Given the nature of Hollywood product these days, many of my efforts in daily film criticism here involve the assessment of sequels, remakes, prequels and even re-imaginations.
These are the three most important benchmarks, in considering the worth of a sequel film, in my estimation.
1. Is there a sufficient measure of fidelity and respect for the original material? In other words, does the sequel appear to honor what was positive and beloved about the movie that spawned it?
Bad sequels, by contrast, tend often to undercut the very qualities that were good about the original, usually in a cynical attempt to cash in quickly and bring in a strong first-weekend haul.
2. Does the sequel add to the franchise mythos in some significant or valuable way?
Is the world established by the original film enlarged and opened-up by the efforts of the sequel, or reduced by them?
Again, this is vitally important. If we are treading deeper into a particular fantasy world, are the discoveries there worth excavating? Or, in some fashion, do the new discoveries ruin and conflict with what we already now? Do they sour the brand?
3. Finally — and this may be the most important criterion — does the sequel also function as a stand-alone work of art in some significant way?
What concerns me here is this idea: if you were to see the sequel in question alone, with no pre-conceived notions, and with no knowledge of the original, would the film make you want to see the previous entry?
This third criterion is vital to a judgment of the film not merely as sequel; but as an independent example of cinematic art. Can the sequel stand proudly on its own two feet?
If you consider a few great sequels in film history, like The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Road Warrior (1982), and Aliens (1986), for instance, each film fulfills all three of the above-listed criteria.
So it is a delight and relief to report that the much-anticipated sequel Predators is both a good sequel and a good film in its own right, if perhaps not in the class of the four high-watermark sequels I tagged above.
Let’s weigh each of these sequel benchmarks one-at-a-time, vis-a-vis Predators.
First, has this sequel been crafted with a sense of both seriousness and fidelity to its beloved source material (the 1987 McTiernan film, Predator)?
The answer is undeniably “yes.”
Predators lands us back in the modern warfare/soldier milieu of the 1987 Predator, and also re-introduces the familiar alien hunter and his preferred territory: a steamy, overgrown jungle.
Furthermore, the design of the titular monster is abundantly faithful to what came before; and the Predators act in a fashion audiences understand and recognize. To wit, the film remembers how a Predator can tricks its prey with a cloak of invisibility, and also with vocal mimicry, for instance.
Attentive audiences will also note a reprise of Alan Silvestri’s accomplished Predator scores, and a climactic nod to Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” which was featured in the Schwarzenegger edition from the Reagan Era.
Much more importantly, however, in terms of seeming faithful and honoring the Predator legacy, Predators avoids a dramatic structural mistake I have seen cropping up in more and more sequels and re-imaginations of late.
This mistake is simply to assume that because a modern audience boasts some familiarity with the film’s central monster or villain, it is permissible and even desirable to simply cut to the chase (cue the CGI…) and forgo suspense and atmospheric build-up. It’s like the filmmakers can’t be bothered or patient enough to make the old monster seem fresh — and scary — again.
This is an arena where Predators really thrives. Director Nimrod Antal opens with a bravura action sequence involving soldiers in atmospheric free-fall, but then lands the confused human protagonists in a jungle of mystery and ambiguity.
Of course, we immediately understand that they are being hunted by Predators, but the characters do not know this important fact; at least not initially. Commendably, the movie takes its time to build character recognition of the grim situation, and also develop ably the alien landscape of a Predator “game preserve.” On the latter front, there’s a fantastic, visually-stunning ,and truly epic reveal early in the film, when the “hunted” soldiers realize they aren’t in Kansas anymore.
It’s a trap with no escape, and this film makes you feel the terror of the soldiers at being outmatched, marooned on unfamiliar, unfriendly turf.
The Predators don’t actually appear on-screen until approximately the half-hour point of the film, and Antal uses his first-act duration wisely. He builds up a good atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that lasts throughout the film. In this case, he is a patient director, and doesn’t show us the monster in extreme close-up in the first minute of the film…the way that we saw New Freddy [TM] in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Also, Laurence Fishburne appears in the film as a kind of hybrid version of Quint from Jaws (1975) and Kurtz from Apocalypse Now (1979). His purpose is to function as the film’s “voice of fear.” He has survived who-knows-how-many encounters with the Predators and remains abundantly terrified of them.
This is a powerful, unsettling fact, because we associate Laurence Fishburne with the messianic, nearly invincible Morpheus from The Matrix Trilogy, a character of great heroism and presence. Here, that same towering man is reduced to blubbering insanity.
