Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Redemption For The Lame: Predators Revitalizes The Franchise Surprisingly Well.

The Good: Great sense of tension, Good action/special effects, Surprisingly good acting
The Bad: A little predictable, A little light on character.
The Basics: Surprisingly engaging, Predators is dark, violent and strangely compelling as a band of humans find themselves as prey to aliens on a distant world.

In recent years, science fiction enthusiasts and action adventure film lovers have had a lot to be embarrassed about. After all, there was a franchise made rather quickly of two of the best science fiction horror and science fiction action-adventure films of the last thirty years which nearly sunk both franchises. I am speaking, of course, of Alien Vs. Predator and its sequel. But when Summer Blockbuster Season last year reached its natural fervor, Predators arrived in theaters to try to redeem the soiled franchise. No one I know was more skeptical of the movie going in than I was.

And this movie does what it sets out to do exceptionally well! Predators is not just an action-adventure film, it is a tense thriller that takes its time to develop while getting viewers invested in the characters. More than just a gory flick, like the movies that pitted humans versus the aliens and the Predators, Predators actually takes enough time to develop and make a story that is interesting, even if the protagonists are little better than the creatures hunting them. It is worth noting that it has been years since I saw Predator and the movie does a sufficient job of making newcomers to the franchise feel like they are up-to-speed. This is largely because this is not a true sequel, but rather a redirect of the franchise and it works to reboot interest and enthusiasm for future projects.

Confused and isolated, a small group of humans wake up in a forest. They quickly realize they are not on Earth and that their lives are very much in danger. As they explore their surroundings, they cautiously learn about one another. Royce steps forward inadvertently as the natural leader of the group, in part by virtue of being the best armed at the time, in part because he instantly realizes everyone’s lives are in danger. Royce is a mercenary and he quickly deduces that the others with him are the vicious dregs of Earth society, including snipers, hitmen, death row killers and death squad gunmen. As the members of the group are killed in vicious ways and the survivors flee for their lives, Royce comes to understand that they have been brought to this planet to be killed for sport and he essentially accepts that fate.

But in their fleeing, Royce and the few survivors who remain encounter Noland, an ex-Navy SEAL. Noland helps Royce survive, as the predatory aliens on the planet move in to finish their bloodsport.

Predators is a pretty basic “hunter/prey” plot, but the movie makes the formula seem new and fresh largely because there are simple thrills for the viewer in watching some of the worst elements of human society get brutally murdered. Yes, Predators plays on a very simple desire to see punishment come to bad people and at the same time, it works as a story of redemption for Royce. So, for example, there is a sense of justice when Mombasa – who was involved in death squads in Sierra Leone – meets a brutal end. But Royce does not seem as bad as the others, though Edwin seems for moments like he might be whitebread. Royce was a soldier whereas characters like Stans is a killer set to be executed and Isabelle is a paid sniper. As such, while the others are stabbed, shot, and otherwise eviscerated, the viewer comes to care about Royce.

The appearance of Noland takes a bit of suspension of disbelief, especially when one considers just how brutal the squad of predator (alien) hunters are when Royce and his group arrive. Even so, he fills a niche beyond just simply providing exposition and explanation for the current circumstances for the humans.

The effects in Predators are intense and quite impressive. With a very edgy score by John Debney, director Nimrod Antal creates a film that is tense well beyond the visual effects. The characteristic swells and stops that come with movies that have abrupt turns of fate are there, but what Debney does even better is create an unsettling sensation with the background music that is not overbearing. This is an impressive thing and it does almost as much for the film as the visual effects. As one might expect now that the novelty of seeing a Predator is gone (they have been well-merchandised in the last twenty years), Rodriguez is sure to show imaginative new predators, including ones that are more bulked up and do not die as easily as the traditional predators (which were never easy to kill anyway). The visual effects are often fast and brutal, but enough time is left so viewers can see just how horribly characters are being killed. How refreshing. There is an appropriate level of gore for a film where aliens hunt humans for sport, but more than just being gore-filled, Predators is legitimately scary.

What might surprise most audiences is that Predators features surprisingly good acting. For sure, Noland is well-portrayed by Laurence Fishburne, but that is little surprise considering the caliber of actor that he is. Noland is instantly likable because Fishburne is completely credible as a former Navy SEAL. The one who is surprisingly deep in his performance is Topher Grace. Yes, Topher Grace rocks Predators because he has a very layered performance and he does more with his eye movements and body language than most of the other actors do with their lines. Grace plays Edwin, a physician who seems out of place among the trained killers, but Grace makes the character credible as his part progresses. Unfortunately, to truly write about how good Grace is is to undermine the surprise that comes with Edwin’s character and I’ll not do that.

Also excellent is Adrien Brody. Brody plays Royce and for a guy better known for serious dramas and romantic movies, Brody becomes incredible – and credible – as Royce. First, he looks the part. No longer is Brody dominated by his nose; in this film he is a muscular man who walks with power and confidence in a way I’ve never seen him play in any other film. Brody is able to sell the layers of his character, but more than anything he seems surprisingly credible as both a former military officer and as a mercenary.

Ultimately, Predators will not win any big awards, but it is surprisingly engaging and more scary than it is outright gory and that is a treat for anyone who has suffered through the last two installments that had anything to do with the predator aliens. And yes, the title is a double entendre and there is something to be said for humans being the aliens in this one and hunted without the home field advantage. While the humans may have predatory instincts, what is arguably most terrifying about Predators is how the aliens selected their prey and what it means when people this ruthless cannot save themselves!

A fun summer action-horror flick, if nothing else.

For other science fiction or horror films, please check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2
The Clone Wars


For other film reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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