08 August 2022

From Predator to PREY: Examining Each of the Predator Movies in Respect to their Eras

PREY (2022) dropped on Hulu last Friday and if you haven't already, you should see it. It really deserved a theatrical release, but whatever. That helps movies become bigger event films but frankly, I'm perfectly content to watch it snuggled up with a few beers in me in my own home. Anyway, as these kinds of movies often do, it inspired me to think back on previous Predator movies, which I realized I'm always in a mood for. So let this serve as both a review of PREY and a walk through memory lane of the last five decades of Predator movies. Let's start there and work backwards:

PREY: Early 2020s Competency and Reactions to Reactions

Is that a weird way to describe modern blockbusters? Like, they try really hard and just become good movies. I think of Mortal Kombat (2021), the Top Gun: Maverick (2022), even something like Bloodshot (2021). But the key is also that most of these are well known IPs. It's like we're entering another phase in the lifetimes of these franchises. We've gone in really weird routes, and now it's time to scale back and focus on a smaller story.

You see this a lot, actually. There is quite a bit of over-correction like Ghostbusters Afterlife (2021), Dark Phoenix (2019), or Bumblebee (2018). There is less interest in telling a new edgy story than telling a different, good story. They just kind of surf with the IP and have fun with a smaller story. However, in all three of these cases the end result was also a much less interesting story. It feels very weird to criticize competency, but I'd rather have a bombastic failure than a boring safe movie. That's the worst a film could be. I recognize the insanity of me preferring The Last Knight (2017) to Bumblebee, but I want a movie to at least be memorable.

I think this started with either Logan (2017) or maybe even the John Wick movies. As with most things in Hollywood, it started with good films that unfortunately made a lot of money and got high critical praise. I know I'm going to be unpopular for saying so, but the John Wick sequels assuredly fall into that boring yet competent zone of action films. They're all good - really good action movies full of unbelievable practical sequences. But can you recite the plot of John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019)? I cannot. The recent Planet of the Apes movies are totally in this zone. Like, I don't remember the last two. But they were good! It's such a weird phenomenon.

Assuredly, PREY is not in this category, but you can tell it got greenlit to be in this sort of zone. A pared down, competent, and most importantly, cheap action movie that could be sold to streaming. I know that it was originally intended for a theatrical release, but it's also the kind of film that 20th Century Studios could feel better about sliding into streaming. I'm suspicious of Disney's motivations, as I always will be with films that were in development during the Fox Merger, but however you slice it, it's a huge get for Hulu, which rarely gets buzz like this around its movies. And it's a prefect Friday night film to check out in your living room.

So let's actually talk about it. What if a Predator landed in the northern great plains of North America in 1719 and encountered a tribe of Comanche warriors? That is all you need. Amber Midthunder is trying to prove herself as a hunter and ends up going against the most badass thing in the galaxy. Everything is firing here.

First, it is a thoroughly Comanche movie with an all Indigenous American cast. It is rare that we get a movie like this that focuses on an American Indian perspective without the lens of white dudes. We do get the French fur traders in the last third of the film, but they're kept at a healthy distance, not only because we never get their language subtitled. There is good balance here - they definitely affect the proceedings (we see how they recklessly kill and skin the buffalo - there's a great fake out there when you assume the Predator did such things. Nah, not worse than white guys), and at the end Midthunder tells them they need to move on because white folks have entered their territory, but it's never the focus of the story. It does a nice job of keeping the film moving on target but also acknowledging necessary historical issues.

The film follows Midthunder as she seeks to prove she can hunt as good as the dudes. At first it feels Mary Sue-ish (a term I'm trying to use to critique women written as poorly as underwritten characters with no agency by dudes who overcompensate by giving them no challenge to overcome, not the blanket term for "women" that has been co-opted by incels lately), but we quickly see that even though she thinks of herself as a great hunter, she has a lot to learn. She screws up! A lot! And we see her grow!

I kept thinking about how refreshing it was to see actual character growth demonstrated through action. I realized I'm too used to films where the growth is either "superhero learns to use powers" or "superhero learns that saving people is good." The film (SPOILER) ends up heading into similar territory as Predator (1987). Everyone else dies, so she uses what she learned to set traps and tricks this monster into killing itself. Yet we get no sinister laugh at the end!

