Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart leave their game reserve to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they enjoy the anti-military, pro-human gospel of Nimród Antal’s Predators.
Hey, Ben, doesn’t it seem like the last few years in franchise-horror have been about undoing the damage wreaked in the last few years before that? You know, today’s cynical, miserablist audiences won’t go for anything campy, or for that bonkers outer space shit. So Michael Bay applies the grungy, washed-out look to all the series that had been pushed to the limits of absurdity or tedium: Friday the 13th atones for Jason X, A Nightmare on Elm Street nullifies Freddy vs. Jason. The new “don’t call it a reboot” Predators seems to spring from that trend: it’s a totally cool franchise do-over that pretends something like, say, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem never happened. The only difference between this and Platinum Dunes’ assembly-line folderol is that Predators has a much more impressive pedigree, and as a result it’s actually pretty awesome.
Well, for the most part.
Ben, what I like so much about Nimrod Antal, contracted by producer Robert Rodriguez to helm this reworking of a screenplay he wrote back in his Mariachi days, is his efficiency: at a time when blockbusters push the two hour mark as a rule, bringing Armored in at a smooth, action-packed, socially conscious 88 minutes was fucking beautiful. And this movie has a bit of that economy, too: remember when all the characters are trying to figure out complicated plans to get Topher Grace out of a tree, and Adrien Brody just shoots him down and shrugs. “Taking too long.” Fuck, yeah!
I mean, how about how quickly we’re dropped into this story? (Get it? Dropped?) It opens with Adrien Brody, unconscious, falling through the sky as though pushed out of a plane, suddenly coming to and scrambling to discharge his parachute. Not a moment to lose, Ben! No soporific backstories centered on life-changing mistakes made in war zones. Of course, that’s also because this is a mystery, like Cube In The Jungle, in which eight strangers, an action-figure collection of international mercenaries, find themselves in a mysterious tropical forest, not knowing why or how they got there.
Hey, mystery in the jungle? How about all of those glaring Lost parallels that run through most of Predators, Ben? Which were a nice treat for lostalgic moviegoers just starting to smart, two months or so after the finale, from no more of that addictive serial sci-fi. There’s the very-Lost-like opening, with Brody on the jungle ground, staring up at tropical trees (all that’s missing is a close-up of his eye); the whispers in the jungle; characters from around the globe; the Rousseauian crazy-lone-survivor who delivers mystery-deepening exposition (Armored’s Laurence Fishburne [http://www.catsandbeer.com/uploads/2008/03/cowboy_curtis.jpg]); and the various theories about what’s going on that the characters rattle off: we’re dead? We’re on drugs? We’ve been kidnapped? We’re in hell? Whoa, are you guys clicking through Lostpedia theory pages?
But Predators’ mystery actually speaks to something else, I think. A pan-continental group of soldiers reluctantly cooperating to fight on “an alien planet” for reasons they don’t even really understand: sounds a lot like Afghanistan, doesn’t it, Ben? (And the quasi-invisible, ghostly predators reminded me of the Afghan-war-as-ancient-spectral-curse of Daniel Myrick’s The Objective.) Brody—fresh of the summer’s freshest sci-fi, back in the King Kong jungle, delivering applause-line exposition in a low-pitched growl—plays the AMERICAN, the Hemingway-quoting, ex-BlackForest loner type: you know, the John Wayne kind of hero we often associate with the US of A. But the first two-thirds of the movie are about him learning what America has/had to learn about the longest war in its history: “I can’t do it alone”. Predators is about coalition-building against a common enemy: Rasta-predator, Islamofascist, whatevs.
But I liked how the filmmakers (including writers Michael Finch and Alex Litvak) added a bit of moral complexity to the allegory. Eventually, our band of heroes come to see themselves as morally compromised, chosen to come to the predator planet for their comeuppance—because, truly, they are the predators!!1! Is Antal, then, trying to say that no one is really innocent? That America had its 9/11 coming to it?
That brings us close to the most disappointing part of Predators, Ben, which was its protracted finale, as the movie devolves into unpleasant crowd pleasings: lots of corny twists and extended fight sequences that drain Predators of meaning like water from a pool. (As our colleague Simon Abrams and I agreed about on Twitter: “the yakuza/predator fight was just silly but the overhead shots of the grass rippling were gorgeous.”) And then Brody becomes some kind of mud-caked fire god? But I guess that if Afghanistan is our Vietnam, Ben, then it makes sense that Brody goes all Apocalypse Now at the end? But I was still confused: what did it mean that Brody partnered with one of the terrorists? And, Ben, why do the predators look Jamaican?
