You walk into each new Predator movie with a very specific, and very rigid, set of questions. Which members of this new ragtag crew will get disemboweled, and/or decapitated, and/or skinned alive, and/or extremely blown up? Will this gore be PG-13 whimsical or hard-R repugnant? Will our favorite mysterious race of murderous space aliens be the bad guys this time, or just kind of the bad guys? Will the killing field be located in Central America, or Antarctica, or space, or the parking lot of a Colorado Papa John’s? Will the dialogue be merely “OK, pussyface, it’s your move” uncouth, or full-blown “If your mom’s vagina were a video game, it would be rated E, for everyone” uncouth? Who will yell, “GET TO THE CHOPPER”? And who will actually get to it?
The path from the hallowed 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Predator to Friday’s Shane Black–directed The Predator—the sixth movie in the series, counting a ludicrous two-flick hookup with the Alien franchise—is fraught with chaos, wild-eyed diversions, grody overindulgence, and geysers of blood both red and fluorescent green. Sometimes these films are gross, and sometimes they are super gross. They get relatively little critical respect and always make money. Each dangles the tantalizing threat of total apocalypse, and each, to some tightly controlled degree, delivers. “Worst thing about the end times?” muses Trevante Rhodes in this new installment, playing a chain-smoking member of yet another ragtag crew, and a hell of a long way from Moonlight. “They never are.”
The Predator is pure ultraviolent frivolity, as weightless and tasteless and frictionless as its five overachieving-B-movie predecessors. Black, who costarred in the original Predator and cowrote this new installment, has intermittently flourished as both a writer (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) and a writer-director (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys), and he remains a reliable source of zippy and fantastically profane dialogue, the laughs and the winces layered just so. Some of the winces this time are unintended: For the past week, The Predator’s press rollout has been dominated by the revelation that Black cast a registered sex offender in a scene opposite Olivia Munn, who didn’t learn of the actor’s criminal record until afterward. She alerted the studio, Twentieth Century Fox, which cut the scene; Munn has since criticized her costars for mostly leaving her to promote the movie herself. It’s a mess, and as early reviews have observed, it poisons some of the film’s most off-color moments.
The result is a lurid and goofy romp that shakes off much of the self-seriousness that could bog down its predecessors, but replaces it with a reckless queasiness, an immaturity that borders on irresponsibility. How you feel about this movie largely boils down to how you feel about Keegan-Michael Key delivering the joke, “How do you circumcise a homeless man? Kick your mother in the chin.” These flicks are most assuredly not for everyone, but they’re impressively not for everyone all of the time, reliable in their utter vulgarity. It is not a proud lineage. This dopey little monster-movie franchise has an awful lot to answer for. But it also has, in its own erratic way, tried to give us an awful lot of answers.
Arnold Schwarzenegger makes his grand entrance in 1987’s Predator chomping on a cigar, bounding out of a chopper, and greeting his old running buddy Carl Weathers with the machoest handshake in cinematic history, which several decades later spawned a delightful meme.
Soon these buff fellas and a handful of fellow expendables—among them a hulking Jesse “The Body” Ventura and, yes, a squirrely Shane Black, whose primary function is to make crude remarks about his girlfriend’s anatomy—are prancing about a gorgeously gnarly patch of Central American overgrowth. “I’ve rarely seen a jungle look more beautiful, or more convincing,” wrote Roger Ebert in his bemused three-star review. “The location effect is on a par with Fitzcarraldo and The Emerald Forest.” (Those are more prestigious movies.)
The gang raids a campful of bad guys and kicks much ass while Schwarzenegger fires off a few of his beloved groaners. [Knifes a dude.] “Stick around.” [Kicks down a door.] “Knock knock.” But lo, enough comedy, for there are skinned bodies of previous buff fellas dangling high in the trees, and soon we are introduced, in the titular role, to the Predator, the rhapsodically grotesque brainchild of special-effects whiz Stan Winston. The dreadlocks. The giant, shiny, oblong helmet. The uncanny Guy in a Monster-Movie Suit combination of human and inhuman. The various blades and shoulder-mounted laser cannons. The ambient-light cloak that renders him all but invisible via hella-’80s special effects. The fluorescent-green blood. The proto–Apple Watch bracelet that unleashes all manner of vicious-space-alien calamity. The eerie clicking noise my buddy Jerry used to imitate during poker nights. And most importantly, the psychedelic infrared vision.
