It’s the turn of the other iconic alien-based havoc franchise this episode, as we talk all things Predator – including the much maligned Aliens vs Predator films. What do we make of them? Listen to find out!
In our last podcast, we said, more or less, that Aliens was the Alien formula amplified and dropped into an action framework. To an extent, Predator is the Alien formula taken largely as is, and dropped into an action framework. And if you’re going to do that in the Eighties, there’s no better person to have in your corner than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Here he plays Major Alan Dutch Schaffer, leader of an elite search and rescue force called in to, well, search for and rescue a supposed government cabinet member whose chopper was shot down in the jungles of the Eighties favourite fictional conflict zone, Val Verde (or Guatamala if you believe what Predators tells us, or in some instances Columbia, but Val Verde 4 life, dawg). However, as we’re being told this by a CIA agent, even if it is one of Dutch’s old army buddies, George Dillon (Carl Weathers), probably best to take that with a grain of salt.
So, into the jungle goes Dutch Schaefer and his team — Bill Duke’s medic Mac Elliot, Sonny Landhams’ tracker Billy Sole, Jesse Ventura’s gunner Blain Cooper, Richard Chaves’ explosives expert Jorge “Poncho” Ramírez, and radio operator Rick Hawkins, played by Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, for some reason.
They start tracking from the crash site, soon coming across disturbing scenes – soldiers skinned and hung from the tall branches. Those horrible Val Verdean rebels! Although, as we know from the occasional infra red viewpoint shot, it’s something rather more potent rumbling in this jungle.
The team eventually reach the rebel base, and clock their Russian advisor – those horrible communist Val Verdean rebels! A firefight with Dutch and co doesn’t go all that well for the Reds, as the business end of Blain’s Ol’ Painless minigun rather liquidates their holdings. Dutch is about to get very angry at Dillion, but having witnessed the team’s combat prowess, the alien Predator (political affiliation unknown) sees how worthy a prey the lads are and starts stalking and picking them off, one by one.
The rest of this film details Dutch, his dwindling squad and captive, well, let’s be honest, token woman Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) as they try to make it to an extraction point – yes, that’s right, they need to get to the choppa – of course culminating in a mud-caked Ah-nold going mano -a-xeno with the be-mandibled menace.
I was surprised to read that Predator received a mild to frosty critical reaction at the time, because I’ve always found it to be an incredible amount of fun, even after all this time and rewatches. I suppose the overarching point that it’s a bit weakly plotted has a degree of truthiness to it – the essential details can be reduced to about one and a half sentences – but it’s always been less about the narrative and about the atmosphere for me.
If Alien managed to build a sense of claustrophobia with the spaceship environs, Predator proves it’s just as possible to feel the walls close in when there aren’t any walls around. The jungle, while making for a nightmarish shoot by all accounts, makes for a hugely effective setting, and Dutch and co’s gradual realisation they’re going from hunter to hunted makes a terrifically tense slice of film-making.
I’ve kind of skipped over the Predator him/her/itself in this, as I’m largely assuming you know what it is. Perhaps that’s me normalising my experience too much, and I suppose there’s got to be someone who hasn’t seen this. They’re a race of aliens who treat some of the universe’s most dangerous locations as a safari-esque proving ground, although none of that information comes from this film, and to be honest not having the motivations screamed at us by Gary Busey is another reason to appreciate the minimalism of this film.
I’ve never quite been able to square the notion that these hunts are the various Predators pitting their skills against the best warriors in the galaxy as some sort of noble right of passage, as the playing field is a little slanted – not only does Preddy have his unfeasibly sharp bladed weapons, infra-red tracking ability, shoulder-mounted auto-tracking space-blaster, he can also turn invisible through some optical camouflage equipment. Just a slight tech advantage.
I had thought I’d need to be making apologies for the exceedingly macho attitudes on display, and there’s certainly no minimising that, but it was much worse in my head then the actuality of it. With the exception of one throwaway homophobic line and Hawkin’s line of “jokes”, there’s not much here to apologise for, and the bulk of that’s over in the first ten minutes.
And, here’s the thing, all this macho man posturing and swaggering is necessary, if just to show the contrast as they fray and break under the tension of the ordeal this alien bastard puts them through.
There’s more to be said on this, but the basic point I’m trying to get across is that I think this is a very tense, well executed film, with a strong concept, some great casting and compelling performances that makes this not just a great genre film, but a great film full stop. Highly recommended in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this already.
