Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Predator


When a Predator crashes to earth, military sniper McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) accidentally meets him. Oops. But survives. Also oops. The government finds him, and on his way to be permanently silenced, accidentally becomes leader of a rag-tag group of other damaged soldiers, including Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, and Thomas Jane. No oops. Scientist Casey (Olivia Munn) joins them too, to balance out the testosterone.

Meanwhile McKenna's son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), super smart and on the spectrum, wears the Predator's mask and gauntlet out on Halloween. The Predator wants it back. And leader of the government alien research, Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) wants it too. Let the action begin.

I'd like to admit that I had a blast with this, but I did go with low expectations. But also a small bias. 

The film is pretty basic, but don't confuse basic for dumb. It's basic in that it has a straightforward, one-note goal of being entertaining every second of its run time. To achieve that, it has a lot going on under the surface. The plot is pretty complicated for the amount of time in which we are presented it. The beginning almost feels like jumping into the middle of a story, as we aren't introduced to the characters until after the plot is set on its course. Exposition is saved for later, once the ball is rolling. That way, taking a little time to explain and establish the characters doesn't stall the pace.

It's like, wham, there's a character. You know he's the lead because he's the first person shown, not because the script, or the shot, or the music tells you. Or, you know she's a main character because important, shady-looking people come and ask for her immediate help. Then wham, you're at a scene. Plot things happen. Wham, next scene. Et cetera. Any normal action film would've taken 30 mins to accomplish what this one did in 20 -- just by knowing what's fat and how to effectively trim it. It's a little jarring, but not in a way that's at all inappropriate to the genre.

Pictured: Director Shane Black eliminating the unnecessary.  

You could almost say the movie never gets started, but the truth is, by the time we join, it's already going full speed. We get to use common sense to play catch up, while being fed new information, and paying attention to the constant banter, all at the same time. It's easy enough, but for a "mindless movie" it's impressively engaging. Oh, and that banter. On paper, nothing but dumb and cheesy to actual cringe, but with a perfect storm of the actors' delivery, ultra-brisk editing, and a care-free, self-aware attitude, it became not only pleasant instead of painful, but downright hilarious at times. And there's no wallowing in jokes until they stink; they're still crisp and fresh as we move on to the next.

This pacing works wonders for the plot and action side, never giving us a chance to get bored, but it's also one of the film's biggest weaknesses, as it never allows a slow moment to linger for long enough. There are slow moments, for the use of character developing, but never as much as I wanted. The lingering is only for as long as there's new character information to show. As someone who doesn't mind sacrificing action for character, I wouldn't have minded a few more exchanges between McKenna and his son -- and his ex-wife (Yvonne Strahovski) too. I wish she had been Casey's character, actually. Casey didn't turn out to be much more than the Token Female Character.

I also thought it was funny how Casey would be cool one second and then oddly incompetent the next. 

The other ex-soldiers are basically red-shirts with unique and fun personalities, though the three I mentioned at the top do grow further than that. They're well-defined, a large bunch, yet easy to keep straight, and when character is touched on it works well, and more was wanting. Sterling K. Brown's villain was all he needed to be: super cool. But naturally, McKenna was my favorite. I heard of this movie's existence fresh off of Logan introducing me to Boyd Holbrook, and a year or so of anticipation later, I wasn't let down. He borders on straightforward action hero, but takes on what meat of the story there is like a pro; puts oomph into the drama, and fun into the bantering action sequences.

I even managed to pick out some themes, which I didn't expect at all halfway through this gleefully bloody fight-and-jabber fest. One, put as close to the front burner as the action would allow, is about how people we might see as damaged in one way or another are simply valuable in unique ways. And the other nearly counters it in the narrative, but instead they work together. That heroes don't have to be the one labeled as important. The Predator judges things by black and white. The facts removed from circumstance. But there's no accounting for the human spirit, and the drive of determination that love can bring. I'm not sure how intentional that one was, but it occurred to me, so I'm taking it.

The Predator franchise has been very kind to me. I'm also a big fan of Adrien Brody.

There's also a lot of bizarre details scattered around that I appreciated for the way they twisted convention. At one point, someone smashes a chair on another person -- but the chair doesn't break. The chair always breaks, but not here. Also, the scene involving the ship and the force field. Since when has the logistics of that kind of tech ever been explored? But it was, and then utilized for awesome results. That scene is a perfect sample of the whole movie. You know what needs to happen, but don't have a clue how; then the How is creative, yet doesn't require pace-slowing explanation, and plays out thrillingly.

Like I said, the pacing is the biggest flaw. It felt like stepping over hot, poolside pavement without shoes on. You want to slow down to smell the metaphorical roses but can't; and running is against the rules, so you keep stepping this relentless brisk but even pace. There were places they could've slowed; to build tension, act structure, and character. But that's the sort of thing that I won't mind come a second view, and hardly mind now. In fact, I daresay the pacing was intentional, and the result was worth the sacrifice. Also there's some odd editing going on, that when paired with the hot-pavement pace, confuses the action a few times and makes it hard to tell where people are.

The practical effects look awesome. The CGI is noticeable but overall perfectly fine.

I know this movie isn't great. Certainly not in a conventional way. But it tried some things differently, and I say the experiments worked out. It feels random at times, but you can tell it wasn't tossed together haphazardly. There's real effort and intention behind it -- it merely comes through in different ways. And a lack of exceptionalism isn't a huge blow, given the genre. It's an alien-monster action flick, so an astounding cinematic experience wasn't the goal. The goal was to be fun and entertaining in a fresh, unique way, and in that it totally succeeded.

And so, in the future, when I want to experience this particular brand of unusually amusing and crazy scifi monster action, I'll know exactly which movie to hunt down.

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