The Predator Review (Film, 2018)
Does a B-movie celebrating its status as a B-movie forgive it from embracing problematic elements of B-movie history long after we stopped accepting these harmful tropes? That’s a hard question to answer. There are films that wield those tropes as a weapon against a history of microaggressions and abusive content, and there are films that think they get away with it just because others have done it worse. Then there’s the element of if they’re even aware they’re doing it when the focus of a genre film is so rarely characters or cultural implications.
The Predator is a B-movie. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a sequel and soft reboot to 1987’s Predator, itself a B-movie action/horror/sci-fi film that established a pattern now followed in four films. A group of soldiers come in contact with an alien race whose only goal on Earth is hunting strong members of humanity. They cloak to turn invisible, mimic our speech to confuse us, track us via heat signals, and rip our spines out when they win. A clever soldier will inevitably find a way to defeat them and humanity will be saved for a time. Then it happens all over again in the next film with very minor changes—new technology, different setting.
The Predator is that, only with a child and a professor used to introduce new lore to the universe. A military sniper witnesses a new attack by the Predators on earth. A special task force is brought in to label him as insane so he can’t go public with his story. Before they reach him, he mails a Predator’s helmet and arm gauntlet to his son, a brilliant child who has autism spectrum disorder. Meanwhile, the task force also abducts a professor of evolutionary biology to investigate a living Predator sedated in their secret government lab. The Predator escapes through a Rube Goldberg-like series of events and the professor, a bus filled with former military members labeled insane, and an autistic child band together to save the world from Predators and their (adorable, I want to boop their noses) Predator dogs.
There’s a lot to unpack here. I’ll come right out and say that I absolutely had a good time watching this film. It’s filled with corny jokes and slick action sequences. The onscreen team has a really good rapport and largely succeeds, for once, in a Predator film because they work together. The human villains are largely credible and actually pose a real threat through their own destructive actions. The Predator battles you expect are saved for the last act, as that’s when the gloves come off and they go into full hunter mode against the crack military team (plus a child with autism and a professor). It’s a matter of expectations. I’m a strong advocate for horror and other genre films that do something intelligent and unexpected with their chosen genre, but I can get down with a straight up slasher that doesn’t try to hide what it is.
My enjoyment of The Predator does not cover for the large amount of technical mistakes and, yes, harmful or offensive tropes and rhetoric.
The technical mistakes are in the screenplay and set dressing. No one proofed this film for accuracy or continuity. The professor character might as well be a superhero, and I don’t mean because she takes to military grade firearms like a duck to water. Her eyes are so good and her brain so smart that she is able to look at a plain high school grade microscope and read DNA patterns and mutations over time. That’s a superpower that can’t be explained by 50x magnification. She also goes in and reads data again on an RV with no evidence of any materials in place to actually obtain a clean sample for her definitive conclusions on Predator evolution (after, you know, memorizing the genome of an alien species that might be a hybrid species just from looking at a sample in a laboratory, as you do).
If that’s too “but it’s science fiction” for you to accept as evidence of no one reading this screenplay to make sure it’s plausible and consistent, how about the sign outside a middle school that abbreviates “students” as “STDS?” I know the current preferred abbreviation is STIs (sexually transmitted infections) rather than STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), but the target audience for this film—people old enough to remember the originals—laughed harder at that sign than any other written joke in the entire film; I don’t think a sign in the background was meant to be the biggest gag of the film. For reference, I’ve always been taught to abbreviate student as “STDNT,” though a search suggests “STUD” or even “ST” are also accurate. I could go on with screenplay errors, but I think I’ve made my point. These are just two of many in every scene of the film.
More damning is the treatment of the non-soldier characters. The professor is a prime example of the Smurfette principle. This is the entertainment trope across all scripted media that there can only be one woman in a group. There’s a main cast of nine characters—six soldiers, the villain, the child with autism, and the professor. Only one is a woman. Aside from facing some rather disgusting jokes from the military men after they rescue her (a character with Tourette’s syndrome makes a joke about her private parts repeatedly, and it’s never made clear if that’s the one time in the entire film his tic caused him to say something that made any sense in context or is just a coincidence that he makes vulgar sexual comments about a woman in front of a woman while is friends cover for him), she is treated as so different from the rest of them until they literally cannot waste time with microaggressions in the moments.
They react like she’s crazy when she’s the first person to fight the Predator in her presence. A group of six grown men surround her sleeping body with gifts and offerings to make her like them when she wakes up, like she’s some goddess or high priestess in ancient times. When in a battle situation (after proving she can successfully use a gun and keep up with them), she’s relegated to protecting the child and hiding. Everyone she encounters treats her this way, not just the military men, and it’s frankly a blessing in disguise that the production company deleted most of her introductory scene where she was sexually harassed in a park. That would have made the optics of this character and her treatment in the film blatant rather than implied. She’s either a brain or a body depending on the scene, never a full person.
The child with autism doesn’t get treated much better. As bright and brilliant as he is, as significant as he is to fighting for the survival of humankind, he’s coded with a lot of stereotypes about autism spectrum disorder that make him problematic. In his opening scene alone, he’s the quiet kid, clearly younger than everyone else in his class, standing over someone’s shoulder and making awkward comments over a chess game. A pair of bullies pull the fire alarm and the poor child, clearly feeling anxious from the noise and overstimulation, is left alone in the classroom (the teacher just books it and leaves him for dead without checking for any stragglers) to stim on his own. A classroom set of chessboards got flipped over during the evacuation, and this child had somehow memorized at least 10 different boards patterns and put them back together while the alarm is still going off. Shoot, there’s one scene where the soldiers police themselves over the use of the R-word and justify it by saying the child is an R-word. The child is bullied by his peers because of his condition while also being the discussed as “the next phase of human evolution” by the adults in his life. The film is utterly clueless here. Writer/director Shane Black and writer Fred Dekker care enough to write a child with autism as one of the major players of a big studio film, but doesn’t care enough to treat him as a human being rather than “the other” at best or a tool at worst.
I could go on. The Predator can be a lot of fun if you don’t think about it. Once you start to peel back at the layers, it reveals itself to be rotten to the core. It is such a typical B-movie with unexpectedly good acting and technical filmmaking that I, for once, was not watching as critically as I usually do in the moment. While The Predator is nowhere near the worst offender in any of these areas, it is still a problematic film that should and could have done better in 2018.
The Predator is currently playing in theaters.
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