Predator is a franchise the same way the Baldwin brothers are an award-winning acting family. There’s the Oscar-nominee, and then there’s Stephen, Billy, and Daniel, you know? The original 1987 Predator is the bread-winner to this day, a stone-cold action classic with an endlessly quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger performance, a slow-build reveal to an iconic creature design, and the most out-of-place and amazing sitcom-ass end-credits in film history. Every follow-up since—Predator 2 and Predators, plus two Alien vs. Predator movies—has failed to capture the thermal-vision magic of a mud-caked Arnold Schwarzenegger duking it out with an extraterrestrial big game hunter. There are individual reasons, sure. Predator 2 is at times shockingly racist. Predators cast Adrien Brody in the ass-kicking action role, seemingly forgetting that he is Adrien Brody. Alien vs. Predator is like 70 minutes long and pitted history’s two most violent aliens against each other under a PG-13 umbrella. But with Shane Black‘s updated take The Predator on the horizon, it’s worth taking a look back to see if there’s a single throughline that makes each Predator sequel so unworthy. Turns out, it’s pretty simple.
The original Predator is the only entry that works to scare you.
Do you know what it feels like to be hunted for sport? Not unless you’ve gotten too drunk with Jeff Bezos in a Tijuana bar you don’t. It’s a terrifying prospect that speaks to one of humanity’s most base fears, that the top of the food chain is suddenly a few rungs from the top. Predator drives that fear home. As Schwarzenegger’s Alan “Dutch” Schaefer and his elite military rescue squad—including Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and baby Shane Black himself—are stalked through the Central American jungle, we see it from a Predator’s-eye view. The thermal heat vision has almost become a self-parody at this point, but it works so well here because you don’t know what’s behind it. Director John McTiernan doesn’t show the Predator un-cloaked until almost an hour into the movie, and it’s almost another hour still until the “ugly motherfucker” reveal of the Predator’s face. In the meantime, McTiernan manages to turn the open jungle into a haunted house. Every leaf brush is a creak on the stairs, every broken branch a slamming door. As a result, you feel for the people being hunted because you can feel what it’s like to be hunted. The Predator was never meant to be a wise-cracker like Freddy Krueger or relentless boogeyman like Mike Myers; it’s a hunter, and what makes the Predator scary is that you don’t see it coming.
Predator 2 lost this thread immediately in the hopes of turning a Predator movie into an urban-action shoot-out. Swapping the literal jungle for a figurative one, original screenwriters Jim and John Thomas send the dreadlocked stalker to Los Angeles, where it systematically picks off both sides of a gang war. But the introduction of several subplots—Danny Glover as a 90’s cop who plays by his own rules, Gary Busey as an undercover alien hunter—means the Predator doesn’t so much stalk as it does show up. This isn’t to say that the Predator’s creature design isn’t dope; it’s one of the straight coolest looking monsters in history, and in both Predator and Predator 2 actor Kevin Peter Hall was able to imbue the massive suit’s movements with an eery amount of humanity. But the creature itself becomes such a less interesting character when we only see the end result of its work and not the process.
Which is a fact that dooms the Alien vs. Predator movies from the start. Maybe even more so than the Predator, the Alien franchise’s Xenomorph is a monster better seen less than felt. The AvP movies drag both creatures into the light and makes them fistfight, a story no more interesting than the two ugliest bullies on the playground kicking each other in the nuts for an hour-and-a-half. Alien vs. Predator—written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson—is the furthest the franchise has veered from the 1987 original. Any sense of suspense was replaced by the tamest of violence with the most stock of characters stuck in the middle, like cardboard cutouts getting sprayed with neon-green paint.
Director Nimród Antal‘s Predators at least takes things back to the jungle; not our jungle, but a Predator planet used as a game preserve. Despite the presence of the always-watchable Walton Goggins—who gets to say some extremely unfortunate 2010-style lines about rape—and an absolutely batshit turn by Laurence Fishburn, the problems with Predators is just more of the same. The film works to flesh out the monster as an entire species by introducing two warring tribes, one of which is clearly more “advanced” than the original 1987 Predator, but in doing so dilutes the franchise’s best aspect, the fear that comes from a mixture of isolation and helplessness. Predators melds together the problems of Predator 2 with the issues of AvP; we learn more about the monster in ways that makes the movie—and the franchise—less interesting to revisit on a human level.
So, with that, we look forward to The Predator, which Collider’s own Perri Nemiroff has called a “messy mixed bag.” Black is known for subverting every trope possible, with early word already painting The Predator as more of an action-comedy. What you want out of a Predator film in 2018 might vary, but it’s clear that since it first landed on Earth 31 years ago the franchise has struggled to find it’s voice, much less what it wants to be. Predator ended with the question “What the hell are you?” When it comes to the franchise as a whole, it’s a question that still doesn’t have an answer. If Shane Black, with all the tricks up his sleeve, can’t find it, maybe it’s time to call off the hunt for good.