Strange things, Predator and Predator 2. One a $35 million dollar production, one a much simpler survival horror B-movie with a budget of only $15 million. One film with a cast of former sports stars and bodybuilders, the other with a star of a multiple-Oscar-nominated film and a hugely successful action franchise. One directed by someone mostly known for TV, the other directed by one of the greatest action directors of the time. One a classic, the other an ugly and disposable cash-in. None of these things match in the way that seems sensible.
1990’s Predator 2 is set in a Los Angeles of 1997 that seems to have come straight from Robocop, with open warfare on the streets between gangs of Colombian and Jamaican drug dealers, and an overwhelmed LAPD, all in the middle of an intense heatwave. At the conclusion of a firefight, Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his colleagues follow several gang members to a barricaded building, where they discover them dead, hanging from seemingly impossible heights, and with no trace whatsoever of their murderer.
Harrigan would quite naturally like to know what the hell is going on, but his investigation is impeded by Gary Busey’s federal agent Keyes, allegedly in charge of the task force investigating the drug dealers, who orders him to stay out of the investigation. After more drug dealers are killed and skinned, one of Harrigan’s colleagues is murdered while investigating the crime scene, and he begins to investigate Keyes and his team, and is eventually let in on the knowledge that an alien is stalking and killing in LA, and Keyes intends to capture the alien so that the military can use its technology.
Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t agree on a fee to return. Nor could John McTiernan, so here Danny Glover is directed by future Lost in Space director Stephen Hopkins, and he’s out of his depth.
Danny Glover is not the greatest actor in the world by any means, but pair him with a competent director (Richard Donner in the Lethal Weapon series, Spielberg in The Colour Purple) and you can get a pretty decent performance out of him. Sadly, in Predator 2 he spends most of the time looking like a lost wee boy who keeps hoping his mum will turn up soon. Really – in almost every scene he has the same half-scared, half-bewildered expression on his face. As a result, I find it hard to buy him as the action hero, here. And that’s a genuine pity, because the hero being a slightly overweight, middle-aged guy, rather than the über-buff, highly-trained, special forces soldier of Predator is a nice distinction.
Despite having more than twice the budget of Predator, Predator 2 looks so cheap. Like direct to video sequel cheap. I don’t know where they spent the money, but it certainly wasn’t on Gary Busey’s wardrobe, who does a nifty line in suits at least two sizes too big for him. Nor was it spent on water sprayers, because while Danny Glover looks perpetually dowsed in sweat, the majority of those in scenes with him are pretty dry.
Some money was clearly spent on the attempted capture of the creature in the warehouse, and it’s quite inventive, with the use of the predator’s different vision modes, the way silhouettes and lights do and don’t appear on the screen. But then Gary Busey turns up dressed in two-sizes too big tinfoil, takes a firm hold of the scenery between his teeth, and all of the tension evaporates.
The predator itself (played again by Kevin Peter Hall) still looks the business, at least. It was slightly re-designed to look a bit meaner and toothier (in Stan Winston’s words “Broad concept’s the same. The difference is, this is a different individual.”), but it’s much the same creature that Dutch fought in the jungle, and it is still ugly and creepy, and damned effective design work, awkward fingers aside. Really, it wouldn’t have been the same with the diminutive JCVD variant. There was some controversy at the time of Predator 2’s release that the creature design was racist, and had been “urbanised” (how I hate that word) to subliminally suggest the threat and menace of black men. Now that is either arrant nonsense, or am I immune to that suggestion, but it’s certainly something worth thinking about given this film was made in a tense city just 2 years before the L.A. Riots. But for me, it’s just a space beastie, and I’m happy for it to remain so.
Sadly, the predator just isn’t interesting in the way that it was in the jungle. In the original film, the thing felt properly alien – mysterious, unknown, otherworldly – whereas flung into LA it is far less potent, and feels just like another threat in this vulgar and grimy city. It has lost its power as the focus has shifted to the humans instead. The appeal of the predator ship does intrigue me a little; I’d like to have seen more of it, been shown a few more hints of the predator culture – which may exist in other media but is virtually invisible in the films – but it’s over very quickly, and even in that short space of time my mind is diverted to questions of why the aliens turn their camouflage back on inside their own spaceship, why the film overuses the predator’s speech recording and playback, and why they went to the bother of hiding themselves and their spaceship in the city if, when they leave, they burn an enormous and entirely unstealthy bloody great trench in the ground.
Unlike the Alien franchise, which saw a gradual downward trajectory, the quality of the Predator series dropped precipitously between just its first two instalments, and Predator 2 is, sad to say, both bad and really boring.
