Making a new Predator film is no easy task, since while 2010’s Predators might have been underwhelming, and the Alien v. Predator series might have taken both creatures in a different direction, Predator 2 still stands as one of the most remarkable sequels in any classic 80s or 90s franchise. Indeed, so brilliantly does Predator 2 reinvent the original Predator that no subsequent film has even come close to matching its vision and intensity. Unfortunately, Shane Black’s reboot doesn’t even try, playing as a frank fanboy homage to the original that works better as a comedy than a thriller, but even then is pretty limp and unimaginative. From the opening sequence, it’s clear that Black is going for classicism, and reveling in the possibility of seeing – and shooting – the Predator on the big screen without the pressure to reinvent or reimagine it in any enduring way. In other words, this is a homage to Predator, and yet the fact that Black starred in the original inevitably makes that something of a homage to himself as well, which is perhaps why The Predator exudes a knowing self-awareness that forecloses any genuine comedy or suspense, exhausting the action before it ever gets going.
That’s not to say that The Predator has exactly the same plot as Predator. While the credit sequence might be more or less identical, and the opening sequence might also take place in a tropical forest, the action is set in the present, after three decades of escalating Predator visits to Earth. This has alerted the attention of the United States government, who have actually captured a Predator specimen, and are using it to research the reasons for Predator visits, as well as the ways in which the Predators might be used as a military resource. As a result, the Predators feel more anthropomorphic than in any of the other instalments, or at least lose the otherness and strangeess that made them so eerie, so it’s not all that surprising when it turns out that the specimen in question has human DNA, or that the Predators’ capacity for spontaneous speciation appears to have become more prominent since their first appearance. Yet whereas Predator 2 brilliantly connected the appearance of the Predators to moments of urban and civic conflagration, The Predator isn’t so interested in what triggers their visits, beyond the thrill of the hunt, effectively undoing – or just ignoring – the incredible allegory and vision established by Stephen Hopkins’ sequel.
None of that is necessarily a problem, since retconning has become so integral to the continued survival of 80s and 90s franchises that direct continuity would almost seem more unnatural at this stage than a sustained timeline. The problem is that Black doesn’t even seem to especially believe in his new premise, discarding the various ways in which the franchise has evolved but too aware of the franchise to ever quite inhabit either the suspense or comedy of the original in a compelling manner either. Cursory and ironic at the same time, the dialogue plays more like a comic voiceover to the original film – or an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 – rather than a screenplay on its own terms, which would be fine if it didn’t also demand sudden moments of sentimentality on the part of its audience, typically whenever American militarism or American fatherhood are held up as examples of right and proper behavior. Moralistic and sarcastic at the same time, it’s the epitome of a fanboy register, devoid of any real wit, panache or sincerity in the way it approaches it source material, and reveling in one bland man-child after another as it defies you to take the original film seriously while also insisting upon its own fanboy seriousness.
In other words, The Predator is deeply anxious and sceptical about anybody who genuinely loves the original film beyond of its insular fanboy worldview, let alone a sequel that might love the original enough to try and extend its premise in an original and visionary. Insecure and defensive at heart, it’s a film that clarifies just how well scripted the original was, as well as how deft in its characterisation, since the more Black fondly pokes fun at Predator, the more original the austerity and scabrous comedy of the original seems. Treating the original as a collective joke we all have to poke fun at also means that the action sequences here never ramify as suspenseful in any kind of way, while the depictions of the Predator itself are never memorable or frightening, despite the fact that we see far more of it than ever before. Part holographic, and part corporeal, the original Predator was a stark challenge to McTiernan to get the balance between CGI and prosthetic just right, and in retrospect now feels like an embodiment of the shift from prosthetics to CGI happening in the mid-80s – a personification of the tensions around whether real or computed spectacle made for better entertainment. That tension has persisted throughout all the different iterations of the Predator, and is more relevant than ever in a CGI landscape that has started to feel its was back to prosthetics again, as evinced in Ridley Scott’s cavernous sets for his Alien reboots.
Yet Black never even takes that opportunity seriously, making for an awkward and ugly combination of prosthetics and CGI in which both look more dated than they ever did in the original, without ever working as a period effect either. In the process, the alternation between holography and grotesquerie that made the Predator so eerie – and so challenging to represent – utterly dissolves, with the result that the Predators never really feel present in the film, even or especially when they are cluttering the frame. Rather than reinventing the Predators for a digital cinematic milieu, Black more or less blithely assumes that it doesn’t matter much about getting the balance between prosthetic and CGI right, since they’re going to be absorbed back into that CGI landscape anyway – and it’s in that reflexive impotence that the entire defeated and exhausted experience of The Predator lies, a bad faith gesture that discards the world of the franchise in the name of corporate world-building.