Wednesday, July 14, 2010

[Film Review] Predators

Predators is smart about one thing: it doesn't bother to weigh most of its characters down with names, because it knows that we're not going to care. Instead of attaching signifiers that we're immediately going to forget in lieu of our mental tags of Tough Guy, Sniper Lady, Big Gun Dude and the like, it skips past the middleman and just starts calling them by those tags. I imagine that at some point in the process of drafting the script, the scene in which the two protagonists finally proclaim their names to each other was meant to be a triumphant revelation, a moment in which we finally see these dirty soldiers transcend their baser natures and become fully human for the first time since we were introduced to them. In its final form on screen, the exchange instead plays out as an afterthought, one of the many nods to Aliens which hasn't earned its own weight. Thankfully, the movie is also smart enough to not be bothered by that lack of heft, instead embracing its stupidity with cheerful aplomb.

This is a very dumb movie, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. That guy you used to go drinking with in college, the one who wasn't all that bright but knew better than to take himself seriously and was always a blast to hang out with as a result? Predators is that guy. It doesn't waste any time announcing its intentions in this regard, kickstarting with a sequence of some guy falling out of the sky and yelling a lot, blasting through his punishing landing, slamming the title card on screen briefly and then revving up the minigun. This is somewhere higher on the antiexposition-o-meter than standard in media res, brushing away all those details like setting and character as completely unnecessary. It acts as a kind of mission statement for the movie, which is curious in that Nimrod Antal's first film, Kontroll, also opens with a similarly upfront short scene in which the tone of the film to follow is introduced. I haven't seen Armored or Vacancy, the two other films Antal has directed, but now I wonder if they also feature tenor-setting mini-prologues of this kind.

There are a lot of unselfconscious throwbacks to the '80s Predator on display here, rather like the people creating this movie wanted to put all of that xenomorph-related nonsense behind them as if it had never happened. These callbacks don't play out the same way that they did in their earlier iteration; it's not spoiling anything to say that Schwarzenegger's beefcake-based endgame gambit from the original is no longer enough to defeat the alien menaces from another galaxy, for example. The score particularly stands out as merrily awful, heavy-handed enough to make sure that we can't help but know The Hero Has Arrived, You Should Be Wowed, and so on. It's been a while since I've seen the original, but the music here sure sounds like it pays heavy tribute to the music from the original film, if it wasn't lifted entirely from it.

Predators knows that it's got to hit all the items on the action/sci-fi checklist, but it also knows that it doesn't have to slavishly follow the playbook on how those scenes play out. So of course there's the inevitable ammo-counting scene, but here we skip past even the brilliant shortcut that Rodriguez came up with in Planet Terror ("How much ammo do we have left?" "Not enough.") to bypass the fetishistic pointlessness of this scene. Instead, here the scene acts as a reminder that guns fire bullets, a reminder that's actually kind of hilarious given that those same guns don't seem to need ammo throughout the rest of the movie. There's just enough of this twisting of the end of any given formula scene that the audience isn't ever quite sure whether Hollywood tradition will be followed or abandoned during a given sequence, which isn't quite the same thing as smart writing, but at least serves as a discount means of keeping attention focused on what would otherwise be a completely color-by-numbers plot.

There's less intra-group conflict here than is normal for the kind of movie in which a bunch of alpha-personality strangers are thrown into a high-stress situation and forced to work as a group in order to survive. Aside from a few squabbles, the humans here work together quite well and look after each other in times of danger, in spite of a general verbal agreement amongst themselves that they really don't care about one another. There are two excellent exchanges in which Convict Guy is played for humor, which are immediately followed up by disturbing disclosures of just how wrong it is to laugh along with him. Both of these are lampshaded by the obvious discomfort that the Hapless Doctor feels about the people he's found himself surrounded by, and the low-grade animosity these characters feel towards each other is reinforced by the growly complaints of the Tough Guy Leader as he finds himself reluctantly helping the people he supposedly doesn't care about.

The one overt exception to the ill-defined dislike that each character feels for the others is the only female character in the film, the Sniper Lady whom the film obviously wants to depict as tough and capable but who comes across as a confirmation of the stereotypes women normally portray in action films. She's the only character here with any real compassion, and while that trait is normally a positive one, it doesn't make much sense to ascribe that characteristic to a combat veteran whose specialty is killing individual targets in a manner that's mechanically intimate enough that it should trigger any feelings of empathy that she possesses. She also needs to be rescued almost as many times as the Hapless Doctor, which doesn't jibe well with her background as a battle-hardened warrior who's an expert at operating on her own. This portrayal is unfortunate, as action films could really use better representation of women, and Predators would have been a perfect vehicle for that, given that all of the characters except one could easily have been of either sex. Had there been another female character, these indications of weakness on the part of Sniper Lady could have been written off as being traits specific to her character rather than women in general, but since she's forced to shoulder the burden of representing her entire gender, it's difficult to avoid drawing some unpleasant conclusions about the film's attitudes towards women.

The highlight of the movie is definitely Laurence Fishburne's turn as a long-term survivor who's gone Colonel Kurtz in a big way. Fishburne obviously had a great time chewing the scenery in that utterly over the top mode that's only called for in action films which don't care at all about character, but which celebrate the barely-held-together looniness of that particular character type when he does appear. Fishburne's character represents an interesting alternative direction that the movie could have taken, one in which gunfire and stuntmen might have played a less prominent role, but I respect that Predators stays true to the brief that it set out to accomplish. By keeping its goals humble, it avoids stumbling over any potential pitfalls that might have marred its otherwise purist approach to action film methodology. It's not going to illuminate any hidden facets of the human condition which were heretofore uncharted, but it's a solid piece of mindless entertainment which throws just enough curveballs to keep even genre-savvy audiences alert for what unexpected turns might come next.


  1. Yup, that's pretty much how I felt, too. I thought the writers could've gotten a touch more clever and crazy with the material - they're using a planet filled with alien game as a setting, after all - and I didn't like the third-act twist involving one of the humans (too obvious, and an unnecessary complication at the climax that added nothing), but otherwise, it was a decent enough.

  2. Yeah, that twist was so powerfully obvious that I assumed that it was being set up as a double-twist, so that the audience would think that they were being led to one "not really what you think at all, really" conclusion only to have a different one sprung upon them. Alas...

  3. The acting was a bit meh leading me to think no one was putting in a full effort. Not quite calling it in, but not quite invested in this role's position in their resume listing, as it were.

    As for female representation on the kill squad, I bet we can find stats to back up at least having two. Please have them pass the test by talking to each other about something other then the mens. A Death Proof-esque weapon geek out session would be lovely.

    It would be interesting to unpack if having a woman of color on the team was more about cultural assumptions of which women are involved in warfare or if it was a proactive nod to representing POC. I suspect the answer is the less happy making of the two.

  4. Not sure if it's actually true or not, but I've seen/read in various media that women actually make much better snipers than men. I assumed that was why the token woman got assigned to that tactical role.

  5. Hmmm.

    Sounds like a video night to me. A good one, mind, but still.

  6. @Levi: It might be worth seeing in theaters just for the visceral experience of the booms, but it's not really anything you should feel the need to rush out and see because your life won't be fulfilled without it.