And that's probably the one thing that this movie comes up short with - ultimately it IS a film we've seen before. I kept thinking at multiple points, "Boy the Predator series sure has an interesting relationship with mud." I fear that we are just past the point of novelty. We're at a stage where all films are devoid of new concepts, so we can just hope the old crap is remixed in an entertaining way. That's entirely the point of this post, as a matter of fact. When and why does that remix fail? More on that later.

We don't get a ton of on the nose references. "If it bleeds we can kill it" of course. And mud. There is a lot of set-up and pay-off here, the mud being one of the more obvious examples. There were some fun bits downgrading the Predator's technology, although I dunno, it's still capable of intergalactic space flight, it can probably still have energy cannons. I mean, the Iron Man targeting stuff was still cool tho. I did wonder a bit if the Predator understood how its own technology worked. I guess at the end it was trying to just manually aim because it was so close to her? Didn't work out for Preddy. Preddy Woman. Now that's a crossover!

Everything else was a cool downgrade. I dug the boneskull-like mask. Was it a Super Predator from Predators (2010) underneath? It kind of looked like one. I really dug how just like in the first film, bravado and masculinity is useless. Using a female protagonist to demonstrate this is inspired. I called Arnold a Final Girl in my write-up from a few years ago. It seems like this movie is exploring the same territory. Like, Predator '87 is the most muscle-bound movie of all time, but the point is that none of that matters when facing the sheer oblivion of an otherworldly threat like this. The real hunter hunts with her wits, not her brawn. And as Ra's al Ghul says, always mind your surroundings!

This is a gorgeous film to look at, too. It's easy when you're on the forests and mountains on the edge of the Great Plains. I'm not familiar with where this was exactly filmed, I'm assuming Montana or something? But hey! It's real! Director, Dan Trachtenberg hasn't actually done a ton, but he did do 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), which is underrated and spectacular. He isn't really known for capturing shots like this, so hopefully this pushes him into more serious director territory. Maybe he'll get to direct an Apache Chief DC movie!

I am also going to support the use of CGI animals - if it prevents animals from getting injured and exploited, I'm 100% for their use, I don't care how fake it looks. Except for the dog. Easy Dog of the Year candidate right here. Some close calls!

PREY is great and seems to fit in really well in the 2020s. Now, let's take a look back in time...

The Predator: Late 2010s Trying too Hard

We're not that far removed from The Predator. I was pretty psyched for this, and thoroughly disappointed when it came out. What even is this, it's just a mess. The cast was and is pretty unreal. Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Keegan Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Yvonne Strahovski. Unreal.

I previewed this back in 2018, along with A Simple Favor (2018). Who could have guessed that A Simple Favor would have been the FAR superior movie. That movie rules. Anyway, no one enjoys this movie. It's a fine line between ironic winking and genuine shallow writing, and while writer / director Shane Black usually knocks this stuff out of the park (and just did so with The Nice Guys [2016]), nothing works here. It just kind of bumbles everything.

And that's the late-2010s. It's a reaction to all the sincerity that came before it. It doesn't feel like it can tell a straight story, so it has to lampshade everything and pretend it's better than its pulp origins. It's not, and nothing about the film revolutionizes anything, so it feels hollow. I think of like, Hotel Artemis (2018), also starring Sterling K. Brown (he was really cast as these sarcastic intelligent characters in this era), the Deadpool movies, the Guardians movies, or Kingsman movies that all just felt like being far too clever. And I like all these movies, but it sort of leads to some significant hubris when it's pushed to far. I think this was really trying to be meta and edgy, but it reeked of too much corporate universe building and fell on its head.

2010 Predators: The Team-Up Movie

This is actually the same exact movie as the first one, but somehow the Predator hunting parts are spread out more. There are more people at the end, it's less witty, and no one figures things out for themselves. They just learn about what the Predators' deal is from exposition from Laurence Fishburne and Alice Braga.

