It was intended as a full-blooded reboot of a classic action franchise, but things didn’t quite work out with The Predator.
Thomas Jane is in an apocalyptic kind of mood. As the actor shuffles awkwardly in his fold-out chair ahead of an assembled group of journalists, his train of thought abruptly shifts from a cosy anecdote about sneaking into see the original Predator movie when he was a teenager to – of all things – the end of the world.
“These are the last movies before the apocalypse,” the actor sighs. “You can tell. They’re getting bigger and bigger, the explosions are getting bigger… This is the last gasp here, fellas.”
Here, your humble writer lets out a nervous chuckle, which Jane immediately checks with a cold, Travis Bickle-like stare. “It seems funny,” he says, glaring right at me, “but you won’t be laughing in 10 years. We’re digging ditches, whistling Dixie and digging our own graves. It’s fun. So why not kill some aliens in the process?”
In retrospect, Jane probably had a good reason to feel pessimistic. The Predator clattered into cinemas in the autumn of 2018, accompanied by decidedly mixed reviews and moribund ticket sales. Intended as a big, $80m reboot of a 80s action franchise that had fallen into a funk with the Alien Vs Predator movies, The Predator instead presented yet another clumsy misstep. Its mix of horror, action and comedy felt off-key and ill-timed; the violent set-pieces were by turns badly lit and confusingly edited.
While filming was under way in April 2017, though, The Predator sounded as though it had all the right ingredients in place. Shane Black, who famously appeared alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger (albeit briefly) in the 1987 original, was back as co-writer and director. After leaping to fame as the handsomely paid screenwriter of such action movies as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout in the 80s and 90s, Black broke out of a mid-career lull by directing the witty comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; his billion dollar success at the helm of the divisive Iron Man 3, meanwhile, suggested that he could be just right for an action-packed, effects-laden reboot like The Predator.
Not long after he clambered aboard The Predator project in 2014, Black began to assemble an eclectic yet impressive ensemble cast, including Boyd Holbrook in the lead as a soldier who battles against the title alien, child star Jacob Tremblay as his son, Olivia Munn as a scientist side-kick, while Keegan-Michael Key, Trevante Rhodes and, yes, Thomas Jane played an assortment of traumatised army veterans.
The Predator was around two-thirds through filming when Fox flew a platoon of journalists and bloggers out to the set in Vancouver. From a studio standpoint, set visits are an efficient – if not necessarily cheap – means of ensuring press coverage, since everyone they invite will return with an armful of interviews with cast and crew, plus excitable anecdotes about all the sets, costumes, and sandwiches stacked up at craft services. There is, however, a downside to inviting a busload of writers to your set (appreciating this was all pre-pandemic): if the production’s having a difficult day, there’ll be lots of people there with notepads and voice recorders to capture the moment for posterity.
Such was the case in Vancouver that cool spring day in 2017. As I and about a dozen other writers funnelled into the bustling sound stage, it soon became apparent that something was going awry with The Predator. Sure, the spaceship set looked spectacular, and several actors we spoke to were clearly excited to be in the movie, but all the same, there was definitely a sombre mood on the sound stage. (Looking back through my notes, I found a hastily scrawled line that reads, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say morale is a bit low on set today.”)
As we were sat down in a small tent erected in a corner of the sound stage, there were two scenes in the midst of being rehearsed or captured on film. The first was an early scene in a school, which you may remember from the finished movie: it’s the one where Holbrook’s Quinn McKenna bumps into a seven-foot-tall Predator, which in turn encounters an even scarier, 10-foot-tall Predator.
The second scene was a much later one in the movie, and took place on a Predator ship dubbed The Ark. In it, much of the ensemble cast – among them Holbrook, Munn, Tremblay and Jane – quiz a military guy named General Woodhurst about something called Project Stargazer.
All told, the scene amounted to around six pages (or five minutes) of solid exposition, in which Olmos’s crumpled Woodhurst describes a coming war between humans and Predators. “It started as a think tank,” Olmos growls. “Next thing you know, CIA, corporate donors, all that shit. Stole Predator for his experiments. It’s not that I shot him because I felt like it…”
He goes on to explain that humanity has been given a “sporting chance” thanks to a pair of “defector” Predators, who’ve decided to fight the 10-foot-tall ‘Ultimate Predator’ alongside the US military. (“We got one 10-foot motherf—– after us and your solution is to bring us two more seven-foot motherf—-rs?” is how Thomas Jane’s character colourfully describes the scenario.)
If you were following the production of The Predator in the year or so building up to its release, you may recall that the movie was delayed twice to allow more time for reshoots; an early cut had reportedly failed to impress test audiences, and so new scenes were devised and shot that extensively reworked its third act. By the time the final cut of The Predator emerged in autumn 2018, the friendly Predators – and a climactic battle that would have seen them roll into battle in a military convoy to fight an assortment of hybrid Predators – had been removed entirely.
All traces of Edward James Olmos were gone too. His character, and that long exposition scene about a military installation called Area 52 and interspecies war, had both been dropped. “It was too long, so my character, they had to take me out,” Olmos later told SlashFilm. “They were like half an hour, three-quarters of an hour too long. So I understand why.” (To date, none of Olmos’s scenes, or any of the scenes from the original third act, have appeared on a Blu-ray or online.)
Reshoots aren’t, of course, an unusual practice in Hollywood filmmaking, and there are plenty of examples of movies that have been extensively reworked and still emerged as successes: 2013’s World War Z had an entirely new ending added late in its production, yet the finished film nevertheless told a coherent story.
