Are all men by nature monsters? What makes a human being any more than just a killing machine? Is survival of the fittest really the only form of morality in a chaotic world?
These are pretty weighty questions – not exactly what you expect to find in your average shoot-’em-up summer movie. But “Predators”, the latest installment in a franchise that dates back to the ’80s, somehow manages to address them – a philosophical twist that elevates it above many other films in its genre. Never having seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original “Predator,” I had no expectations going into this movie. I was hoping to see an intense, suspenseful, machismo-heavy action film. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it not only met my expectations…it exceeded them.
“Predators” begins with a group of hardened killers falling from the sky onto an alien planet. They come from all walks of life – a Yakuza mobster, a Mexican cartel enforcer, an executioner from Sierra Leone, a death row inmate, a Russian Spetznaz commando, etc. Ex-military mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) quickly assumes the role of leader, backed up by Israeli Defense Force sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga). Apparently out of place is doctor Edwin (Topher Grace) who doesn’t seem to have the murderous history of the others. They quickly realize that they’re all inside an alien hunting preserve – and they are the game.
Cue the Predators – seven-foot-tall armored behemoths with highly advanced cloaking and infrared vision technology. The Predators have been using this planet as a means of testing their skills against Earth’s best killers, and they intend to hunt down the humans one by one. At this point, it would have been easy to let the film slip into the obvious “and-then-there-were-none” plot structure, throwing legitimate plot development to the wind in favor of gory kills. But fortunately, producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal toss in a few unique twists that makes “Predators” a little more memorable than others of its ilk.
For starters, the film answers the question. “What would long-term exposure to constant fear and killing do to a person’s mind?” Laurence Fishburne briefly appears as Noland, the psychologically warped survivor of a previous Predator killing spree.. His chilling performance evokes the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” – an individual who has abandoned the standards of civilization and embraced primitive savagery. Viewers are left to wonder whether he was really deranged from the start, or whether the constant imminence of death has brought out the beast within.
The fundamentally haunting question of the film is “Are we any different from the Predators?” And this theme pervades the entire film. At one point late in the movie, Royce is prepared to abandon an injured comrade to the Predators, using him as bait to draw the aliens. A horrified Isabelle chastises him with the question “Aren’t you human?” “No,” Royce growls. “I’m alive.” Which begs the question…if his only moral standard is the survival instinct, what makes him any different than the giant monsters hunting them?
Once again, it would have been very easy for the filmmakers to embrace convention and make Royce into a classic antihero – a hardened warrior who sacrifices everything in order to survive. But in a particularly gratifying turn, the movie ultimately rejects the concept of utilitarian ethics – using people as merely means to an end – in favor of compassion, honor, and self-sacrifice. This affirmation of conventional morality makes the dramatic ending especially satisfying, and left me feeling good as I left the theater.
From a technical standpoint, the film is reasonably well-made. The Predators are actual human beings in costumes, not CGI creations, which gives the film an element of visceral realism. Everything doesn’t feel like it was done in front of a green screen, which makes for a much more pleasant viewing experience. I should mention that the acting (with the exception of Grace and Fishburne) is fairly weak…there’s not a lot of time spent investing in characters that are going to be killed off. Brody tries hard to embrace his new “action-hero” role, but is never perfectly comfortable in that position. (I have difficulty getting rid of my perception of him as a “sensitive” actor…it’s kind of like what would happen if Colin Firth tried to portray Batman.)
The movie also does a remarkable job of catering to its target demographic – males between the ages of 18 and 25. This is not a movie that most girls will enjoy – it’s very much a masculine empowerment movie, and I found myself occasionally grinning at the sheer macho-ness of it. Even the Predators themselves look like they’ve been pulled from a video game, pumped full of muscle-builder formula, and and then fitted with “Star Wars” castoff equipment.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with “Predators” is the fact that it is an R-rated sci-fi/horror film, with everything that necessarily involves. While much of the violence is directed against alien creatures (about three-quarters of the gore in the movie is glowing green Predator blood), there are still some shockingly graphic moments – including one particularly gruesome scene that had me cringing in my seat. And not all of the violence is between humans and aliens – humans do some pretty grisly things to each other as well. People end up getting killed with bullets, blades, energy weapons, grenades, mines, and claws…usually with plenty of bloodshed. (There’s also a lot of unnecessary language – 40-50 f-words throughout the course of the movie.) This is by no means a movie for anyone under 17 or 18 – it’s dark, intense, and at times pretty disturbing.
So, is it worth watching?
Many people would not like this movie. It’s not a film for the sensitive or easily disturbed – and most members of the female gender will dismiss it outright as a “guy thing.” And it is, in some ways. But it’s also a tightly plotted action film that isn’t afraid to address important questions – questions that can lead to a discussion of the nature of man, and what it is that makes humans more than merely “predators.” And that, in my mind, is a step forward for this genre.
A dark, compelling blend of sci-fi, action, and suspense – with a philosophical touch that differentiates it from others of its kind.
Normalized Score: 5.8
WARNING: “Predators” is rated R for strong creature violence and gore, and pervasive language. This film contains graphic brutal violence, disturbing content, and strong language throughout. NOT recommended for viewers under 17.