Cinematically at least, once space year 2004 rolled around the Predator franchise was dead, and after several reported false starts, the Alien franchise was dead too, or at least doing a good impersonation of it. So, at least one of the reasons for the wailing and gnashing of teeth from film fans about the announcement of this mash-up always felt a little hollow to me – if there’s no realistic hope of a “real” entry, why not take what you can get with the lefftovers?
Secondly, while I’m not a superfan of either franchise, even I knew about the extended universe Aliens vs Predator stuff, either as novels, comics or most relevantly, video games, and the latter at least provided some proof of concept that this could provide some degree of schlock fun, if not something that’s going to get a lot of Oscar buzz. I don’t think I’d say I’d been looking forward to Aliens vs Predator, but at the very least I didn’t discount it out of hand. At least, not until the magic words Paul W.S. Anderson were uttered.
Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Alien vs Predator sees a Weyland Corporation satellite spotting a mysterious heat bloom in Antarctica, with initial scans finding something even more mysterious. There seems to be an exceptionally odd pyramid buried far underneath the ice. So Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) rounds up a crew of what we’ll call experts to investigate this.
Amongst the security personnel and drilling crew are Weyland’s majordomo Maxwell Stafford (Colin Salmon, the early 2000’s Idris Elba), experienced, no-nonsense guide Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan), archeologist Sebastian de Rosa (Raoul Bova), and chemical engineer Graeme Miller (Ewen Bremner). There are many other people, but I wouldn’t want to name them. No point getting attached to them.
They’re not the only ones interested in the pyramid, as an orbiting Predator space ship blasts a space laser through the ice just before Team Weyland show up, giving them a helpful clear run down to the pyramid. Not ones to look a gift mineshaft in whatever the mineshaft analogue of a mouth is, they batter on down and start poking around, piecing together enough of the mishmash of Mayan, Atzec, Egyptian and Belgian hieroglyphs to give us a sudden exposition dump.
This is some prime Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods / Ancient Aliens garbage, with the Predators apparently having convinced each of the aforementioned civilisations to treat them as gods, including building pyramids housing an Alien Queen to serve as a challenge to young Predator warriors as a rite of passage, like a xenomorph infested Crystal Maze, or Krypton Factor, or Fort Boyard, or Wipeout, select reference as appropriate to your age group. Of course, you can’t hunt xenomorphs without xenomorphs, hence the human sacrifice aspect of the cultures, but it’s death via facehugger and burst chests, not a priest’s blade that’s the order of the day in these triangular funhouses.
Having figured all of this out, our gang now realise that the human sacrifice this time is, well, them, the urgency of which stops them asking why this pyramid in particular is a combination of the different architecture styles, and none of the other pyramids we’ve found are, but this is one of the many things that it’s best not to worry too much about in Aliens vs Predator.
Very soon, we’ve got Xenos aplenty, and three Predators show up to test their mettle against them, with the surviving human interlopers really just trying to beat feet out of there as best they can, hindered by a shifting, reconfiguring structure that divides them, allowing the Xenos to conquer.
Not that the Predators get things all their own way either, once all is said and done leaving one Predator survivor and Alexa to desperately battle the Alien Queen, who has escaped her oddly low-tech shackles and reached the surface, which would be bad news for us humans.
I have a confession to make, and you’re not going to like it. While I think it’s very important to state that AvP is not at all good, I kind of enjoyed it – certainly more than my review a decade-plus ago would have you believe, although I think most of that is based around the proximity of watching the po-faced Prometheus and Covenant films. This is pure stupid schlock action, and with expectations calibrated accordingly it’s possible to find some joy in this.
It’s normally at this point that I back that opinion up with some sort of facts or reasoning, although in this instance I’m not sure that I can. I really like the pyramid setting, and the whole reconfiguring gimmick works well. Most of the cast, and certainly the featured cast do pretty well, particularly Sanaa Lathan who’s no Ripley, for sure, but much more likeable than Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant.
Special shout-out to one of the few instances of a chemical engineer, God’s chosen ones, in a film, although like all other films with chemical engineers in it, it has no idea what a chemical engineer does. Can hardly blame them, I studied it for four years and worked as one since the dawn of this millennium and would struggle to put together a job description in a neat sentence.
