Thursday, 15 July 2010

Predators; step away from the dead franchise

Predator was actually a perfectly good stupid movie, or so it seems in hindsight. I remember watching it in the cinema in the long ago and being quite surprised by the sudden twist it took from simpleminded action movie to science fiction splatterfest. It worked because the battle between Arnie's lunkhead mercenaries and the lone Predator was apparently balanced; on the one hand, they were certified badasses with overwhelming firepower and on the other hand, the Predator was a thing from another world with invisibility and all kinds of high tech.

Every attempt since then to reactivate the franchise has failed, and it's time to face up to the ugly truth; it's actually kind of a crap franchise. The Predators are ugly and they don't make a button of sense once you stop to think about them. In the first kind-of-good movie, we spent most of the time not being really sure what the Predator was and what its full capabilities might be. In all the follow ups, the audience has known what the Predators can do, and with the mystery gone, so's the romance. It doesn't help that the producers have gone for the "one Predator was good, more would be better" model. One Predator was a stretch for Arnie in his prime; if you add more, there's no way that any reasonable number of humans have any chance at all of surviving. If you can throw enough characters at the screen to balance out more Predators, the audience will lose track of who's who.

So Robert Rodriguez gave it a shot anyhow, hiring the slightly unlikely Nimrod Antal (whose debut film Kontroll is a much better use of your time) to kick new life into the fifth film with Predators in it. It's not all that good. Part of the problem is the high concept; instead of Predators visiting Earth and hunting the wild life, you've got humans kidnapped from Earth and stranded on a game reserve where they can be hunted. The eight victims for this movie buy into the plausibility of that idea a hell of a lot quicker than I did, and I'd read an on-line summary of the plot and spend far more time reading SF than any of the characters. That's not the problem, by the way, it's just a niggle. The problem is that you've got eight randomly selected badasses who've never met each other, and who are not so much characters as crudely sketched stereotypes - a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, a Spetznaz commando, a Yakuza thug, Walton Goggins (I love Walton Goggins, but as I said in an earlier post, every character he's ever played should have been executed before we even met them) and a Central African Militiaman - oh and two more white bread looking Americans and a chick, who are unsurprisingly the last people standing at the end of the movie. None of them are really given much of an opportunity to gel as characters as opposed to stock types; we know they're just there to get killed and it's kind of hard to get worried about it.

On the other side of the equation, there are three or four Predators and they're honestly impossible to tell apart. There's a climactic fight between two of them which is actually quite important in terms of resolving the plot and I couldn't tell you which of them won. So not much to root for on either side.

The other part of the high concept is that all of the human badasses are shown to us as being genuinely bad people who have done horrible things back on earth. So the hook is that you've got these alien Predators, but the humans are predators too! Gosh. I suspect it might have worked better with less humans and more opportunities to see them as people, but the movie doesn't have the space for it. In the middle of it, Larry Fishburne makes a surprise appearance which further underlines the idea that humans can be every bit as bad as the aliens, but all in all, it's not a feel good message.

There's all kinds of little niggles which bugged me even at the time. The ragged band of humans hikes across the jungle looking for the high ground, although they never really seem to find any high ground, and when they do at least find some open terrain where they can see for more than ten feet in any direction, they just keep going. Five or ten minutes later, they bust through some more jungle, crest a rise, and look out over a bowl dominated by a sky full of weird moons and spare planets and stuff. Leaving to one side that the sky's so cluttered with big objects up close that the planet should have been ripped apart by tides every few minutes, this is played as the big reveal that they're not in Kansas any more. But five minutes ago they were out in the open under exactly the same sky and didn't notice a thing.

The one harmless milquetoast character is so completely out of place and yet so unexplained that it's inevitable that he turn out to be a serial killer in the final reel; I was looking at that particular reveal and thinking aw, is that the best you can do? And I found myself wondering about all the weapons. Adrien Brody (who I am now convinced is a robot) carries a camouflaged Atchisson AA12 combat shotgun, a weapon which would fall into the awesome-but-impractical category if they'd ever made more than unsellable prototypes. It turns out that there's no real life situation in which a drum fed full automatic shotgun is the ideal solution, which makes it sort of weird that Brody's ultimately pragmatic mercenary would be carrying such a cumbersome and useless weapon as his main way of making loud points. Then I wondered why a Russian spetznaz would be carrying a minigun, a weapon made in and used only by the US. Because someone had one in the original movie, of course, but that didn't make it any more sensible. And Danny Trejo's odd decision to carry two MP-5Ks and fire them one handed from the hip definitely comes under awesome but impractical; I found myself wondering how you'd cock or reload either of them with your other hand full. As I've said in other contexts, if I've got time to ask myself these things, you're doing something wrong.

Predators is a movie sadly lacking in anything approaching cool dialogue, but unsurprisingly the one quotable line belongs to Walton, who early in the movie is eyeing up the lone chick as he walks behind her. She feels the leering gaze with some kind of girl sixth sense which is probably the only thing in the movie which has a real world counterpart and turns around to glare at him. With that patented Walton Goggins evil-bastard grin, he smiles back at her and says - with impressive sincerity - "You've got an AWESOME ass." It's so winning, you almost forgive him. That's acting.

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