With a new Predator film now revealed to be in the works, a few thoughts on the lessons learned from the last couple of not entirely successful reboots.
The Predator franchise has four mainline films and two spin-offs to its name, and it’s starting to feel more than a little tired. At least as tired, I’d argue, as the 12-film strong Halloween series, Friday The 13th (also 12 films), and even Texas Chainsaw, with its grand total of nine sequels, spin-offs and reboots.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve plucked three slasher horror franchises out of the air in the previous paragraph, because that’s essentially what Predator is: an alien that stabs, shoots, flays and decapitates its unsuspecting victims.
The big difference is that, where most garden-variety slasher antagonists target teenage women, the Predator largely slaughters full-grown men who carry guns. This made Arnold Schwarzenegger the most unlikely Final Girl in movie history when the original Predator landed in 1987 – a point that might have gone unnoticed, since director John McTiernan cloaked his slasher in so much testosterone and war movie heroics.
Still, the Predator flicks have slasher blood running through their veins, which is why the series really lost its way with Shane Black’s definitive-sounding The Predator, released in 2018. Its producers might have thought Black would be the film’s lucky charm, given his connection to the franchise – the 20-something screenwriter and future director starred as doomed mercenary Hawkins in the first movie; he was hired by producer Joel Silver to be a potential on-set fixer if the script needed any late punch-ups.
Given his history – and the financial success of the Marvel film he directed, Iron Man 3 – he certainly seemed like the perfect choice.
Somewhere, though, there was a fundamental misunderstanding about what a Predator movie should be. Black and his collaborators looked at the first film and saw only war, gore, and flashes of slightly misogynistic humour, which they promptly amped up yet further in the 2018 reboot. But then they mislaid some important points from McTiernan’s 80s franchise-starter: pacing and atmospherics.
The original Predator is slow to reveal its title creature, and instead spends time introducing its characters, building up an air of unease, and only then unleashing a fusilade of death and bloodletting.
Deeply flawed though they are, Predator 2 and Predators at least understood this. Predator 2, directed by Stephen Hopkins and released in 1990, is a fussier, messier, less interesting film than the first, but its strongest aspect is how it draws a near-future Los Angeles as a sweaty tinderbox of violence and urban malaise – a place ready to explode before the Predator itself steps out of its spacecraft on the hunt for more prey.
Nimrod Antel’s Predators (2010) feels like more of a retread than Predator 2; this belated sequel’s big idea is that there are now several alien hunters on the trail of the cast, and one of them has a kind of space kestrel as back-up. Nevertheless, it retained the hunters-become-the-hunted theme, and its alien jungle felt suitably vast and unforgiving.
None of the sequels to Predator did blockbuster business, which is why there are always such big gaps between them; a few years or so is just long enough for a new generation of executives to step in and decide that it’s time for another revival.
The Predator was something of an oddity, in that it was the revival of an old, distinctly R-rated franchise treated like it was a big-budget tentplole. (The curious addition of a cute kid who gets to mess with alien technology initially makes it feel as much like a reboot of Flight Of The Navigator as Predator.)
But the Predator franchise doesn’t really need a big budget, or a cute kid, or bad jokes, or a dog Predator that becomes a friendly sidekick after a bullet lodges in its brain (depressingly, this really was a plot point in the 2018 film – just one of many ill-thought-out storytelling decisions).
What the series does need, however, is atmosphere.
This, hopefully, is where director Dan Trachtenberg comes in.
A filmmaker who began his career making short films and ads, Trachtenberg made his mark with 10 Cloverfield Lane, a (fairly) low-budget spin-off that was far better than it had any right to be. About a woman who wakes up in a bunker with a pair of shifty survivalists crowing about an apocalypse unfolding above them, it was well-acted, confidently made, and full of low-key tension.
That its connection to the Matt Reeves-directed Cloverfield, a monster movie that came out years earlier, was so tenuous didn’t really matter – for about 90 minutes, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a gripping little shot out of nowhere.
Over the weekend, news broke that Trachtenberg is linked to another Predator project – one that will, reportedly, ignore all the sorry events we saw in Black’s film. It’s too early to say what form the new Predator will take, but Trachtenberg’s signing could mean we’re in for a similarly back-to-basics approach. 10 Cloverfield Lane span plenty of suspense from three people trapped in a bunker; it’s possible that Fox – now owned by Disney – has hired the filmmaker to pull off a similar trick with its Predator franchise. (That Trachtenberg tweeted over the weekend that the sequel was meant to be a ‘surprise’ , and that he’s been working on the project for ‘4 years’ in secret only adds weight to this theory).
Imagine a leaner, simpler Predator movie – one that takes place in a confined location with a small cast of characters, who gradually learn they’re being hunted by a super-intelligent, super-strong alien with the power of invisibility. Director Leigh Whannell milked the suspenseful possibilities of an unseen threat for all it was worth in this year’s superb The Invisible Man; it’s something a future Predator movie could also use to keep audiences clutching at their armrests.
With everything pared back to its essentials, the budget for our fantasy Predator sequel needn’t be high. Done right, a single Predator hunting a handful of interesting characters around, say, an abandoned shopping precinct could be perfectly effective in the hands of the right filmmakers.
What’s more important than expensive special effects and huge set-pieces is that the series re-establishes the Predator as a formidable presence. But 2018’s The Predator, the cast spent more time cracking jokes about the monster than cowering in terror. In order to breathe new life into the franchise, Trachtenberg arguably needs to look again at its slasher genre undertones, and make the Predator itself a creature with genuine menace.
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