The passing of time has aged the Predator franchise in the most peculiar way. Starting with John McTiernan’s 1987 classic, the IP has now survived for over 30 years. Yet, there are only 4 films in the core series. For it being such a cinematic staple, bending multiple genres at will in ways no other films can, its home studio 20th Century Fox has never really nurtured it to full potential. But of course, 20th Century Fox no longer exists in 2020. What remains after the historic Disney acquisition is 20th Century Studios. Predator fans were treated to one more sequel right before the buyout, but 2018’s The Predator couldn’t be farther from the final hoorah that was needed. With a tainted legacy under new leadership, the future for the Predator is most uncertain. Though not all is bleak for 2020 also calls back to a brighter time – a time when Fox had complete faith in the iconic movie monster. The Robert Rodriguez-produced Predators just turned 10, and for better and worse, it’s aged as a desperate reminder for what this franchise utterly needs.
Released on July 9, 2010, Predators sought out to revamp the franchise following the deflation of the Alien vs. Predator spin-offs. However, the concept behind Predators was actually conceived nearly 15 years prior. Flashback to 1995 before the release of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez is hired by Fox to reinvent the Predator on paper after the failings of Predator 2. Rodriguez sheds more light during a 2010 interview with The Guardian, “Fox just wanted a script that would entice Arnold back into the mix. I knew Arnold personally, and I knew he liked the first film’s jungle setting, so I decided to write something with a jungle setting but set on another planet. I wanted to make it more of a sequel to the first one, pretending the real Predator 2 didn’t exist”. Rodriguez gave a direct nod to fellow collaborator James Cameron by simply making the title of his sequel the plural form of the original; Predators is to Predator as Aliens is to Alien.
Fox unleashing Rodriguez into the IP ended up being its own downfall for the time. Rodriguez has stated that he wrote his script with no limitations in mind, producing a project that he shamelessly admits was “undoable”. The money nor the technology was available in the mid-90s, putting the baby to rest. Predators is actually the only script Rodriguez has ever written to spec. He further elaborates, “That’s why I didn’t take another writing job afterwards. To put these ideas forth and then have the script disappear, not knowing if it was gonna get made or get changed or made without me, was almost like getting pregnant, having a baby then giving the baby away!” Fox producer Alex Young found Rodriguez’s dusty script in 2009 and deemed it as the new north star for the series. The only problem was that Rodriguez, like most creative minds, was at a different place in life than in 1995.
The entire 2000s were an incredibly busy time for Rodriguez and his self-owned Troublemaker Studios. The Spy Kids trilogy, Grindhouse, Sin City, and more. By the time Fox had called back on Predators, Rodriguez was deep into the long-awaited feature adaptation of Machete with another directing gig lined up (it would fall through) with the Weinstein Company. He tells The Guardian, “I was committed to another directing job at the time. However, I did say that I could produce it at Troublemaker Studios with my crew and oversee it, because I didn’t want it to slip away again”. If not Rodriguez himself to direct, then who? Enter Nimród Antal.
Yes, to many’s misunderstanding, Predators is not directed by Robert Rodriguez. Hungarian filmmaker Nimród Antal was chosen as the next to take directorial reins over the franchise. At the time, Antal was mainly known for the Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale-led horror Vacancy. With Machete and other commitments, there was basically no way for Rodriguez to direct within Fox’s window of opportunity. Though Rodriguez was more than satisfied with the production heading over to Troublemaker as opposed to staying at Fox. This would ultimately mean more creative control – something that was notoriously muddled from filmmaker Shane Black on his most recent jab at the series. The move to Troublemaker saw Predators begin shooting a mere four days after Machete wrapped. The rest is not only history but a true testament to the resilience of the Predator’s iconography.
Predators follows a group of the world’s most inhuman mercenaries and killers as they are hunted for sport on an alien planet that doubles as a game reserve. The U.S black-ops, IDF, Yakuza, Spetsnaz, and even San Quentin penitentiary’s death row are represented. These hallow figures of human beings question their humanity, or lack thereof, while a trifecta of never before seen Predators hound them down one by one. “My original draft was about the dual meaning of the title”, Rodriguez once told Aint it Cool News. The final product is a true testament to this vision, for the core cast of murderers start to feel more at home, in spite of being in space, as the hunt thickens. Add the fact that the Predators also have their own tribal feud going on and one gets the most exciting concept this particular series has seen in years.
Many people to this day mistake Predators to be directed by Rodriguez for all the right reasons. Writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch were brought in to write a script, using Rodriguez’s original as a guide. In truth, perhaps the original concept really was “undoable”. Arnold Schwarzenegger was very unlikely to return in a leading role while still acting as the Governor of California, but Fox did ask! Despite new writers and a new director, Predators is still covered in Rodriguez’s fingerprints and fits perfectly within the Troublemaker canon. More than half of production was shot in Texas (Rodriguez’s home and HQ), Spy Kids and Sin City composer John Debney came on board, and even Machete himself, Danny Trejo, gets in on the action as a Mexican cartel enforcer. To call Rodriguez anything less of a hands-on producer is insulting pure and simple.
In fact, this film is a perfect example of what Auteur producing should feel like. Rodriguez utilized his unique studio assets to the point where many moviegoers confuse him as the director (granted this also has to do with vague marketing). He provided his director tools only he had access to, all the while giving him freedom. Antal brought on Gyula Pados, a collaborator from his filmmaking days in Hungary, for cinematography duties. With creative and financial support behind him, Antal proved to be up to the task by delivering an impressively solid sequel to a beloved classic. From the moment the film opens with a thrilling freefall, to the closing moments inciting an, “Oh, sh*t” response – Antal’s eye for stimulating cinema is made clear.
