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After a few unfortunate forays into high-budget fan fiction, the Predator franchise gets back to the basics: hunters, prey, and clever attempts to flip those roles around before anybody gets their spines yanked out. Unfortunately, while Predators is handily the best Predator movie since the original, it's often a little too in love with the adventures of Arnie and Jesse Ventura for its own good.
A man awakens plummeting from the sky. He has no memory of how he got there, or even where he is. Panicking, he has just enough time to realize that this isn't a nightmare before a parachute deploys and deposits him -- uncomfortably -- in the midst of an unfamiliar jungle. The man's name is Royce (Adrien Brody), and he is not a nice man. While we won't learn much about him over the following couple of hours, it will quickly become clear that he's a soldier of fortune, the sort whose reaction to being dropped out of the sky into a jungle is to get his bearings and head for high ground, rather than shrieking and urinating himself. He soon discovers others, a motley crew of killers, soldiers, and psychopaths, all of them stranded in this strange place with no idea how they wound up a half-mile up with parachutes strapped to their backs. As drug cartel enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo) points out, this isn't exactly a "team-oriented group of individuals," so they do about what you'd expect. They bicker, they contemplate trying to murder each other, and they look around for a ruler so they can get on with the measuring contest. Then they crest a rise and see the moon hanging low in the sky...next to the other moon.
Unfortunately, the realization that they're not in Kansas anymore is the least of their problems. As they would already know if they'd watched any of the pre-release marketing, the planet on which they've been stranded is a game preserve, and they're now being hunted by a pack of creatures so dangerous they've only previously been defeated by Schwarzenegger in his hulking, '80s prime. And this group doesn't have a Schwarzenegger. They don't have a Jesse Ventura. They don't even have a Shane Black. They've got the skinny kid from That '70s Show.
While Predators is far from a perfect movie, there's a lot here that works. As is only appropriate for a movie this in love with an '80s action classic, Predators embraces practical locations and effects as much as possible, only using CGI when necessary and entwining it well with the physical props and set-ups. There are a lot of guys in rubber suits in this movie, and that's as it should be. The balance stands out well in an early action sequence that sees the group pursued by vicious dog-like creatures. When they're running or in long shots, the critters are CGI; when they're up close trying to bite someone's face off, they're practical. I know that because they detail the sequence in the bonus features, but the different techniques are never distracting in the moment, and the use of real props for certain sequences adds a physicality you just can't get by having Walton Goggins pretend to wrestle a ball on the end of a stick. Director Nimrod Antal also makes use of tons of other-worldly locations scouted around Texas and Hawaii, really helping to sell the concept of an alien planet without having to green-screen every background in the movie.
The action is solid and well-staged throughout. The dog-chase sequence described above is definitely a standout, but it's not the only highlight. The script does a good job of slowly ratcheting up the action in stages that simultaneously reveal more about the planet's history and how this group of alien hunters operate. The group is nearly killed by an array of cunning traps, then discovers they were laid by a fellow human, making clear they aren't the first group brought here. The dog attack is not just a random encounter, but a way for the hunters to evaluate their prey and see how they react in a crisis. Each new encounter adds a little bit more to the story or mythology, while also just being an entertaining bit of bang-bang, pow-pow. Viewers lured in by the misleading but iconic image of Adrien Brody being painted by dozens of Predator laser sites may be disappointed by how long it takes before the humans directly confront any of their alien hosts, but that measured approach to pacing is at least in keeping with the original film.
Unfortunately, this highlights one of the biggest problems with Predators. The original Predator sold that slow reveal of its central villain because, at the time, it was genuinely a mystery. The audience was in the same boat as Dutch and the rest, wondering just what the hell was out there in the jungle stalking them. Here, however, there is no mystery. We know what's out there. It's a natural reaction for these characters to spend time trying to figure out what's going on and how to deal with it, but all that necessary human problem-solving just seems tedious when you already know what's hiding behind the curtain. The biggest mystery here is what the costume design on the new Predators will look like once they finally uncloak, and that's hardly a game-changing moment. It's doubly frustrating because the movie could at the very least have made the "Holy crap, we're not on Earth!" reveal a big surprise...had they not spoiled it in every single freaking trailer for the movie. I understand why the script has these characters go through the all the "What's going on" beats...it's necessary from a plausibility standpoint, but it could have been handled in a more efficient way, so the audience doesn't spend so much time twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the characters to catch up with the rest of us. Spending a third of your film recovering the same ground the first film already explored is not a good ratio.
