When Arnold Schwarzenegger first wentmano a mano with a seven-foot space iguana in 1987, I don’t think many of us realized that a minor classic was in the making. Taut, exciting and just subversive enough to give its preassembled concept a real shake, it constituted a high point for both Schwarzenegger’s career and movie monsters in general. Indeed, the titular creature was so breathtakingly awesome that Fox assumed they could base a whole franchise around it without bothering to include, you know, anything else.
Predators is the fifth film in the franchise (and yes, we’re counting the astoundingly awful Alien vs. Predator series here), but the first that evokes serious comparisons to the original. It’s even more impressive considering that Predators swims in the same deliciously low-rent drive-in waters as its less-than-stellar predecessors. It has nothing on its mind beyond getting the job done, a lean, muscular bit of popcorn as unpretentious as they come. Just like the first one, of course; then again, if popcorn were so easy, everyone would do it was well as they did.
Indeed, Predators’ biggest issues come when it cleaves too close to the Schwarzenegger film. Individual developments bear a suspicious resemblance to those of its predecessor, and the overall arc never develops any originality. It loses its way from time to time as well, particularly in the middle when a surprisingly unconvincing Laurence Fishburne enters the scene. The remainder of the movie fires on all cylinders, however, and easily produces the suspense, action and horror which its advertisements promise.
The ads convey the basics pretty readily. Seven of the world’s elite bad-asses (plus nice-guy doctor Topher Grace) wake up to find themselves in an unknown jungle. We know why, but they don’t and their baffling circumstances set their finely honed survival instincts on edge. Soon enough, the space iguanas show up and we’re off on another round of Ten Little Indians, Stan Winston style.
Director Nimrod Antal quickly establishes the same sense of tension which John McTiernan produced in the original, augmented here by the fact that we’re no longer on Earth. The jungle seems normal at first, but the plants look slightly off and the sun… well it just doesn’t go down.
That disquieting difference binds us closer to the eight protagonists: killers, soldiers, mercenaries and war criminals who suddenly find themselves in way over their heads. Predators works in part because it allows us to sympathize with them: simplistic stereotypes given life and personality with just a few brief strokes. One expects a good show from the likes of Adrien Brody (playing the ostensible leader of the group) and Grace (delivering some very effective comic relief). But the lesser known players do just as well, and even the least of them brings something engaging to the figures onscreen.
Using them as an anchor, the film can then springboard into the monsters themselves: hunting our heroes down with lethal efficiency while engaging in some surprising rivalries of their own. Their newer qualities–new physique, new armor, gratuitous Pigsticker Fu, etc.–feels like a logical development of the species, not an excuse to sell toys. The long-established traits actually play the best–the Predators’ mimicking abilities, for instance, or those cool triangular laser sights–which Antal enhances with some very clever delivery. We’ve seen it before and yet it still feels fresh and energized, as do the humans’ various Oh-Fuck-We’re-Gonna-Die moments which arrive right on schedule. The film’s violence and action are equally effective, retaining a hard-core edge without rubbing our noses in gratuitous overkill.
On the one hand, Predators benefits from its ignominious predecessors, approaching a bar that had been lowered to the point of nonexistence. Any flashes of basic competence grant it instant superiority. And yet Antal takes nothing for granted, respecting the material without putting on undue airs and keeping us riveted without expecting anything more from his audience. In the process, he erases the sour tang of previous sequels and reminds us why we find these monsters so damn cool. It took twenty-three years, butPredator has finally found a worthwhile heir.
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