Tuesday, August 3, 2010

To Catch a Predators

Note: This piece was originally intended to be published on the literary site Open Letters Monthly for their August issue. However, due to organizational chaos beyond anyone's control, edits could not be finished in time for publication. Despite the problems, I still consider Open Letters as a sister site and am already working on a piece for the September issue. Until then, and since I did promise you this review, here you go. Enjoy.

About thirty years ago, science fiction stories were becoming booming business, especially in movie theaters. In 1979, director Ridley Scott brought us a vision straight out of H.R. Giger’s nightmares with Alien. In 1984, it was James Cameron (who would also go on to make the first Alien sequel) who helped make “Ahnold” a true household name with the cyborg-from-the-future Terminator. Finally, in something of holy trifecta, John McTiernan released Predator in 1987 and in doing so introduced to moviegoers one of the most identifiably scary creatures of this or any era.

The creation of what we now associate to be the Predator can be traced back to Oscar-award winning special effects guru Stan Winston, who has worked on such films as Aliens, Jurassic Park, the first two Terminator films, and Edward Scissorhands. After an early prototype of the Predator creature featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme in a suit failed to impress, Winston was called in on actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recommendation. After eight months of brainstorming and creating, Winston then went on to unveil a creature that succeeded at being an imposing, frightening creature even when compared to hulking stars Schwarzeneggar, Carl Weathers and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. At over seven feet and with a alarming assortment of anti-personnel weaponry, not to mention brute strength, nothing like the Predator had been seen before, or seen since.

After making a name for itself by slaughtering an entire joint task force in the jungles of Guatemala, the Predator returned three years in a much different setting. With the release of 1990’s Predator 2, the hunters are introduced to a near-future Los Angeles, smack in the middle of a street war between Colombian and Jamaican gangs, with the LAPD trying to keep the violence under control. With the Predator on the loose, the gang violence goes down, just not the way the police wanted, as the gangs and eventually the police too are slaughtered before the Predator’s violence. What made Predator 2 different from it’s predecessor was not just the setting; it also meant that the monster that stalked the jungles of Guatemala was no aberration. No lone hunter, the Predators became a hunter race, one that had traveled to Earth (and other places) to game hunt. In fact, it was Predator 2 that introduced the idea of a crossover with the Alien franchise, although it would be many years before audiences would be ultimately disappointed by the fare offered in the theaters.

That disappointment did not extend to paper formats, thankfully. It  can be argued that the Predator’s most successful medium has to this point been in literary form, with countless books and comics pitting the Predator not only against human foes, but also famous enemies like Terminators and Aliens (which helped drum up more excitement for the then-upcoming movies). The Predator also successfully crossed-over with more famous comic book heroes such as Judge Dredd, Tarzan, Witchblade, Superman, Batman and once the entire Justice League. Every time it proved itself up to the challenge of facing off against some of the most famous names in the business. And it wasn’t just comics where the Predator reigned supreme: novels by notable sci-fi authors like S.D. Perry have shed even more character and history about this alien race than could be noted here.  And yet none of it has deviated from the brutal and terrifying hunter the Predator is known to be.

Whereas the Alien or Terminator were scary within their own type - Aliens are instinctual hunters driven mostly by the need to reproduce, and the Terminators of course are guided by programming algorithms directing them to kill all humans or carry out certain missions – the Predator has no one type. Their slaughtering of humans has little to do with instinct and everything to do with culture. A hunter race, Predators kill for sport, entertainment, and honor. Besides their obvious physical advantage over the average human being, they also sport all kinds of futuristic technology such as plasma pistols, disc blades, electrified nets, and stealth fields, mixed in with more “primitive” weapons like spears and their famous wrist-mounted blades. In fact, there are many contradictions between the Predator being considered an “advanced” or “primitive race. Says Alec Gillis, the special effects artist who worked on Aliens, Alien 3 and both Alien Vs. Predator movies:

“The Predator society builds sophisticated spaceships, yet they should not look as sleek and hi-tech as a Star Wars stormtrooper. They are a tribal culture, yet their look should not be as primitive as the orcs from Lord of the Rings. They are also a warrior culture, so the ornate cannot conflict with the practical.”