Director John McTiernan, the popcorn-action savant best known for the following year’s Die Hard, brought in Winston to remagine the character after the first iteration of the Predator, who was meant to be played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, proved to be a hilarious failure. Get a load of this clown. Predator 1.0 looks like a rejected Red Lobster mascot trying to will itself onto Mystery Science Theater 3000. I do not blame Jean-Claude for quitting in a huff (or getting fired), and neither should you.
Winston’s vision, preposterous and vulgar and in its own way beautiful, legitimately qualifies as iconic, especially when our villain kills pretty much everyone but Schwarzenegger and the two stage a half-hour-long death-ballet duet. (The Predator hunts—and toys with, and painstakingly slaughters—his victims one by one, which explains why these movies all run about 100 minutes, as opposed to five.) Schwarzenegger coats himself with mud to foil the infrared vision, and sets a series of proto–Home Alone booby traps, and yells “DO IT! DO IT! COME ON, KILL ME, I’M HERE! C’MON! DO IT NOW! KILL ME!”
Eventually the Predator removes his mask to reveal his gnarly dental situation and better signify the manliness of this enterprise, which involves Schwarzenegger and a vicious space alien punching one another in the face. It is the Final Girl convention on, quite literally, steroids; upon 2018 rewatch, it reminds me of the climax of Annihilation despite not resembling the climax of Annihilation at all.
Anyway, America had itself a franchise, even if Schwarzenegger bowed out to liven up other choppers, and deliver other groaners at other parties.
Next came 1990’s Predator 2, directed by Stephen Hopkins and starring Danny Glover as an unhinged cop in cartoon-war-zone Los Angeles, where another Predator is vacationing for reasons that are never entirely explained. Our new hero, a loose cannon who Gets the Job Done, is basically Mel Gibson’s character from Lethal Weapon as played by actual Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon. He has far fewer muscles and far lousier catchphrases, ranging from “Shit happens” to “Hey, assholes!” [Shoots a bunch of assholes.] But this movie is aggressively not boring, settling into a middlebrow-ultraviolent rhythm from the onset, barely pausing long enough to let Bill Paxton (as another unhinged cop) and Gary Busey (as an oily government spook) ham it up, as indeed they do.
We conclude with, once again, some very unlikely hand-to-hand combat, after an extended one-on-one brawl that sprawls from a towering rooftop to some poor old lady’s bathroom to the Predator’s spaceship. Glover is punching way above his weight class in multiple respects, which only makes his efforts all the more heroic.
This was a fine movie to encounter at 10 p.m. on way-pre-Sopranos HBO, killing time in as vicious a manner as possible until the wee hours rolled around and you could pivot to Real Sex or Dream On or one of the other middlebrow-pornographic programs the network has since mostly disavowed. The sequel vastly underperformed compared to both the original and all subsequent films, but made just enough money to justify trying to make more at all. The franchise’s next step, however, came as a bit of a shock.
Predator 2’s conclusion, in which a whole pack of Predators materialize and graciously present a victorious Glover with a rifle that dates back to the year 1715, posited these hideous beasts as jolly good sports and combat-history buffs who longed only for a fair fight—the savagest possible noble savages. They could be the heroes, in other words, if only they would encounter a crew of villains barbaric enough.
The Alien franchise was already two feared and beloved movies deep—Alien in ’79 and Aliens in ’86—by the time Schwarzenegger’s Predator rolled around, and given the Hideous Space Monster parallels, a crossover gala only made sense. The Aliens vs. Predator universe kicked off in 1990 as a Dark Horse comic book series that was active as late as 2017; the first movie, Paul W.S. Anderson’s AVP: Alien vs. Predator, materialized in 2004. (Another trait both franchises share is that they keep changing the movie titles back and forth from singular to plural.) The early Alien movies, obviously, were both (a) more prestigious, and (b) way grosser. Bizarrely, then, this was also the sole movie in the Predator franchise to be rated PG-13, not R. It’s also the artiest, or at least, in a few moments, the prettiest.
The plot is a kooky elevator pitch dreamed up over the course of, like, a two-story elevator ride: Explorers find an ancient pyramid deep beneath Antarctica, a ragtag group of dupes is assembled to investigate, both Aliens and Predators drop by as part of highfalutin sort of group-outing blood-as-paintball situation, and much PG-13 carnage ensues; gross but not too gross. (RIP, Spud from Trainspotting, who before dying capably delivers the line, “This is like finding Moses’s DVD collection.”) It turns out that ancient civilizations worshipped Predators as gods, and modern civilization is existentially threatened by Aliens. And so the Final Girl twist here is (a) she’s an actual woman played by alleged Beyoncé biter Sanaa Lathan, and (b) she teams up with the Predator to battle the Aliens. They get to be big pals.