But, it has two academy award winners. I mostly said my peace here, but I'll reiterate that it's weird to cast Adrian Brody as the King of Badasses. It's even weirder that he almost pulls it off. This remains now the third-best Predator film because it has one of the best openings ever, displays enough twists to the formula, and has a likable cast of the baddest motherfuckers on earth. Basically what The Predator was trying to do.

Looking back on 2010 there was a surprising amount of team-up movies. The Losers, The A-Team, Inception, and The Expendables all come to mind. They were making solid movies back then, and looking back now it feels like this time period of uncertainty in films. We were definitely in the Superhero world but the only movie that came out that year was Iron Man 2. At that point we had had ten years of this stuff, and they were popular, but far from dominant.

Somehow five of the top ten films of the year were animated, and it was also the year of big 3-D releases like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland. The latter along with Despicable Me portended the following decade of live action Disney remakes and Minions movies dominating the landscape. It's this weird transition zone that is somewhat underrated. It's also the eve of Netflix and all that good stuff. I'm not sure 2010 knows what it wants to be. In drops Predators out of the sky, which feels out of time, it's not entirely edge but it does feel like a mission movie, somewhat aimless, somewhat pulling from its previous IPs but more in a matter of fact way than a reverential way. The memberberries aren't quite hitting so hard yet. 

And Walton Goggins calls Predator a Space Faggot. It seems really late in our culture for the word Space Faggot to be thrown around, but here we are.

2004-2007: AVP movies, Just ridiculous

The mid-2000s brought us the first crest of staleness and we seemed to not care about spicing things up in major ways. We had Freddy vs. Jason (2003), and then these movies. The people who grew up watching this nonsense finally had the clout to make movies and smash their toys together. CGI allowed us to do so. Requiem is notable for the only Alien movie ever to take place in a modern day setting on earth, but really doesn't work. AVP was made for the masses and Requiem felt like one that was trying to course correct for fans who wanted more violence and ridiculousness. It's like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011) being the more hardcore version of Ghost Rider (2007). But the attempt is in stupid vanity.

We got into this a bit in 2010, but people didn't have the reverence back then. It was just another stupid movie and the 2000s really had fun without having very high stakes for this kind of stuff. This was peak Resident Evil years, we had the Star Wars prequels and Shrek, and all these meme factories to shape foggy childhoods. There is an extreme amount of baffling carelessness and what I'd call the first wave of old IPs crashing and folding in on themselves.

Look at Rocky, which is great because it also exists in every time period at once. We had Rocky Balboa (2006) which is an earnest attempt that falls flat because its premise is obviously insane. It takes a while for that to morph into Creed (2015) where it gained its self-respect through telling its own grounded story.

1990: Predator 2: The LA Cop Movie

It's just in LA. I mean, that's really it, but it feels like the apex of Joel Silver insane 80s thinking maximized to 90s potential. There are so many explosions. So, Predators like hunting Aliens, commandos, Comanche warriors, and....what, 90s Los Angeles cholos? Yeah, that's what it's about.

I dig this movie because it follows that Predator mantra of again just making a movie and then dropping a Predator in there. See, Predators and The Predator were too obsessed with centering a movie around a Predator. No, you need to make Commando (1985), Lethal Weapon (1988), and uh...The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and just drop a Predator in there. That is the secret. And Predator 2 is really just outshone because its predecessor is perfect, but it does a fantastic job of nearly parodying 80s/90s Los Angeles cops movies (see The Last Action Hero [1993]) and their excess, but then just adds a Predator to make it a slasher flick. It's phenomenal genre combination.

It's also bizarre how this much maligned flick ends being like, the THOR: The Dark World (2013) or Fast & Furious (2009) of the series. It is definitely bottom-tier but has the most important Easter eggs. So we are obliged to watch it to understand lore and connective tissue. Thanks, guys.

1987: Predator: The 80s Muscle Fest

I summed up everything I needed to here. I even mentioned the masculinity thing, the governor thing, and predator's laugh, which they definitely need to bring back. But ultimately this is a movie made out of insane 80s muscle-bound macho heroes and serves as the high point of this kind of movie making.

This series over the years tends to reflect its eras. Some of these bleed in and out of each other, despite not having time to do so, but the point is, I really enjoyed PREY and I hope there are more films of this scale but also of this level of interestingness in the future.

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