With The Predator, however, there was never the sense that its writers, Shane Black and long-time collaborator Fred Dekker, had ever managed to pin down exactly the kind of story they wanted to tell. While it’s true that the 1987 Predator was something of a hybrid – a mix of sweaty war movie, slasher-horror, sci-fi and overblown Schwarzenegger action vehicle – it successfully balanced horror, suspense, and the odd flash of macho humour.
Go back to Black and Dekker’s original screenplay, dated April 2016, and you’ll find much the same muddled setup that would later weigh down the finished movie. The strange clashes of tone – from goofy comedy to gross-out violence to family melodrama and back – weren’t brought about due to meddling producers and reshoots; they were mostly there from the start. The script still tells a story that’s part Flight Of The Navigator (with Jacob Tremblay’s Rory McKenna zipping about in an alien ship), part Dirty Dozen action thriller and part horror comedy.
Who precisely was the movie aimed at? Tremblay’s character could have come straight from an Amblin movie, yet The Predator was devised as an R-rated action thriller. The script contained numerous call-backs to early Predator movies – including an appearance from ‘Dutch’ Schaeffer, before Schwarzenegger refused to sign up -yet its reshot ending felt more like something from an Iron Man sequel than a sci-fi horror flick. And what are we to make of its ham-fisted deployment of such sensitive issues as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and Tourette syndrome?
Even during filming, Black and his team still appeared to be mulling over the exact shape and tone of the script.
Back on the set of The Ark, Olmos’s five-minute exposition scene was worked through again and again, with actors testing out new lines and debating exactly where they should stand as they talked. The atmosphere that day was subdued, at times tense; “I’ve got actors asking questions. I’ve got cameramen asking questions,” Black said testily at one point; at another, an actor coldly refused to say the word ‘Whať. Another actor commented that the line, “Let’s go and play with some shit” sounded awkward.
Later, one actor tripped over, mid-take, in the middle of the alien spaceship. The crew, somewhat uncharitably, erupted into peals of laughter. Other actors struggled to remember their lines. After several attempts at running through the scene, the cast and crew adjourned for a break; as they headed off, a crew member loudly remarked, “It appears the cast is going back to the tent to rehearse while we do… things.”
When filming resumed later that evening, Black made a valiant attempt to rally everyone’s spirits. “Let’s get some energy going,” he said, gesticulating wanly with a vape pen. “As we get into it, it’ll crispen up and get more businesslike.”
Not that everyone on set that day was in a bad mood. Actor Brian Prince, who played one of the seven-foot Predators, was clearly in his element. As he sat down for a brief interview with the assemblage of journalists, his beaming face emerging incongruously from his lizard-like Predator suit, he explained how he went from being an unusually tall Atlanta art student to deadly alien killer after sending in an audition video of his parkour skills. “I guess Shane liked it, because the next day they told me I got it,” he laughed. “I was like, What? I was working minimum wage last year, and now I’m here!”
Visual effects supervisors Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff were similarly effusive; they recalled how they’d enjoyed their first brush with the Predator as young artists working at effects legend Stan Winston’s studio in the late 80s, and how they had just six weeks to build what became the original Predator outfit. They added that, although there’d be CGI in the new film, there would be a place for analogue techniques too. “There are several Predator characters in this movie that are practical, as they should be in our opinion,” Gillis said. “And we think it’s what the fans want to see: a real Predator standing next to a person.
We may, of course, have simply caught the production on a bad day. All movies have their rough patches and difficulties during filming you only have to look at the making of the 1987 Predator for proof of that.
But with the benefit of hindsight, the day’s filming felt summed up not only the difficulties of overseeing a big, expensive film with multiple locations and complicated effects shots, but also how tough it is to reboot a much-loved series like The Predator. How can a franchise that began in the 80s be made fresh and surprising again? Who should a 21st century Predator movie be aimed at? How gory and blackly comic should it be? Watching the finished movie, it doesn’t feel as though everyone involved could quite agree on the answers to those questions.
To paraphrase Black himself, The Predator singularly failed to crispen up.
Co-writer Fred Dekker, in a 2019 interview with Moviefone, addressed issues with The Predator‘s third act. As originally written and storyboarded, Dekker said, the final battle he and Black wrote – in which a convoy of humans and friendly Predators fought a horde of hybrid Predators – was a “really cool idea.” But, he added, “The studio, I think – and I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in particular – but there were these misgivings that we were straying too far from what people expected the movie to be. And so we sat down and went, ‘I guess we need to do a hunt and it needs to be at night, so it’s scarier.’
While Dekker insisted that he was “quite pleased with the first half of the movie,” he also managed to sum up the difficulty that all makers of reboots face. “By trying to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one.” The Predator concluded with the tease of a sequel; following its disappointing box office performance, it’s beginning to look unlikely that such a film will emerge. The Predator creature itself will, however, almost certainly endure; whether it’s in comics, videogames or action figures, the Predator has become part of the pop cultural fabric.
From the depths of his apocalyptic mood, Thomas Jane concluded his on-set interview by offering a personal theory about the Predator’s lasting appeal. “Certainly, the Predator [represents] our human basic instinct to go out and kill each other,” he argued. “It’s an extension of our own human inability to shake this war thing. The Predator’s the ultimate war machine, I suppose you could say.”
Here, Jane’s voice grew quieter. “I guess that’s why the creature endures,” he said, flashing a grim smile. “Unfortunately.”
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