The action sequences I find serviceable, perhaps more for the concept than the execution. The whole “dream match” thing is, undeniably, something us nerds wanted to see, although, had any of us stopped to properly think about it, it’s not something that was ever likely to sustain a feature film. To give W.S. Anderson his due, this might be as good a film as anyone could make of the idea, barring the obvious onward march of CGI capability.
That’s not to say that it’s actually a good film, mind. I happy to say that it’s an enjoyable film, as a side project to two franchises that I’m very fond of, but I must recognise that it’s living off goodwill that it did not accrue by itself. Still, it’s lack of pretension when compared to the more recent Aliens films does make this seem like a breath of fresh, or at least comfortingly stale air. Maybe time to re-evaluate, if you hated it on first view, but I’d still hesitate to give it more than a highly caveated recommendation.
Picking up from the ending of Alien vs Predator, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem sees a chestburster explode from the body of the predator (named Scar, apparently) that killed the alien queen. This xenomorph then kills the rest of the predator crew aboard the spaceship, and in the fighting one of the predator’s weapons damages the hull, and the ship crash lands outside a town in Colorado in the United States. As the creature and a handful of face huggers escape the downed ship, a distress call is sent to Predator HQ, and a predator dispatched to perform clean-up duties.
The hunter then begins to track the xenomorphs, causing mayhem in the town, with the bewildered townsfolk caught in the middle.
With Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, directors Greg and Colin Strause took the franchise to some very dark places. Oh, not thematically. That might have been interesting. No, actually dark, as in “what the hell is going on, I can’t see a bloody thing”. Apparently their $40 million budget didn’t stretch to “more lighting”. It is a phenomenally murky film. It’s not unreasonable to make your horror action film about vicious space beasties dark and brooding, but it’s generally a good idea to let your audience actually see them from time to time, instead of leaving them squinting at the screen, wondering which vague silhouette is which, and who is doing what to whom.
It’s a pity, because there are some sequences, notably one where the predator is using its equipment in the sewers to detect the xenomorphs, that could be pretty entertaining, and allow us to appreciate the fact that The Brothers Strause tried to use practical effects as much as possible and use CGI only for augmentation, if only you could see anything.
For me, the big problem of Requiem is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is, or, at the very least, it doesn’t seem to know where it came from, and it just can’t make up its mind. It begins in a way that fits well enough with both Predator and Alien, with the mysterious and inexplicable deaths causing alarm amongst the people of the town. Opinion is split on the “Predalien” (a design based on a painting by illustrator Dave Dorman), but it is a fearsome beastie (at least when there’s enough illumination to see the damn thing), and somewhat more imposing than the standard xenomorph, and it at least mixes things up a little from the creature designs seen in the preceding films, even if it is clearly of the same cloth. The predalien’s swift despatching of the remaining predators establishes it as a force to be reckoned with, and it could seem that we’re in for an entertaining ride as the predator reinforcement (though, inexplicably, just the one) attempts to kill it, with the unfortunate humans caught in the middle.
Sadly, that isn’t the case, as it soon becomes apparent that Requiem is a generic, C-grade, horror film with an Aliens vs Predator skin thrown over the top, a skin that seems to have been created by someone who hasn’t seen any of the other films. The subplots involving the cardboard cut-out “teens from any horror film ever”, naturally played by actors 10 years older than their characters, are beyond tedious, and pretty much no-one feels like a real, and certainly not a relatable, person. There is no group dynamic, just a bunch of paper-thin soon-to-be-victims who happen to be in the same location. Locations which include, in a “most generic and cliché thing ever” attempt, a body of water with two young and pretty people about to get jiggy.
Many people argue that genre films should be judged differently from other films, but I almost entirely disagree, though I do make allowances for certain genre conventions. And while you might reasonably not expect dialogue to be on a par with an award-winning drama, regardless of genre the film still has to be entertaining, the characters’ motivations have to make sense and, crucially, it must also at least follow its, or its universe’s, own internal logic, and AvP:R fails on all of these counts.
The predator (identified somewhere as Wolf, but sadly not the TV Gladiator) sent to deal with the predalien begins by destroying the ship and attempting to use chemicals to dispose of evidence of the creatures’ existence. By about page 10 of the script, though, screenwriter Shane Salerno seems to have forgotten this, and “Wolf” stops his mission to kill random humans, even if they are not the worthy trophies that the preceding films established would be the only thing of value to this species.
