Predators is a movie about a group of savage but highly evolved alien warriors who hunt people for sport by boring their targets with constant inactivity until they eventually stand unafraid before the monsters and their energy cannons just to spice things up a bit. Its most unexpected moment involves the sudden blaring of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" over the credits, the first thrilling bit since the opening. That this nevertheless stands as a marked improvement over the last two films to feature the fierce hunters is a source of deep depression.
The original Predator, the events of which are referenced at one point by, for some incredible strange reason, an IDF soldier, does not deserve the reputation it enjoys today, but it was still an airtight sci-fi thriller that maintained a steady suspense until it finally broke down into pure '80s carnage. Predators, previously one of Robert Rodriguez's endless list of upcoming projects that he ultimately turned over Nimród "Too Easy" Antal, attempts to follow this format, gathering a group of professional killers to fend off the attacks of genetically and technologically superior creatures. But it never achieves the same stupidity of the first film, and thus it never approaches that movie's simple brilliance.
The first 20 minutes or so of Predators, however, make up the most skillfully arranged section of any action film yet released this summer. Its opening few minutes alone masterfully drop us in the middle of a tense situation, showing Adrien Brody plummeting through the sky in its first shot as he stirs from unconsciousness and notices that he's 30,000 feet above a jungle with a chute that doesn't open. After fumbling with the chute for what seems like hours, he finally managed to open it, only to crash into the ground as the frame smash-cuts to the title card. So invigorating and pulse-pounding is this opening that you push out of mind the question of why Predators would go to the trouble of teleporting people onto their game preserve planet to hunt them, and then not bother to give them a decent parachute (and why does the parachute need to be activated electronically when a ripcord is far more efficient and trustworthy a system?).
Brody's character, a mercenary left unnamed until the end, discovers that others are falling from the sky with the same faulty chutes: there's an IDF sniper, Isabelle (Alice Braga); Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov), a Spetsnaz commando sporting a minigun; a Mexican cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo); an RUF officer (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali); a death row inmate (the always great Walton Goggins); a member of the Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien); and Topher Grace. They are representative of the deadliest humanity has to offer, and Topher Grace is there too.
The initial distrust between these trained killers (and Topher Grace) creates a rich bedrock for the coming hunt, sowing seeds of individualism that will get people killed in short order. Even when the characters reach a hill and notice giant moons looming in the sky, finally figuring out the situation, these people do not band together closely to ensure their survival. The greatest enemy of any monster movie is always the infighting among survivors, and I hoped that Predators would build on this idea.
Sadly, Antal wastes this atmosphere, and Predators quickly devolves into a plodding hike across an alien jungle, broken up by the sporadic attack of the titular aliens, who bring creatures to this planet to make themselves better hunters, yet man cannot truly be called the most dangerous game if a being superior in every fashion is the one hunting. How difficult is it to kill a man when you have acute senses, active camouflage and energy weapons? But even the invisibility does not lend itself to an air of sustained tension.
Instead, characters sit around waiting for attacks to come, which could be suspenseful if they did not spend so much time anticipating raids that lack any hint of surprise and are themselves unexciting. The killers (and Topher Grace) spend so much time walking around yet the film does not even do us the courtesy of setting up numerous setpieces in which big action scenes can occur. Everything looks the same, save for a sequence inside an abandoned drilling station, and by the end of the first hour I decided I'd rather see the forced construction of action stunts than this endless meandering.
To their credit, Antal and Rodriguez, who stayed on the project as a producer, want to return the alien characters to their roots, scrubbing away memories of the cartoonish versions seen in the Alien vs. Predator films. But they've also sapped the menace out the Predators. Now they're just meant to be feared because of their size. They become better hunters with each season, refining techniques that work and adapting ones that fail, yet these hunters succumb easily to the slightest tricks. When the Yakuza uncovers evidence that the Predators' habit of bringing humans to the planet stretches back centuries, the revelation begs the question: how inept were these things hundreds of years ago? No wonder these dangerous people (and Topher Grace) react with minimal fear when confronted with a Predator; it's a small miracle one of the creatures doesn't shoot itself in the foot.
Thankfully, a few performances enliven the material. Brody's "Batman" voice amuses greatly, but he still has a mysterious gravitas to him that he's always had and I've never been able to explain or fully comprehend. But the most entertaining of the group is certainly Goggins, who plays the inmate with just the right mixture of arrogance, filth and underlying cowardice. Goggins' high forehead and his wild eyes make for great dark comedy in themselves, and the insights he gives to the true pig beneath the wisecracking comic relief actually makes the character even funnier, making Topher Grace's presence even more pointless. Best of all is Laurence Fishburne, who channels Colonel Kurtz as an Air Cavalry soldier who's managed to survive on the planet for 10 hunting seasons, but at the expense of sanity and humanity. He is every bit the one madman who brings destruction upon the survivors, and the filmmakers' failure to channel Fishburne's unsettling tics, whispers, and conversations with imaginary partners marks the greatest misstep in the movie.
Everything else has the feel of mediocrity. Antal appears to be less concerned with putting forward an auterial aesthetic and instead delivering a serviceable blockbuster, but this admirable intent leads to awkward execution, with so little standing out in the endless trek through the trees. So many moments intended to carry weight fall completely flat: Brody's character finally saying his name, a perfunctory speech about how men are the true monsters, the revelation of why Grace's character is in the movie at all (which will go down as one of the most stupefyingly useless and jejune twists in recent years), these bits thud into the ground like malfunctioning bombs, smacking into the mud with a great whomp.
To be perfectly honest, of the two warring space creatures who occasionally stoop to killing humans, I'd much rather see the reputation of the xenomorphs from the Alien saga repaired. Far more interesting creatures (and the subject of two certifiably great films), the xenomorphs still have potential, visible even in the final two installments of the series proper, both marred by studio tampering and conflicting visions. But I went into the theater hoping, in opposition to my frothing rage over 2010's '80s obsession, that the creative team could revive an entertaining piece of action cinema. Instead, I got one of those episodes of Lost where all anyone did was walk to a place that would be eventually important, and just like the show, Predators ends at the moment where it just might become intriguing. By that point, I'd already scrapped writing notes in favor of simply forming a checklist, ticking off the inevitable as, one-by-one, the Predators got to the killers. And Topher Grace.