And that's a problem that extends beyond simple exposition. I applaud Antal and company for trying to bring the Predator franchise back to its roots and put all that Aliens vs. Predator nonsense behind us. I understand the desire to tip your hat to the only Predator installment this movie considers canon. And I love the little moments like having one of the film's characters reference the events of the first film. It makes sense that people who movie in the circles these folks do would have heard about Dutch's trouble in Central America, even if only in whispers and tall tales. But Predators takes things a step farther, recreating beats from the original film almost verbatim. When Arnold smeared himself with mud so the Predator couldn't see him, that was a clever, iconic moment. When Adrien Brody does it, it just reminds us that Adrien Brody is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. And do we really need to have yet another moment where the quiet, mysterious character decides to face off mano a mano against one of the Predators, seemingly for no reason other than "it makes for a cool moment"? Granted, the script turns these familiar moments on their head by having them turn out differently than they did in the original, but it's still distracting.
The cast does a good job with what they're given, but what they're given are a pack of one-note characters. I realize most of these guys exist just to get a few memorable moments and then exit stage left in a spray of viscera and gray matter, but still. When a movie spends this much time making love to the movie that inspired it, it only serves to highlight just how much less interesting this group is than Dutch, Dillon, Mac, Blain, and the rest. Brody's Royce and Alice Braga's Isabelle are both solid and have the most to do, but the rest of the cast is underserved by the script. Moreover, this isn't exactly the most likeable of groups. Dutch's crew may have been violent men, but they were at the core good men. Here, we have a pack of, for the most part, unrepentant murderers. It's kind of hard to work up any enthusiasm to root for them. And I understand that's part of what the movie is going for. I like that the title of the film could just as easily apply to the humans as the aliens. But that doesn't make it any easier to feel sympathetic for them when these assholes get slaughtered.
Is Predators as good as the original? By no means. But is it an entertaining flick that moves the franchise in the right direction? Definitely.
Given the involvement of Robert Rodriguez as a producer, you might expect this disc to have a solid selection of bonus features, and you won't be disappointed. Predators serves up an array of goodies that should be of interest to film fans and educational to aspiring filmmakers.
First up is a feature-length commentary with director Nimrod Antal and Rodriguez. The decision to team these two up was a natural one, but it works extremely well. With only a few films under his belt, Antal is still fairly new to the world of big-budget features, and placing him side-by-side with Rodriguez's nearly 20 years of guerilla filmmaking creates a fascinating conversation. The two dissect the movie from concept to execution, talking about the things they agreed on, the things they didn't, and why they ultimately did them the way they did. Rodriguez is humble and complimentary throughout, often commenting on how interesting it is to see Antal makes choices he never would have thought of, but which work perfectly within that director's vision. It's a compelling look at two creative talents at very different places in their careers, and it should be hugely helpful to anyone dreaming of doing this stuff for a living.
If you want to dive even deeper into the making of Predators, click over to the "Evolution of the Species: Predators Reborn" featurette. This 40-minute documentary takes an exhaustive look at various elements of the film, divided into easily navigable segments that can watch piecemeal or all together. "Bloodline" looks back at the original Predator and how the cast and crew strived to honor that film while building on its legacy. "Decloaking the Invisible: Alien Terrain" highlights the movie's hunt for locations that would be visually stunning and evoke the feel of a truly alien setting. "Intelligent Design: The Hunting Camp" focuses on the creation of the Predator base camp, and how the set designers matched the look and feel of it to the exterior locations half a world away. It's a fascinating look at how much thought goes into all the little background details that most viewers will never even notice. "Predators as Prey" is all about the casting and character decisions that went into assembling the group that would find themselves in the Predators' sights. Rodriguez explains that their goal was to make sure that each character was interesting enough to carry their own film. I don't think they necessarily succeeded in this goal, but it was a noble goal. "Yautja Transformed" explores the process of designing the new Predators in a way that evoked the original creature but still added new elements. It's a refreshing look at old-school practical monster work, and also talks about Antal's desire to explore more of the Predators' culture and tactics. Finally, "Rite of Passage" is all about Antal's direction, with Rodriguez tossing out plenty of praise and lots of footage of the director at work on the set.
While the commentary and the "Evolution" featurette are the meat of the bonus features, there are also several smaller attractions. The "Chosen" feature is essentially an extended five-minute trailer that introduces most of the characters. It's slick, but not really providing anything that the movie itself doesn't. A segment of the Fox Movie Channel's "Making A Scene" dissects the "dog attack." It's standard press-kit stuff, but it does provide some interesting looks at the mechanics and specifics of creating that action sequence. More interesting are the "Motion Comics," which provide short, sort-of-animated looks at the backstories of several characters. Finally, there are nine deleted or extended scenes. As is typical for this material, there are some fun moments, but nothing the film is really the lesser for losing.
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