Well, Henry, as this outfit’s official Predator historian (that’s “Predator” with a capital P, Henry), I’d say that the Predators look Jamaican because they’re boogeymen amalgamations of Reagan-era America’s most feared baddies. In an interesting twist on Robin Wood’s model of horror movie monsters from “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” (1979)—by which one can gauge how progressive or conservative a horror movie’s politics are by how similar its monsters are to its victims—the Predator is both horribly alien in appearance, but instinctually similar to humans in ways that this new film underlines better than any of its forbears.
In 1987’s Predator the solo space hunter takes out all but one member (Governor Schwarzenegger) of a C.I.A. team sent to retrieve captured Americans from rebels hiding in the jungles of Guatemala (as Isabelle explains here during her origin story moment). In the franchise opener Predator’s almost insurmountable tactical skill and more sophisticated weaponry retroactively justified our country’s contemporaneous (and continuing) involvement in innumerable sectarian conflicts the world over by positing our American(-Austrian) protags as underdogs pitted against a terrifying tropical enemy.
Then, in 1990’s Predator 2: Predator in the Hood, set slightly in near future Los Angeles (1997) but also kind of during the Watts Riots and decidedly pre-Rodney King, the alien hunter becomes a homeland threat situated somewhere between members of the African-American, Caribbean-American and Latino gangs giving Danny Glover and his LAPD badge-holders a tough time, and a straight-up terrorist blowing up buildings, which leaves Predator poised quite nicely to go full terrorist in this new movie.
Except I’m gonna go against your Afghanistan analogy because a couple of other things that Predators adds to the franchise mythology really struck me, beginning with the revelation (spoiler alert) that the jungle where our evil-doing good-guys have been dropped is in fact the Predators’ own intergalactic game preserve. The whole film is set on this planet-sized hunting ground, which kind of makes the Predators like the Victorian aristocrats of space, right? They have horned alien hunting dogs that they summon with a special high-pitched whistle and a spacey recon drone to scope out prey, like Lord Merriweather hunting quail with his trusty hound Silas and hawk Clarence, or something. The Predators even use distinctive human calls like “help me” to lure our protags into traps.
If Predators are an interplanetary game-hunting leisure class (which, yeah, obvs), where do they get the money to fund these exclusive and customized safaris? Fishburne’s character lives in a giant abandoned drill (which looks a lot like the one working its way down Second Avenue, actually…), so maybe they made their money in the mining industry. Do they sell their hunting trophies on the black space market? Are they poachers trafficking in lucrative human bones?
This raises perhaps my closest thing to an ideological problem with Predators: its anthropocentrism. This was fairly implicit in the franchise’s previous two entries and significantly undermined in the Alien vs. Predator spin–offs, where Aliens are the ultimate trophy, but in Predators it’s fairly blatantly spelled out: Predators and humans are the most bad-ass species in the entire fucking universe. And so, Henry, in a backhanded manner, the film’s awesomeness undercuts the comeuppance narrative that you very astutely highlighted. Predators seems to concede that sure, we’re horrible to each other and to our planet, but you know what’s just as horrible? A Predator! And you know what, that doesn’t even matter ‘cause we’ll fucking kill a whole pack of those space Rastafarians on their own turf, yeah!
And speaking of the verdant Predator game reserve, I figured that Predators might mesh nicely with Lost (which I’ve never seen), but it also made me think of another epic and confusing narrative followed closely by millions: The Bible. Pervasive Catholic imagery inevitably brings up another Lawrence Fishburne-as-nutty sage franchise, The Matrix, but I won’t go into that. In this Old Testament-themed interpretation, Royce (Brody) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) will be playing Adam and Eve, the Predators are simultaneously god and Lucifer in snake form, their hunting grounds are the Garden of Eden, and the forbidden apple from the tree of knowledge will be replaced by, um, the Predators’ ship.
This was seriously the only analogy that stuck with me from start to finish. Our first couple comes to fully formed, created apparently out of nothing (but actually by the invisible, occasionally benevolent but mostly wrathful hands of the Predators) and come down from the heavens into a lush planet-sized garden where their actions are closely monitored by the overseers of this giant experiment. After discovering some harsh truths about their new habitat and its treacherous rules, losing some friends along the way, Royce reaches for the forbidden fruit, which explodes moments after he lets it go, he and Isabelle kill the last of those predatory snakes, and they get ready to welcome a new set of humans to their postlapsarian Predator planet. What I’m trying to say, Henry, is that Predators is essentially Paradise Lost with guns.