The Predator

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Fred Dekker, Shane Black


There’s a moment in the third act of The Predator I keep returning to that aptly demonstrates the movie’s fatal flaw. It’s when the hulking Predator ambushes the rag-tag group of misfit heroes in the middle of a forest. One major character, played by one of the movie’s top-billed actors, attempts to use a repurposed alien weapon against the fiend, only to accidentally incinerate himself instead. The problem with this scene is that I had absolutely no idea it had even happened. It wasn’t until a later scene, as soon as I had noticed that the character in question was missing, that I realised he had been killed. Even then, I hadn’t a clue how it had happened. The scene was so shrouded in darkness and edited so awkwardly, it was all but impossible to make heads or tails of anything during that ambush. The only reason I now know the manner of this character’s death at all is because I read the movie’s synopsis on Wikipedia in preparation for writing this review. That’s what it all comes down to; the movie’s problem isn’t just that the story makes no sense or that the characters feel underdeveloped or that the tone is so inconsistent, it’s that filmmaking is so grossly incompetent for a director whom I know knows how to make a coherent, entertaining film.

Shane Black has made several choices in making this film that could be regarded as questionable, not least of which was casting a mate he knew to be a registered sex offender in a minor part and neglecting to tell his cast, and it baffles me that the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys could make a movie this inept. It feels like there was originally a four-hour cut of the movie that somebody attacked with a machete in the editing room, so haphazard are the action sequences. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the scenes are shot at night with a bland colour scheme that makes the mise-en-scéne look largely muddled to the viewer’s eye. The constant, aimless editing however is what makes it so difficult to keep track of the visual geography and the driving actions behind the individual shots to the point that an important development happened before my very eyes without me even noticing. This isn’t the only time this happens either. There are dozens of story gaps and optical blurs scattered throughout the story, most of which would not be in and of themselves detrimental to the film had they been isolated occurrences. That they are constantly happening throughout the film means that they add up and contribute towards creating a hectically chaotic viewing experience.

The plot is similarly disjointed with entire story beats that whiz by so quickly, you’ll wonder whether you dozed off for a few minutes and just woke up. Things kick off when a Predator spaceship crash-lands on Earth. Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) encounters the surviving Predator and his whole unit is wiped out. He escapes with some of the alien’s technology and, convinced he’ll need to keep the evidence out of the government’s hands lest they take him in and try to silence him, he mails the Predator’s mask and wrist cannon to his home in the suburbs. Only it’s not really his home these days. Quinn’s estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) lives there with their autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rory, a troubled kid who gets bullied at school but also a prodigy, discovers the content of his father’s package and is soon able to work out how the technology works. In the process however he accidentally summons a group of Predators, a scouting party in search of the equipment’s original owner, to his hometown where R-rated havoc is soon to ensue.

Quinn meanwhile is taken into custody by the government, whose plan is to lock him up with all the other undesirables and throw away the keys. Thus he ends up with a crew up of weirdoes and ne’er-do-wells who all have similar problems with rules and authority figures. There’s the insubordinate Nebraska (Tervante Rhodes), the verbal diarrhoeic Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the foul-mouthed (because he has Tourrete syndrome) Baxley (Thomas Jane), the British Lynch (Alfie Allen) and the awkward conversationalist Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). As he’s being dealt with, famed biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) comes to the facility to study the captured Predator under the direction of government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown). The Predator breaks free and slaughters its way out of the lab. Quinn and the Loonies take advantage of the chaos to team up and make their own escape, picking up Dr. Bracket on the way, and make for Quinn’s family home so that they can collect the equipment and plan their next move. There they learn that Rory has gone out with the Predator’s armour and that the alien hunter is hot on his trail. R-rated havoc ensues.

The movie takes several leaps in getting us from Point A to Point B to Point C and such leaps are usually permissible in movies when they skimp over minor details without much bearing over the plot and allow room for the audience to catch up. Watching The Predator though is like trying to keep up with a runaway train blindfolded. While the movie does oftentimes leave out details that contribute nothing to the story and would otherwise serve to pad the runtime, there are other leaps that omit fundamental story and character details that are never made clear to us. The movie’s failure is its inability to distinguish between the two. For example, one inconsequential leap in the story takes place when most of the characters have fled to a barn and are planning their next move. A group is sent out to explore a little and the next time we see them is when they arrive in an RV to rescue everybody else from the danger that’s just caught up with them. Where did they get the RV? We never find out and, while slightly distracting, we honestly don’t really need to know; we can use our own imaginations to figure that one out. But then we later realise that two of the characters share a certain bromantic relationship that was never made clear and it feels like the movie skipped a scene or two somewhere along the way that would have established this point. These two characters are so poorly established that I wasn’t even sure if they were genuinely supposed to come across as a gay couple (which would have been awesome considering that gung-ho army renegades are never allowed to be gay) or as simply brothers in arms.

