The world will never know.
Now, now. No witch hunts! Let us lay blame according to the facts. Rodriguez selected newcomer Nimród Antal to sit in the director’s chair. Antal gained notice with his writing and directing debut, Kontroll (2003), an offbeat thriller shot in the subways of Budapest. Antal has a keen sense of style, and knows how to shoot a good-looking movie. This includes Predators, which quite effectively renders a lush alien world from the dense, eerie forests of Texas (producer Rodriguez and the reviewer share this common fascination). After Kontroll, Hollywood scooped Antal up to direct a vile picture called Vacancy (2007), in which a couple find themselves stranded in a snuff-or-be-snuffed world of voyeurism, torture, and other distasteful behavior. Rotten, rotten, stuff. Then followed Armored (2009), a passable action heist, but nothing special. The director would be wise to write himself more original material, because no one else will hand him a decent script.
It is hard to pass judgment on Antal for Predators in the absence of a better script. Perhaps he could have done better. Perhaps not. In all likelihood his hand was not completely free to make much-needed script improvements. A complete rewrite comes to mind. However, the casting is a separate and equally subpar affair. Perhaps the director is not so blameless after all.
The film opens in freefall. Cool, right? Characters drop out of the sky by parachute, with no memory of how or why. They are armed, and most appear to be soldiers of one kind or another. Through a series of clumsy introductions, we learn that these characters are ruthless killers from various walks of life. Most of them function in some military or paramilitary capacity. Some are civilians, though we find out none are innocent lambs. The inclusion of a death-row convict (Walton Goggins) and a doctor (Topher Grace) seems a bit puzzling at first, and even more puzzling as time passes. More on that later. Initially, it works out very neatly that the group has an expert to solve every mystery they encounter in the forest. Isabelle (Alice Braga) an Israeli sharpshooter has a preternatural familiarity of “most jungles” – her words – helping them deduce they are no longer on Earth. Topher Grace, the doctor of unspecified credentials, seems to be an expert on medicine, psychology, and botany. He supplies contrived scientific tidbits for the real dimwits in the audience, of which the screenwriter clearly assumes there are many. Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a death squad leader from Sierra Leone, is well versed in brutal methods of human trapping, despite his rather kind and sensitive demeanor. Royce (Adrien Brody), the “hardened” mercenary, fills in the blanks with his intuitive knowledge of why they are here (to be hunted for sport) and how they will be attacked. When asked how he knows all this – indeed, we’d all like to know – his terse reply is, “That’s what I would do.” Would you? Import a bunch of lowlifes from a distant planet and run them down like rabbits? Mister, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?
For a group of people dropped without warning on another planet, they put the pieces together with amazing speed, making grandiose deductive leaps based on scant and bewildering clues. They are chased by horrible doglike monsters (a little too reminiscent of Avatar), discover broken cages in the woods, and large piles of skulls and offal stacked under trees. Lesser minds might still find this all a bit too much to process. How perfect to have soldiers, doctors, mercenaries and assassins together to pool their collective knowledge. Each character remarks at some point on some aspect of the savage alien world that mirrors his or her own life experience. However, the only evidence of their brutality and bloodlust is their painfully on-the-nose dialogue. At no point does any character exhibit behavior suggesting a particularly violent past, other than talking about it. A lot. That is not the way to convince an audience of something. In fact, there is only one revelation – the crucial “not-in-Kansas” moment – that really hits home, because it is shown, not told, to the audience.
The film’s premise, as envisioned by Rodriguez, is a perfectly good one. It was his treatment and script, written over a decade ago, that grabbed the attention of 20th Century Fox and began the long journey of development leading to the finished film. Presumably, as producer, Rodriguez enjoyed considerable creative control over this pet project. However, for some reason, the final screenwriting job went to rookies Michael Finch and Alex Litvak. The dialogue could (and may) have been written by children. There is no subtlety. The beats and plot points are either achingly predictable or lifted whole from previous Predator films. And in violation of a cardinal screenwriting rule, every character says exactly what is on his or her mind at all times. We should be learning about them by what they do, but as far as can be said for people running from aliens, they don’t really do much of anything.
Adrien Brody, the man in charge, does not sell the tough guy role. He appears to have studied Christian Bale’s “Dark Knight” method of being big and scary by talking in hoarse, emphatic tones. It does not work. Gunning someone down – or at least beating someone up – in cold blood goes a long way toward establishing a ruthless temperament that no amount of labored dialogue will communicate. The reason behind casting Brody was apparently that a real soldier would never be as comically huge as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original. Fine, but choosing reedy actors at random will get you nowhere. We must believe the guy is tough. A big problem with the interpretation is that the actor seems uncomfortable with all the swearing. Nobody asked him to curse. The script would not suffer if he didn’t. However, if the line is there on the page and must be said, say it with a little conviction. Brody delivers lines like, “Now let’s get off this f-f-f-fucking planet!” as though he were going to get in trouble for saying it. Not a good sign.