Humans become host to aliens after being impregnated by facehuggers, something which happens very swiftly (though this lifecycle has been shaky and hugely inconsistent in everything post-Alien, with the incubation time largely being “whatever the plot needs it to be”, so it isn’t a problem specific to this film), increasing the members of the predalien’s gang. And then, despite the facehuggers being used up and there being no queen (and this is why I say that it feels like the film is written by someone not completely familiar with the other films and the creatures’ mythos, even though the directors are fanboys), suddenly humans are being used to create xenomorphs at a geometric rate. Requiem really doesn’t know what it is, because by the end, and the inevitable military-industrial double-cross, it has become, more or less, a zombie film, where it seems like humans have become aliens just by contact.
It’s The Nightmare of Friday the 13th of the Dead, with aliens and predators. It is, in a word, awful.
Adrien Brody’s Royce wakes up in the middle of a freefall, which must rank pretty low down on the list of preferred ways to awake. He plummets to the jungle floor, saved, sort of, by a strangely designed parachute, and finds he’s not the only one suffering that fate. In short order, he meets up with Mexican drug cartel enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Russian Special Forces soldier Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), Israel Defense Forces sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga), Revolutionary United Front officer Mombasa (Mahershala Ali), Death row inmate Stans (Walton Goggins), Yakuza enforcer Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and, seemingly out of place, a doctor, Edwin (Topher Grace).
While understandably distrustful to begin with, they commendably quickly realise that the real enemy is the force that has dropped them wherever they are, and appear to be setting up to hunt them down. As you’ll expect given the theme of this podcast, said hunting is being done by a group of Predators, although as it’s explained to us later, a different clan than the Classic Predators of yore.
These new Super Predators, as we’re apparently to refer to them, have a few mildly different tricks in their repertoire, and look like a minor refinement to the original design, but I’ve got to be honest, with masks on I’d struggle to tell any of them apart, were it not for their different choice of trophy integrated into their armour, and even then, in the dark one’s not that much different to the others.
To an extent, you can apply the same plot recap for this as with the other Predator films, but there’s a twist to this. Once Royce and company figure out that they’re not on Earth, having all been abducted and taken to what’s effectively a game reserve cum safari ground, realising the only hope of escape is to go after Predators rather than play by their rules. This might not go exactly to plan, but it’s good to see that the label attached to these folks as being some of Earth’s deadliest warriors isn’t unearned.
In fact that’s something I’ve always appreciated about the mainline Predator films – the prey, if you will, never just start doing stupid things to move the plot forward, which is something pretty endemic in simiarly plotted slasher movies, in particular. In these films the idiot ball finds little purchase, and even the people we’re not meant to be particularly sympathetic to, like Gary Busey’s Tinfoil Team, aren’t being foolish, which helps sell the whole premise of the films.
As for Predators, I recall this coming out to middling reviews, and Drew’s review for the old website was more positive than most but still tending towards meh, so I was a little surprised to find myself half an hour into this and really, really enjoying it. A lot of that comes down to Adrien Brody, who despite bulking up a bit is still not the first name that springs to mind as an action star. Yet, he’s entirely convincing, even with a slightly daft gruff accent. Turns out having good actors in things films tends to improve them. Who’d have thunk it, etc.
The action is as well handled as any of the other films, arguably better, and the onward march of effects technology makes the Predator’s cloaking and assorted gizmos look better than ever. That said, it’s also made by film-makers that know that sometimes, there’s no substitute for just throwing some stunt workers down a steep hill, and so there’s a very effective mix of practical and computer effects work that makes for very enjoyable scenes.
The characterisation perhaps fares worse, with many of the cast just not getting enough lines to make much of an impact. It also seems like a waste of Larry Fishburne, who isn’t with us for long despite making a solid impression, even saddled with carrying the one section of the film where it drags somewhat. Despite this, and some, let’s politely say functional dialogue, the cast makes the most of what they’re given, and the central double act of Broady and Braga holds up well throughout the piece.
It’s by no means a perfect film – as mentioned the attempt at speciating Predators doesn’t work all that well for me, and there’s a not-even-a-twist towards the end that’s entirely infuriating that I don’t want to get too deep into as it’s a bit spoilery, except it’s perhaps the one example of the idiot ball returning in full force, even if there are extenuating, hunted by alien reasons to excuse it.
Yet, despite these niggles, I found this hugely enjoyable. It’s very much the same sort of move as between Alien and Aliens – brasher, bigger and more action focused, which some people took exception to, but is largely why I like this. With the caveat of having no clue how this will hold up to repeat viewing, at the moment I’d have to say that I enjoyed this almost as much as the original. Solid recommend.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with another agenda-free ramble through recently viewed films, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.