In many ways, the last 10 years have been quite kind to Predators. It’s almost telling of the film industry today, no less the Predator franchise, for major IP with this much originality to be considered some sort of “throwback”. In terms of sequels, this is ideally what many studios tend to strive for. The jungle setting with colorful “commandos” against all odds harkens back to the original, with more than enough exciting twists to set itself apart. Debney’s score also works in this favor, nodding to Alan Silvestri’s definitive music to set a familiar but welcome tone. As with every sequel, the threat is multiplied. Antal’s film technically flaunts 4 Predators as opposed to the lone original. What might come as a surprise after a rewatch is that for there being so many Predators, their screen time is actually savored. Their presence lingers throughout the entire film, yet they only appear when necessary. Thanks to the reliance on practical effects and costumes over CGI, something that has been almost absent from both the last Predator and Alien films, Predators feels all the more tangible as it is fantastical.
Whether it be grotesque “Predator Hound ” puppetry or good old fashioned Predator teeth physically drooling down the camera, the effects hold up incredibly well. There is, of course, CGI when needed, but it mostly stands by today’s standards while the more uncanny is forgivable due to minimal use. Credit to Antal and Pados for making the real jungles of Hawaii feel just outlandish enough. The visual spectacle of being in familiar, yet far out territory compliments that very same thematic sentiment from the characters. The inventive interior sets shot in Texas also fall in line with the film’s otherworldliness and only draw the viewer in deeper. Not to mention that Predators boasts the most eye-popping Predator costumes ever put on film, and to no coincidence. The team that had previously worked on the AVP films did not return. They were replaced by SFX visionaries Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, both of whom had experience working on the 1987 film.
Woefully, Antal’s film stands scathed from the double-edged sword that is time. Predators hasn’t totally aged like fine wine, which finally brings the discussion to the cast. Looking back 10 years later, it’s insane that a film starring Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Topher Grace, Mahershala Ali, and Lawrence Fishburne didn’t place higher in the zeitgeist. This is not to say that their performances were lacking nor that the script was entirely weak. The entire cast takes their roles to the fullest, but the script gives some the shorter end of the stick. Brody sells the sh*t of the stern mercenary with one-liners. Braga brings empathy, even as a cold-blooded IDF sniper. Fishburne is obviously having a tremendous time in what could otherwise be classified as a glorified cameo. But what of Ali?
For Ali being an immensely respected Oscar-winning actor today, it feels odd to see him diminished in a role with such potential. Again, he’s having a great time with the material, but that doesn’t save him from being somewhat of a token death. Him dying in the first half would probably not feel as unwarranted if it wasn’t the only lackluster death in the film. On a similar note, Louis Ozawa as the Yakuza enforcer is given what is arguably the most badass sequence (a f*cking samurai-inspired blade duel with a Predator), but it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should be? The character only speaks once the entire film and the reasonings aren’t totally erratic. The passing of time has just made decisions like these more conspicuous, for they only affect the people of color in the film. Predators features a diverse range of talent across many creeds, it’s just a shame to see some of it put aside, especially in 2020. Other films have aged worse, and Antal’s film just saves itself with enough self-awareness and schlock. At the end of the day, it just wants to have innovative fun.
Nonetheless, some of this enjoyment might come at the expense of nostalgia. Silhouettes in place of 3-dimensional characters are already tough to forgive as it is. Although, many draw the line at nostalgia. The film is already packed with throwbacks and deep cuts, many of which long time fans can truly appreciate. It isn’t until the third act where Predators borrows maybe a little too much from what came before. Admittingly, it’s not borrowing out of left field. For what it’s worth, as much nostalgia can be present – it doesn’t ever feel too forced. It just leaves behind remnants of what could have been – something already great possibly even better.
The question begs, what if Rodriguez actually directed Predators? The possibilities aren’t so simple. The odds of Fox waiting for Rodriguez’s availability are low considering they were eager to kickstart the franchise much sooner than later. Even if the studio did wait, given the complexities of time and Rodriguez’s infamous history with unrealized projects, who knows if Predators would have even seen the light of day. As fate would have it, the realized sequel had other hurdles to face. On its opening weekend, Predators came in third place behind Despicable Me and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Vast pockets of film critcism were lukewarm on the sequel. Arguably, the film still built enough resonance with audiences. To this day, it remains the second-highest praised entry in the series (on a generalized wide scale). For all of its right doing, it sadly wasn’t enough to fast track follow-ups – as originally intended from day 1. Both Rodriguez and Antal expressed public interest in doing more, but it turns out that a killer cliffhanger isn’t enough when opening against the wrath of the Minions and melodramatic vampires.
The 20th Century Fox Fanfare attached to Predators celebrates the studios’ 75th anniversary. Watching it in a time post-Disney acquisition brings a new sense of awe. This couldn’t hammer in the nail better for the film being a true relic of the past. Now 10 years old, Predators stands for almost everything this action infused sci-fi series should be about. The complications of time have also shinned new light on what this iconic movie monster should be dealing less with. It was hapless to see Fox learn the hard way when doubling down on some of these ill-fated, unoriginal, or distasteful tropes in 2018. Wherever 20th Century Studios decides to take the IP next, they should look no further than Rodriguez and Antal’s film as a guide. Funny how time works, the original abandoned Predators script would share the same fate as its strong, but tragically all but forgotten realization: recalled over a decade later to pilot new territory.