As I wrote in my review of Jaws, sometimes fear can be generated in considerable doses by a technique I term information overload; by storytelling. Consider the famous U.S.S. Indianapolis story that Quint told his shipmates aboard the Orca. It’s the scariest damn thing in the movie because it’s personal; because it is intimate. Quint was there, he saw it happen…and he survived.
Fishburne’s character, Nolan, serves the same function in Predators; not merely acting as the voice of fear…but as the voice of personal experience.
Again, Predators is nowhere near as good or powerful a film as Jaws, obviously, but the narrative approach here is commendable. Rather than using overt flashbacks of the confrontations Nolan describes so apprehensively, Antal successfully maintains the mystery and power of the film’s alien creatures by focusing on the frightened storyteller; on his voice; on his words. This approach allows the audience to experience this man’s terror and madness. An action scene would have been spectacular, but a strong man’s sense of personal fear can be even more powerful.
This is what honoring a franchise is all about.
By contrast, a negative example might help explain this point better. In AVP: Requiem (2007), Aliens and Predators landed on modern-day Earth…and mid-west small-town folks basically defeated them and survived. Children were among the survivors. This victory made two breeds of fearsome aliens look weak and inconsequential.
In previous Alien films, colonial marines and androids were decimated, ship’s crews were killed, and Ripley sacrificed her life to assure that an alien could not get to Mother Earth, where it would run rampant and destroy all this “bullshit” that we think is so important.
Requiem retroactively shat on all of Ripley’s amazing accomplishments by having a 21st century town-sheriff with a shotgun outsmart and survive an encounter with not one kind of alien menace, but two. What’s the big deal Ripley, huh?
That’s dishonoring a franchise.
That’s dishonoring two, actually.
Predators makes no similar mistakes. It develops at a good pace and plays fair with an alien race we have seen in previous films. It maintains the dignity of a beloved screen monster. And even the creature design is better too. By AVP: Requiem, the Predators looked like squat, overweight wrestlers rather than lean, seven-foot-tall hunters from another world.
Okay, benchmark two. Does the film add to the mythos of the franchise? When the fantasy world of the franchise is opened up, does it add to our knowledge, or contradict it?
Again, Predators is successful.
The film reveals that Predators train and control monstrous alien hunting dogs (with a whistle, no less), and clearly this revelation fits into the hunting milieu we associate with the previous films, so that’s to the good.
And secondly, the film’s inventive setting — a planetary game preserve — also fits in with what we understand about the Predators; that hunting is their primary sport, and that they entertain themselves with a variety of game, in a variety of settings.
Another facet of the film I felt was successful involved the introduction of warring breeds of Predators. Apparently, this society features some pretty serious racial divisions. In other words, we get a look at a Predator we know…and also a fearsome one that we do not know.
The new breed of aliens does not feel overtly out-of-place (like the Newcomer in Alien Resurrection, for instance), but rather a natural extension of what we know of the Predators: that they are warlike and highly-competitive.
The film also picks up on one of the few good ideas of AVP (20040: that Predators can, on occasion, work with their prey if the situation demands it.
Finally, we get to the third benchmark: does the film stand on its own two feet?
Again, I believe it does.
The script is highly literate, finding time to quote that great hunter, Ernest Hemingway. But more importantly, the movie strikes on a worthwhile theme: that the Predators — the monsters of another world — are battling the monsters of our world. Here, the Predators test their mettle against guns for hire, death squad murderers, drug runners sociopaths, snipers, Yakuza and other individuals who have turned murder into a profitable art. They truly are the predators of our civilization.
This is not really an idea enunciated in any previous Predator movie, and it comments on the world we live in today, in 2010. We’ve had almost ten years of non-stop war now. Murder is big business on Earth at the moment and so Predators (written over a decade ago) feels not just smart, but actually rather relevant to current events.
For all these reasons, this is the best Predator movie since the original in 1987. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have some flaws. For one thing, you can guess right off the bat who the last three survivors of the film will be. It;’s easy…and a bit too predictable, even if the film attempts valiantly to throw in two inventive, climactic curve-balls.
Yet, that quibble almost doesn’t matter when you get a sturdy sequel that demonstrates respect for its source material, opens up the universe of that source material, and tells a solid, standalone story at the same time.
The Predators featured in this film are involved in a process of evolution; making themselves better killers. I was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers sought an evolution of sorts too. In sequels.
The end result? They made a good one.