This is an issue that most of these characters suffer from. The movie operates under the impression that these are all fully fleshed-out characters whose fates we are supposed to be invested in yet never puts in the time for establishment and development, opting instead for dirty one-liners and banter. Olivia Munn’s Dr. Bracket more or less wanders into the film without any kind of introduction and simply goes straight down to business as if we’re supposed to already know what her personality and motivation is. I now know this to be the consequence of Shane Black cutting out her introduction as it took place in the scene that had Munn paired up with Steve Wilder Striegel, the friend who was convicted some years ago for making sexual advances at a 14-year-old girl. This part of the movie was quickly and indiscriminately cut out in response to Munn’s justified outrage and the backlash she inspired and the consequence is that her character gets the short shrift. Her story kicks off without the set-up it needs to get started and it is only through Munn’s talents that any semblance of character comes through in the end. That this edit, the consequence of Black’s poor judgement in his casting decision and the studio’s seeming ignorance, was done so hastily and carelessly and affects the overall story so fundamentally is symptomatic I think of just how slapdash the whole movie feels.

This is all a huge shame because on paper Shane Black would appear to be the perfect choice to direct a Predator movie (he even had a minor role in the 1987 movie) and there are instances where you see glimpses of the movie that could have been. When the action is actually intelligible, it’s pretty good, gory fun. As well as delivering some solid action, the movie also gets some pretty entertaining performances out of its actors, most notably Brown who plays the immature, obnoxious Traegar with the demented glee of a bloodthirsty, die-hard 80s action movie fanboy who couldn’t wait until the bullets started firing. His motivation is an unknown entity, as with most of these characters, but at least he’s a lot of fun to watch. Rhodes and Key also have some good moments and feel right at home playing these happy-go-lucky psychopaths delivering Black’s trademark zingers. I’m less convinced by Jane’s Baxley; the movie appears to making a sincere effort to be more inclusive by giving one of its character Tourettes, and yet all of the jokes that emerge from this trait are at his expense so I’m not sure what exactly they were going for. The movie runs into a similar problem with Rory and the apparent insinuation that his autism is some kind of evolutionary superpower. The weakest link though is Holbrook who, between this movie and Narcos, I’ve yet to be convinced by as a leading man. Here he’s playing your typically tough, bland, noble-hearted jerk without any of the charisma that Schwarzenegger and Glover brought back when they helmed this franchise.

The movie has plenty of cool ideas, as in one scene where Black pays tribute to E.T. by having Rory go out trick-or-treating wearing the Predator’s mask or the scene where Traegar explains to Dr. Bracket why they opted to call a murderous alien who hunts for sport a ‘Predator’, but they are few and far in between. The movie has far too many ideas that don’t work; there are sub-plots that don’t go anywhere, jokes that don’t land, motivations that never manifest, and elements that feel like they were added arbitrarily without any clarity or purpose. Black bungles what should have been a match made in heaven, making for a movie that neither excites, amuses nor moves. It’s tempting to suppose that much of what went wrong with this movie could be attributed to studio meddling and forced franchising (and, yes, there are certainly parts of the movie, including a stupid ending, that indicate the studio has every intention of franchising this property), but Black’s questionable judgement in the scandal that emerged around this picture suggests to me that the movie had plenty of problems of its own. The Predator is an ill-executed mess of a movie that never managed to figure out where it wanted to go or what it wanted to be.

★★

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Moonlight

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali

Director: Barry Jenkins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


Moonlight is such a complex and conceptual film that I hardly know how to even begin describing it. To say that this is a coming-of-age story about the life of a gay, black, working-class boy barely even scratches the surface. On a broader level the film is about what it means to be black and gay in America today and depicts such socially relevant issues as drug abuse, incarceration and schoolboy violence, but to call this movie a comment on the world we live in undermines the personal and artistic elements at work. In many ways this movie is more about the mood and tone and the individual moments that play out in the successive chapters. It is a character study, a social commentary, and an abstract exploration of art and emotion. The film is a beautiful, intimate personal tale telling the real-life story of a young man’s struggle for identity and it is also a visual poem, spoken through light, music, and expressions. It is all of those things and more and is without question one of the best films of 2016.

