Review: “Predators”

After a lacklustre sequel and two spin-offs so heinous they deserve to be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity, Fox finally takes a big step back in the right direction with “Predators” – an often enjoyable sequel-meets-relaunch of a franchise long thought exhausted.

A solid premise, an interesting array of characters, and an intermittent use of the antagonists mark the return of some much needed intensity, excitement and darkness to this game of hunter vs. prey. Nevertheless our familiarity with this scenario, and the misfire of several crucial elements in both the narrative and the production combine to make this more of a nostalgic thrill ride than a refreshing ground breaker.

For many of use who grew up in the 80’s, the original “Predator” is now seen as a modern classic of action cinema thanks to its deceptive simplicity. While on the surface it plays very basic, within lies a whip smart and skin tight structure which makes great use of every resource it had on hand. In its own way, the film is still a masterpiece of good timing, authenticity, pacing, atmosphere and cinematic subversion with many rewards on offer even after countless viewings.

Producer Robert Rodriguez and Director Nimrod Antal have a very obvious reverence for McTiernan’s original, certainly composer John Debney’s attempts to stay true to Alan Silvestri’s unforgettable score are so on the mark that it unfortunately renders most of his contribution invisible. It’s a logical choice to stay grounded in the familiar considering the last three attempts to take the creature into new environments (urban, ice, suburban) failed so miserably.

Kudos also to the pair for not trying to modernise the film’s pacing. Getting to know the humans first, the Predators themselves are gradually revealed and stay hidden throughout the first and big portions of the second half. We know their box of tricks inside and out by now, so attempts are made to keep it a bit fresh – ideas that sometimes miss the mark. A vicious attack by alien ‘dogs’ early on is a great sequence let down by the generally quite poor level of computer animation throughout the feature. There’s also a trap triggering sequence early on which fails to excite.

Yet other scenes of seeing both sides attempting different hunting and survival strategies work quite well and are often a big part of the film’s few genuine surprises. The claustrophobic but utterly convincing Mexican jungle of the original has been replaced by the more picturesque green leafy forests of Hawaii, though full credit to the production crew for choosing scenery not resembling any of the locations used by “Lost” over the past six years.

The basic creature design of the original is back, still looking like a fusion of a crab, a klingon, a rastafarian and a vulva. There’s attempts to bringing in two new castes of Predators and some silly backstory about a blood feud which doesn’t work. The new designs don’t really click either, mainly tweaking of the pincers and eyes to give a slightly different ethnic look – if this were a George Lucas movie you’d be wondering which minority group each one is supposed to represent. Never fear though as the original is still there, and all are still working the dreadlocks and fishnets with utter fabulousness.

Performances are fine with Alice Braga and Adrien Brody dominating the macho array of well-armed characters. Braga makes a name for herself as an action heroine here, bringing a nice touch of humanity to a bunch of characters that don’t really have any. Brody’s gruff voice and corny dialogue border on the ridiculous, yet he plays the role with such commitment throughout you can’t help but take him seriously and be impressed. All the others do fine, Walton Goggins scoring the best one-liners but never getting to really show off that energy and edge that has scored him a growing fanbase.

We actually have some distinct characters here, even if most are one dimensional. A minor twist involving one of them emerges in the finale in a cringe-worthy reveal that only makes you think of the numerous opportunities that could’ve been explored with the character relationships had the information been revealed earlier. It’s a revelation that takes up a big part of the last twenty minutes, a finale that already has troubling issues of its own.

By far the weakest link though is Laurence Fishburne’s mentally unstable survivor character Nolan. Fishburne chews the scenery in a ‘David Caruso rapes Gollum’ style for much of the perfunctory 20-30 minute sequence, draining much of the great energy so carefully built up in the film’s first hour. You get what they’re trying to do here, that still doesn’t make it work.

Aside from that saggy Fishburne sojourn and the fumbled finale, Antal keeps the energy of the film flowing well. When not let down by dodgy CG or some dubious production design, the set pieces are filmed with an efficiency you wish many who work in this genre had today. The filmmaking is controlled but never overdone, and often keeps things toned down and tight in areas where, had he directed, the self-indulgent Rodriguez would’ve gone big and loose to a suicidal degree.

From a pretty spectacular opening (let down only by some weak blue screen) and for much of its runtime, “Predators” is engaging and fun – providing the real thrills only glimpsed in many of its far more expensive and high profile brethren that have opened this Summer. It’s too familiar and not quite polished enough to be up there with the classics (this ain’t no “Aliens”), but it does bring a welcome shot of life back to the series and makes you curious about where it could go next.