Friday, 16 July 2010

'Predators' review: A decent start ruined by a silly alien...

What do 'Jaws' and the original 'Alien' have in common? They are both films which expertly create tension and fear in an an audience by deliberately refusing to show the titular creature. Aside from the occasional glimpse, the creature is unseen and becomes enigmatic, intriguing, more exciting. Of course, with both these examples there was a practical consideration in that the directors knew that with limited technology, showing the creature would look phenomenally silly. So when your "monster" is basically very, very silly anyway, with long fingernails and dreadlocks, it should be a no-brainer: don't show us the monster.

It is a lesson that should have been learned by the makers of the original 1987 actioner 'Predator', as well as its much-maligned 1990 sequel 'Predator 2' (AKA 'Predator: Pig in the City'). Both of which show rather too much of the Rastafarian alien then is really wise. As soon as a man in a rubber suit starts running towards the camera I am no longer scared. Worse than that: I am no longer taking the movie seriously. OK, so both those movies jump the shark way before the Predator turns up. 'Predator' has a adrenaline fuelled, explosive gun battle in which muscle bound tough-guys make evil Latino people explode by the score, all to the tune of familiar 1980s Schwarzenegger zingers ("stick around!"). The sequel sees a gun crazed Danny Glover enter a strange, dystopian LA that feels like something out of a long lost Paul Verhoeven movie. The streets are full of various over the top, ethnic scumbags who need culling.

Both films strain credibility long before the man in the rubber suit makes an appearance. However, the tragedy of the latest installment in the franchise, the Robert Rodriquez produced 'Predators', is that for the first half hour it is actually fairly well made and quite engrossing stuff. It returns the series to the jungle setting of the original (albeit this time on another planet) and sees a group of macho-types from around the world dropped into the middle of a game preserve, apparently to serve as quarry for the blood-sport obsessed aliens.

Director Nimród Antal creates a good atmosphere and is helped by a cast of decent and appealing actors in the various roles, including Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace and Danny Trejo. Antal quickly establishes all the characters personalities and backgrounds and starts the movie at a breakneck pace with Brody falling out of the sky into the jungle before the title pops up. The film is at its strongest as the unlikely band of misfits band together and try to work out what is going on. As an audience we know they are soon going to be picked apart by bloodthirsty aliens, which creates a decent tension as we ponder "when is it going to happen and who will be the first to die?"

It is far from perfect even at this stage, with the dialogue mostly consisting of people shouting "what the fuck is going on?", "where the fuck are we?" and "what the fuck is that thing?" The characters aren't especially deep, instead they are broad archetypes. But this is forgivable and the actors bring a lot to their roles, especially Brody who some may think is an odd choice here as a beefcake-commando, but he lends plausibility, intelligence and depth to a role which could just so easily have fallen to Vin Diesel.

The thing is after the initial honeymoon period the Predators themselves turn up. And from then on things get progressively sillier and sillier to the point that by the end most the initial goodwill has dissipated. Seen in daylight and in long sustained full-body shots, the Predators are perhaps the most ridiculous antagonists imaginable. The film reaches its nadir during one sequence which sees two men in Predator suits punching each other for about five minutes, which is easily as appealing as seeing two CGI robots punching each other in a certain Michael Bay movie.

There is also a fundamental problem with the concept suggested in the title: that this time there is more than one Predator. Upping the number of Predators diminishes their threat rather than increasing it. Predators used to eat units of commandos for breakfast, but now they are hunting in packs and struggling to kill Topher Grace? But maybe these are rubbish Predators anyway, on some sort of game-tourism weekend. Whereas previous Predators used to take the trouble to land on Earth and seek out bad-asses (and Bill Paxton) to skin alive, this lot are content to land on a local hunting ground and use their heat-sensor equipment (which seems like cheating to me) to hunt disorientated primitives.

In the end 'Predators' is quite disappointing. Not because I had especially high hopes going in, but because the opening minutes suggested it could have been better. But then the men in their rubber suits started running towards the camera and I was no longer tense. Worse than that: I was no longer taking the movie seriously. Maybe that is my problem. Maybe I am not supposed to be taking this movie seriously. But if you're in the market for silly, stick on the 1987 original and have done with it. 'Predators' is neither good enough, nor silly enough to warrant too much attention.

'Predators' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on general release in the UK.

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