Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The Predator (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: While on a mission, sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) sees an alien ship craft-land on Earth. After he is shuffled off to a military prison bus to keep him quiet about his discovery, biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) examines the body retrieved from the ship... and it escapes from the facility. Quinn will have to team up with Casey as well as the other soldiers on the bus in order to stop this Predator from turning the human race into game.

Holbrook does well enough as our action lead, managing the tough-guy bravado and fight scene efficiency to the point where it is adequate but not necessarily much of a standout. Munn as the resident scientist honestly barely even manages to get that across, considering she is shown more times being military-grade competent with weapons than making use of that scientific knowledge. However, as part of the main group, she still manages to shine through as a much-needed moral compass for the decidedly amoral trappings in the dialogue that have become a staple of the series. The Loonies who make up the military bus feature a lot of memorable faces, from Keegan-Michael Key as the jokester to Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes as the de facto second-in-command to Thomas Jane as a soldier with Tourette’s to Augusto Aguilera as the skittish pilot to Alfie Allen as the token Game Of Thrones alumni, and they all do rather impressively with both their individual character traits and their place within the main group dynamic. Key and Jane in particular get across a very strong sense of comradery, making for a nicely badass duo.

And then there’s Jacob Tremblay as Casey's son, an actor who even considering how long I’ve been following his career of late I would never have expected to like here as much as I did. He’s playing an autistic character, one where not only is that diagnosis rather explicit (the words ‘Asperger’s’ and ‘autism’ are never used in the film proper, but everything else within the film pretty much spells it out) but it’s also a key plot point in the film itself. This is a writing decision that led to outlets like the New York Post to declare this film ‘offensively bad’ and something ‘that will leave parents fuming’. Because whenever autism is brought up, the conversation always shifts to whatever the parents think of it; who cares what we have to say, right? But I could rant about that pattern of behaviour for hours.

For me, as someone who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I found a whole heap of things to like about this character, both in writing and in performance. In writing, pitting him against schoolyard bullies referring to him as ‘ass-burger’ made for some solid catharsis when they got theirs, his savant abilities are revealed nice and smoothly over the course of the narrative, and quite frankly, I get the reasoning behind a kid choosing a mysterious alien mask to wear on Halloween. In performance, Tremblay’s knack for playing unusual child characters (Room, Before I Wake, Wonder) stays true here as he not only gets across the sensory sensitivity of the condition in a very respectful way, he also does his frequently quippy dialogue justice. The scene where he uses reverse psychology on Sterling K. Brown’s overtly dickish spook is all kinds of funny and more than a little badass. Even if the film’s depiction of ASD as a whole is a tad askew (it’s described in-universe as the next stage in human evolution, which is a perspective I never really saw the practicality in), this is still a healthy reprieve from the kind of depictions where the ass-burgers joke would be the beginning and end of the conversation.

I highlight Rory here not just because I will always jump at the chance to discuss autism on film, but also because the narrative use of autism actually ties into some of the bigger themes within the script. Following on from the previous Predator films, all of which gave their own culturally-informed takes on what is a ‘predator’, what is ‘prey’ and other such musings about theoretical food chains, this goes in a decidedly different direction. Namely, because it spends quite a bit of time delving into mental health in regards to military personnel.

All of the self-described Loonies have some form of mental disorder, from Tourette’s to PTSD to suicidal depression, and they are regarded to those outside of their group as essentially baggage. The ones who don’t have any use in their line of work, hence why they just get shuffled away in a big bus. This is something of a hot button issue, given the mistreatment of war veterans in the U.S. and the long-running misunderstanding of post-traumatic stress disorder over the last several decades. It occasionally mines those conditions for some comedic value, Tourette’s in particular, but I honestly don’t see this as going too far or being otherwise offensive with that. If anything, because of this film highlighting these soldiers and what they are still capable of, it does a similar service to mental health on film that Nightmare On Elm Street 3 did: It treats the subject with care and at minimum a want to better understand, not just slap labels on these people and leave it at that. Much like with Rory, their conditions aren’t here just to help separate the characters; they have actually meaning within the story and within their respective character moments. Even knowing that Shane Black was someone capable of impressing me after The Nice Guys, I am taken aback somewhat that he took the route he did here and I am rather thankful for that.

But let’s not get too happy about all of this; this film still has a lot of issues holding it back. For a start, this might be the least creative Predator film yet as far as action beats go, as pretty much all of the major fights revolve around the same ‘everybody shoot at the big thing’ conceit. Yeah, the first Predator was like this too, but at least that went so far with it that it nearly reached self-parody. That, and I can actively remember a few individual scenes from that film, same with the awkwardly Reagan-era Predator 2 and the hella underrated Predators. Here, it all feels rather basic and not taking nearly enough inspiration from the setting to make the set pieces pop. Then again, even with how stunningly gory they can get, that effect is undercut by how much obvious CGI is on screen at any given time. On a certain level, this film milking its rating for all it’s worth is commendable, but on another, computer-generated blood is far from impressive.

Another big problem here is that it seems like Black and co-writer Fred Dekker bit off more than they can chew as far as plot goes, as it is way too bloody crowded. As a whole, it combines stories about soldiers with mental disorders, a father reconnecting with his autistic son, a shadowy government task force whose intents are extremely vague and ultimately uninteresting, and a number of space aliens crash-landing on Earth for one reason or another. The writers definitely give it their best shot in juggling all of these elements together, and the fact that some of them come out looking this good shows definite worth in the intentions, but it ends up dragging the film under the strain. This is only furthered by the wildly varying ways that they try and tie this into the other films in the series, right up to the potentially self-destructive conversation where it is argued that these alien hunters shouldn't even be called 'Predators' in the first place. With how slow this can get at times, it really comes across like this could’ve been cut down to a much leaner and much stronger 90-minute-or-so running time, and likely would've left the franchise as a whole with a bit more of its dignity intact.

All in all, there’s a lot to love and a lot to be quite indifferent about here. The acting is very strong, with Jacob Tremblay in particular absolutely crushing his dialogue, the quips contain far more hits than misses and the themes explored in the script regarding mental health and the military give this some serious bite. However, both as a stand-alone action flick and as the latest iteration of a pretty storied action series, this suffers from a lot of problems. It’s bloated in too many places, the action scenes are competent but not nearly as memorable as its predecessors, and for as long as this has been in development, it leaves the audience with a feeling that they’re stacking all their chips on the follow-up rather than just delivering with this one. For its depiction of autism, one that has a lot more merit than certain outlets would ever ascribe to it, this definitely wins some major points from me but it also loses nearly as many through sheer genre miscalculation.

It ranks higher than Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, as the brand of pleasant surprise found here hits a lot closer to home and is something I am even more thankful for than managing to improve upon a rather stupid feature. However, since most of this film’s positives are part of the side dish to the main course that is the film’s unfortunately dubious action cred, it falls just short of The Meg, which absolutely delivered on genre thrills.

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