 Combine all these things with their natural ability to see in infared and you have an intelligent, deadly opponent who will find you, will kill you, and will hoist your spine and skull over his head like a trophy. And yet the Predator is far from any amoral murderer. Unlike many hunters in the wild that we’re aware of, they don’t siphon out the weak from the strongest in the herd. In fact, in most cases a Predator will spare children or the sick (or in the case of Maria Conchita Alonso’s character in Predator 2, pregnant), willing rather as a point of honor to face off against the strongest a species has to offer, usually whoever’s the most heavily armed.  And they certainly have the edge over human so-called game hunters, who regularly only hunt in conditions where the prey cannot fight back. In fact, while the title of the new sequel Predators could easily be about that there’s more than one Predator on this game reserve planet, it’s more than just that. In becoming the best hunters they can be, the prey themselves are Predators. Soldiers, gang members, yakuza, psychopaths; in the end, they all pale in comparison to the galaxy’s most perfect hunter.

So while dread is to be expected when facing off against so potent a killer, it’s refreshing that the trademark creature does not make it’s first appearance until significantly into the story of Predators, with hero Adrian Brody’s character more immediately concerned with the fact that he’s falling from quite a significant height and can’t remember jumping from any plane. After a few gripping minutes, his parachute kicks in, and he finds himself in the middle of an unidentifiable jungle and soon surrounded by others confused about their whereabouts such as Alice Braga’s Black Ops sniper, Danny Trejo’s Mexican drug cartel enforcer, Walton Goggins’ death row inmate, and Topher Grace as a doctor who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the rest of the people associated with mayhem as a profession. They don’t remember how they got there, only that they’re somewhere none of them have been before. Soon it becomes apparent they are not even on Earth anymore, and after they discover they are being hunted by some unknown person or persons, they find they must stick together and find some way to survive and escape the planet.

People might be forgiven for thinking that Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, From Dusk Til Dawn) was in fact the director of this film based on seeing the trailer – as well as the casting of Trejo, a Rodriguez favorite – but while Rodriguez produced the film it was actually directed by award-winner Nimrod Antal (for the Hungarian Control) and to his credit he retains everything that made the first two Predator films great while adding his own brand of unique ideas to the story. For instance, it’s actually an offshoot rival clan of Predators that have set up this preserve, while also holding a blood feud with the original “classic” Predators. Also added are hunting “dogs” and a robotic bird much like a spy drone used to search for the prey. At first I was put off by these additions as they had no place in any previous Predator storyline – movies or books – but with the realization that these creatures are true adaptors, constantly striving to be better hunters over generations, the idea actually made sense and these enhancements more acceptable.

The acting is surprisingly solid throughout, as well. Brody, who’s Oscar win for The Pianist unsettlingly set the stage for his rapid spiral career descent, shows he can still be a strong lead given half a chance, properly channeling an inner deadness gained from years in the military and as a mercenary. As his better half, Braga is perfect displaying the humanity Brody’s character seems to lack, and their interactions are among the best character interactions in the movie. Lawrence Fishburne appears about halfway through the film as a half-crazy survivor who’s been on the planet for ten seasons and although he out-acts everyone else in the room three times over he thankfully doesn’t take over, instead enjoying his quick cameo role and helping set up the final act. Goggins also deserves credit for his portrayal of the former death row inmate. Making such an unlikable character amusing to the audience is no small feat; Goggins does it almost unnoticeably and even though the other characters can’t stand him, he’s definitely amusing to us in the seats. Finally Topher Grace is perfectly cast as the seemingly out-of-his-element doctor who doesn’t seem to be useful or dangerous. He does help illicit some helpful plot points early on, but you just know he’s not what he seems and part of the fun of watching his performance is trying to determine if your instincts are on the money.

The best thing I can say about Predators is that when handling established licenses you should not
screw with what works (See Alien: Resurrection or the AVP series for proof) and thankfully that’s what we see here. Rodriguez, Antal, and their crew created a completely believable sequel for the Predator franchise to take, and didn’t change what made the creature so great. They even retained the music from the original Predator film to close out the credits, as an homage to the original. While there are references to the original film on more than one occasion, this is definitely it’s own movie, it’s own story, always respectful to the source material but not enslaved to it. Predators is suspenseful and shocking and you will sit on the edge of your seat wondering who will survive in the ultimate test of predators and prey.

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