A highlight of the trailer is the imposing Laurence Fishburne, playing a character who has survived a number of “hunting seasons” on the planet, and who may hold the key to getting out alive. He appears, dumps some plot exposition that viewers should have figured out themselves by now, and does a tolerable impression of a shell-shocked Marlon Brando. He is then written off abruptly as a rather cheap red herring. Something more could and should have been made of that character.
In the original Predator, and to a limited extent in Predator 2, the backdrop of all the alien-hunting makes a decent action film by itself. The human drama plays an integral role in how the characters deal with the monster when it appears. Take away the monsters in Predators, and all we have are eight strangers lost in the woods, griping at each other about who is the most reprehensible. Fascinating. In the former films, character relationships made sense. The first features a crack team of commandos, whose blissful, foul-mouthed camaraderie rings true and gives them a logical basis for how they work together. In Predator 2, a perfectly plausible sense of competition between cops and federal agents drives the characters. A fellow viewer remarked to me that a squad of soldiers, accustomed to operating together but still dropped onto the hostile world of Predators, might have saved some clunky setup and a few jagged plot holes.
The planet is teeming with missed opportunity. The characters gather hints of bizarre wildlife all over the planet, but encounter almost none of it head-on. We learn that in addition to the familiar Predator tribe, there is a more elite race of Predators whose hunting practices fly in the faces of their more honor-bound brethren. A heavy-handed analogy about the Great White Hunter versus the nobility of aboriginal traditions would have been, again, a little too Avatar, but could have improved a tenuous plot. Insufficient distinction, physical or otherwise, is made between the two Predator races, except that this new breed hunts according to different customs – more like British fox hunters than deep-woods deerstalkers. Most of this, by the way, the audience is left to piece together on its own. The script is used up explaining non-essential things, like the hang-ups of each character, which the actors should instead be acting out for us.
Now for the characters not yet mentioned, whose purpose in the film is an inflated body count and a couple of late-stage plot twists that pay off not one bit. A weather-beaten Danny Trejo plays a nails-tough Mexican cartel enforcer. As the only character who belongs in a Predator movie, he is, let us say, critically underused. Oleg Taktarov plays a tough but amiable Russian commando, toting the requisite mini-gun. Here, actually, both actor and character do their respective jobs just fine. Walton Goggins, as a nasty San Quentin con, merely confuses the question of what Predators consider a worthy adversary. Is it all based on some implausibly complex moral judgment? Are we suddenly watching Saw? Topher Grace, as a seemingly out-of-place innocent, appears to be useless until the revelation of his BIG secret… which falls flat, adds nothing to the story, and does not upgrade his status from gratuitous cannon fodder.
Then there is the silent Yakuza hitman (Louis Ozawa Changchien), who contributes nothing until he decides to duel samurai-style with one of the Predators, way into the film. Fine, but what of the Predator’s sudden interest in laying down his laser cannon and fencing to the death? The advantage of not making any rules for your characters is that you need not follow any. However, writing and following a few rules makes a script infinitely stronger. The audience might even be tricked into believing some of the fantastic and outrageous things onscreen. The incongruous pacing and style of this scene raises suspicion that a certain friend of the producer’s may have asked to guest-direct a scene. Someone with a precedent for doing so? Someone who likes samurai fights a whole lot? The possibility lurks.
This review has come down harder than anticipated on its subject. For the record, I did not observe anyone walking out of the screening. It is far from unwatchable, but also far from the film it had the potential to be. With a mediocre cast and a bad script, even a clever director can only do so much. The pacing is adequate for what story there is, the score is pretty good, and the action sequences work well once they get going. The best completely original idea in the film, wherein the primal power of fire exploits a fatal weakness of the Predator’s high-tech weaponry, came too late to make sufficient impact – that is, well past the point where viewers began checking their watches. The film is a disappointment mainly because it amounts to a good idea squandered. For an experience of the film’s redeeming elements, better presented, this reviewer prescribes a marathon of the following:
1) Pandorum (2009, Christian Alvart)
2) Cube (1997, Vincenzo Natali)
3) Battle Royale (2001, Kinji Fukasaku)
4) Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
Or to simplify things, go and watch the original Predator instead. You will probably be glad you did.