Told in three chapters, each entitled with his given name at the time, Moonlight tells the story of a poor, sexually conflicted African-American boy living in Florida with Paula (Naomie Harris), his drug addicted mother. First we see him as Little (Alex Hibbert), a withdrawn ten-year-old getting picked on by bullies. It is at this age that he befriends Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), who provide him with advice and comfort to help him navigate through his turbulent life. In the second chapter he is Chiron (Ashton Sanders), an introverted teenager whose abuse at the hands of the bullies has become more unbearable and violent. His childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a cocky womaniser, is his greatest source of comfort at this time but is also a source of emotional and sexual confusion for him. Finally, as a young adult in chapter three, we see him as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a bulked up drug dealer living in Atlanta. Having seemingly left his past behind him, a phone call from a grown-up Kevin (André Holland) brings it all flooding back.

The defining theme of Moonlight seems to me to be identity. Throughout his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Chiron is trying to figure out his place in the world and is tormented by conflicting ideas of sexuality and masculinity. As a kid, before he’s even old enough to understand the concept of homosexuality, the other boys sense something ‘different’ and ‘soft’ about him and punish him for it. As a teenager, as his confused desires start to manifest themselves, the bullying intensifies. Although Chiron is able to explore his sexuality in one of the film’s most delicate scenes, he is still at a vulnerable age where he lacks the support or the confidence to accept the way he is. Thus, when he is later taught in the harshest, most brutal way that the way he feels is contrary to what a man is ‘supposed’ to be, it’s a lesson he takes to heart. The next time we see him, his fear, rage, and self-loathing, have driven him to shape himself into the supposed archetype of African-American masculinity. He is a macho, physically dominant, violent man who has suppressed the part of himself that defies what he has been taught represents manhood.

Equally painful and agonising is his complicated relationship with his abusive, drug-addicted mother. As her addiction grows and her desperation increases, so does her son’s suffering increase. The drug trade in this area is controlled by Juan and Paula is one of his best customers. So when Juan starts to look out for Chiron, inviting him over for meals, teaching him valuable skills and lessons, and just spending time with him, their bond is sullied by the awareness that Juan is partly to blame for Chiron’s wretched home life. To view Juan as simply a surrogate-father is to simplify his character. He is a well-meaning man who sees something good in Chiron and wants to help him, but he is also a questionable role model whose influence and relationship with the young boy has as much of a toxic affect on Chiron (not only as evidenced by his mother but also by Chiron’s career as an adult) as much as a comforting one. This is only one of the ways in which Jenkins is able to bring humanity to a character and challenge what could very easily have been a stereotype

The story with its characters is fascinating and compelling enough, but the poetry of it all comes from the artistry Jenkins brings. Through sensual camera movements, rich and radiant colours and a subtle yet expressive score, the film creates a breathtaking, dream-like atmosphere. The chapters thus feel less like narratives and more like evocations, justifying the time-jumping structure the film adopts. The screenplay as well is marvellous, both in what it says and leaves unsaid. This is aided by the astounding performances provided by the ensemble, from Ali’s strong charisma to Harris’ desolate naturalism to the wonderfully expressive turns by each of the actors playing Chiron. As a character Chiron is shy, quiet, and unassuming, so it is a testament to Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes that we get such a comprehensive picture of his inner-turmoil. Whether it’s the knowing gaze of a child who finally understands the relationship between his mother and his father-figure, the nervous glance between two young men who feel an undeniable yet taboo attraction between them, and most of all in the final scenes, the film is filled with silences that speak volumes.

There is so much to say about Moonlight and I have no doubt it is a film that will be studied for decades to come. Moonlight is a landmark in both LGBTQ and racial cinema and yet its themes are so universal and so resonant that any attempt to categorise it would prove inadequate. The film is just too challenging and open-ended. Moonlight is simply a great film, one of the true masterpieces of the 21st century. It is a film of profound pain and sadness but also of beauty and affection. By the end, after years of pain, torment and suffering, Chiron finally attains a greater understanding of himself and of the world and may very well have found a future of hope and freedom. Moonlight is an utterly heartrending, moving film that provides a thoughtful, mesmerising window into Chiron’s very soul and consciousness. Watching his growth, progress and struggle is a deeply poignant and heartbreaking experience that only the finest, most ingenious works of art can create.

★★★★★