At the start of The Predator, a battle between two predator ships in deep space ends with one vessel escaping through a wormhole to Earth, where it crash-lands in a Mexican forest. The ship is soon discovered by Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a black-ops American sniper in the midst of an assassination mission. Anticipating a cover-up, he steals some tech from the ship and mails it to his home as evidence before he’s apprehended by a secret organization devoted to studying predators. It’s some of the most fleet-footed work that director Shane Black, known for stretching out his scenes for the sake of exalting his characters’ loquaciousness, has ever done, leaning on insinuation and minimal dialogue to swiftly lay out the film’s premise.
Despite setting up an internecine conflict between aliens that’s spilled out onto our planet, the film finds that secret agency far more intimidating a force. In short order, Quinn is passed off as mentally ill and shipped off to a high-security facility. He’s a classic archetype, one of the best soldiers in his field, but also a believably normal character who responds to most threats with exasperated wisecracks. His witticisms are more than matched by the head of the research agency, Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who acts like a teenager playing around with advanced technology. When a civilian scientist, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), objects to calling the aliens predators, arguing that their status as trophy hunters makes them “more like bass fishermen,” he responds: “Yeah, well, we took a vote and predator sounded cooler.”
Eventually, the humans must contend with both the shipwrecked predator and another, larger specimen chasing it through space. Despite the human-like qualities of these aliens and their hunting methods, security personnel are supernaturally torn apart like paper when the predators ambush them, and soon both Quinn and Casey must contend with the hunters and Traeger’s group. The two quickly join forces, along with a group of soldiers being confined with Quinn for intense psychiatric evaluation. These characters are a menagerie of broad, flagrantly retrograde stereotypes, from Baxley (Thomas Jane), a vet with Tourette’s who’s prone to bursts of profanity, to Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), a suicidal officer who makes light of his mental illness.
The cast’s distinctiveness and endless quipping helps power The Predator through a number of instances of dodgy editing that gradually creep into the film after the concise first act. Curiously, the action here is mostly lucid, with logical shot progressions and coherent movement, but general scene-to-scene transitions are abrupt and occasionally baffling. In one scene, two characters who had just been with the entire group appear in the sky in a stolen helicopter, while elsewhere enemies emerge not so much in surprise attacks but in languid, almost casual intrusions into the frame. It’s as if the filmmakers cut together the best jokes with the most basic exposition, losing the organic connective tissue along the way for the sake of maximum utility.
This becomes especially jarring when the film has to fuse the frantic, paranoid movements of the fugitive soldiers with the inclusion of Quinn’s autistic son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who receives his father’s mailed loot and manages to decipher the predator’s language. Black peddles a simplistic depiction of autism, as Rory is seen as a child withdrawn and terrified by loud noises. But the boy falls comfortably enough into Black’s wheelhouse of ironic interests: here, the child who’s thrust into an adult scenario and ends up proving useful. Rory is also the star attraction in one of the Christmas-obsessed director’s patented holiday scenes, though the film notably cedes the stage to Halloween as a backdrop, most memorably in a trick-or-treat scene that culminates with a moment of bracingly funny violence.
The two plots converge in the final act when all of the predators on Earth seek out the stolen armor. Black ramps up the gore considerably as the vets and Traeger’s organization attempt to deal with the aliens, though it’s notable how much less viscerally satisfying the copious amounts of CGI blood here are compared to the truly nasty physicality of the carnage in the 1987 original. Nonetheless, Black indulges in a number of mordantly funny gags throughout, such as the bisected corpse of one unfortunate soul pouring blood over a camouflaged predator to reveal its outline, or an alien shooing away a suspicious human by sticking out a severed arm giving a thumbs up.
Even an act of noble sacrifice late in the film has a faintly goofy tone to it, reflective of Black’s streak of puckish nihilism. That attitude makes him a perfect fit for this franchise, which lost its thematic viciousness after the anti-imperialist original. Here, the heroes are a band of traumatized soldiers who find more glory attacking their own corrupt countrymen than foreign insurgents, and for all of the film’s blasé attitude toward violence, it darkly intimates that a good death is the best that some of these men can hope for.