This is an awfully poignant narrative development, really, and it is a shame that 2007’s Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem abandons it entirely. Lots of things about Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem are a shame, if you are a squeamish moviegoer such as myself. Directed by Greg and Colin Strause, it transfers the action to Colorado (an Alien-infested Predator spaceship crash-lands there) and dispatches that town’s citizens in as caustic and heartless a manner as possible.
Maybe it’s more upsetting because instead of hardened mercenaries or wayward thrill-seekers, the victims are now mere civilians and stock small-town-invasion characters: the overwhelmed sheriff, the greasy-spoon waitress, the rough-hewn-but-virtuous hero brothers, the younger brother’s slinky love interest, the bullies, etc. Or maybe I just didn’t want to see a giant Alien pumping its eggs down a pregnant lady’s throat. It’s not that I cared about any of these people, per se: Rest assured our rough-hewn-but-virtuous hero does not have the sauce to deliver this line. But Requiem leans hard into the horror aspect of this sci-fi/horror institution, and upsets what was apparently a delicate balance.
The other troubling thing about Requiem is that the Aliens are once again the true villains, but the Predator is now an afterthought, and a bit of a dope. It kills a few civilians on purpose, and a few more on accident, but mostly finds itself stumbling around in the dark, powerless to stop yet another Alien ambush. The whole species needed a reboot, and an attitude adjustment, and maybe another vacation. Enter Nimród Antal’s Predators, a stand-alone 2010 flick that very literally airdrops various confused badass mercenaries of various backgrounds and demeanors onto a mysterious faraway planet, and lets the high-tech slaughter commence. The lead badass is played by Adrien Brody, in a spectacular bit of miscasting that only heightens the sense of mystery.
The Alien vs. Predator sidelines could get a little dour and monochrome visually, so a return to Fitzcarraldo-worthy lush jungle is quite welcome. Brody is surrounded by the likes of Alice Braga, Danny Trejo, Mahershala Ali (also a long way from Moonlight), Topher Grace (why not), Laurence Fishburne (in a very goofy cameo role as “the one you don’t fuck with”), and Louis Ozawa Changchien as a Yakuza gangster whose character arc is invested with Wu-Tang Clan levels of non-subtlety. Most importantly, there is Walton Goggins, as a death-row inmate who’s filling the Shane Black role, in both the acting and screenwriting sense. Which is to say he says a number of legitimately unprintable things, providing the comic relief in a way that is not at all relieving. Bless him, and bless us for laughing at him.
Predators did return this franchise to its roots in the sense that the atrocities should ideally be verbal as well as, y’know, physical. It will not surprise Shane Black fans to learn that he leans way into that notion with The Predator, which includes an extended argument over whether Thomas Jane, whose character has Tourette’s syndrome, just blurted out “Eat your pussy” or “Sheesh, you’re pushy.” This is one of the Olivia Munn scenes that lands quite awkwardly in light of recent events, but enjoying these movies has always involved turning off your conscience, if not your entire brain.
This time Boyd Holbrook, as yet another steely sniper, is leading the ragtag crew, and there’s a loopier chemistry to them all, a fizzy Avengers After Dark slapstick patter. The plot is a mess, veering from genetic mutation to climate change to intra-Predator-species betrayal to the troubled-genius travails of Jacob Tremblay, playing the steely sniper’s young son, who signifies his Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis by wiping his nose a lot. You gotta just hang in there. By now you’ve had a lot of practice.
I laughed out loud, a lot, during The Predator. I often felt bad for doing so, but that shame wasn’t audible. That the carnage did not bore me senseless, despite my now having watched six of these fuckin’ movies in the space of a week, is likewise remarkable. In a move relatively rare for this series, Black wraps up on a very specific There’s Gonna Be a Sequel note, which now seems unlikely, unless it’s yet another sequel that doubles as yet another full-scale reboot. Indeed, this franchise will undoubtedly just spin off in some new, unlikely, ill-advised, and nonetheless quite lucrative and queasily rewarding new direction, unredeemable but also unkillable. So many choppers, so little time.