HEAT VISION

Is 'Predator' Finally Getting a Worthy Sequel?

Director Shane Black may come through for a franchise that's never had an acclaimed follow-up like 'Aliens' or 'Terminator 2.'
Courtesy of Photofest
Director Shane Black may come through for a franchise that's never had an acclaimed follow-up like 'Aliens' or 'Terminator 2.'

When we think of the sci-fi action films that helped define the '80s and went on to spawn decades-running franchises, we typically think of The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987). They form a trifecta of muscular, diesel-driven creature features, all featuring the work of the late special effects wizard Stan Winston. The fraternity in which these films often find themselves in is of course a result of the work of Winston, the direction of James Cameron and the affability of supporting actor Bill Paxton, who had the distinction of playing a role in one film from each franchise. But it was also the popularity of the Dark Horse comics that spun off from these films and created an interconnected universe, long before such concepts were made popular by blockbuster movies, that have kept these properties in the conversation. These films are inextricably linked, and while each of these franchises have seen their ups and downs, both critically and in terms of box office, they have always managed to get back up and survive another day. The optimism attached to the Tim Miller’s 2019 Terminator sequel, the hope that Ridley Scott will have a chance to conclude his Alien prequel series, and the enthusiasm that was met with this week’s teaser trailer for The Predator are proof of these properties' ability to always find themselves within the pop cultural zeitgeist, regardless of the decade.

Two of these franchises, Terminator and Alien, have grown to include increasingly complex mythology, with mixed results. Only the Predator sequels have remained largely unchanged since John McTiernan’s original 1987 film. Despite being the only franchise not to have a central returning hero, the Predator films have remained somewhat static. This is ironic given the titular creatures' ability to adapt to their surroundings and the time in which they find themselves. Unlike the Terminator and Alien films, Predator has never had a bad sequel. Sure, it’s arguable that none of the sequels ever matched the quality of the 1987 Schwarzenegger vehicle, but it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that Predator 2 (1990) and Predators (2010) are good, if somewhat unambitious sequels. New mythology is added in drops rather than the flood of new information that surrounds the Terminators and Xenomorphs with each new entry. But perhaps, it’s not a more complex backstory that the Predator needs, but a more complex voice. Enter Shane Black.

Black’s first credited acting gig was in 1987’s Predator, where he played comic relief, Hawkins, and the first of the Special Forces unit to meet his end at the hands of the Predator. Black’s history with the franchise is a neat factor when it comes to him directing the latest entry, The Predator, but it’s his voice as a screenwriter and filmmaker that’s more exciting than his acting history. Breaking out with his screenplay for Lethal Weapon (1987), Black helped define '80s and '90s action movies through The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero (1993) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). What made his films different from the other breakout action movies of that era is how he deconstructed the emotional stability and physical invincibility of his leads. Lethal Weapon saw Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) struggling with suicidal thoughts and an inclination towards self-harm. The Last Boy Scout’s Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) tackles the bitterness of trying to be a moral center in a world that has rejected the very notion of it, even at the highest level of government. The Long Kiss Goodnight examines the duality of career and motherhood through Samantha Caine (Geena Davis). Although there are aspects of the filmmaking that may feel dated now, Black’s writing largely remains as sharp and contemporary as ever. The topical nature of Black’s films only continued when he began his career as a director in the 21st century. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013), and The Nice Guys (2016) each turn the pulp genre on its head while simultaneously making audiences care about these characters because their personal journeys are given greater precedence over what conventional storytelling says protagonists of these films should.

When Predator was first conceived by screenwriters Jim and John Thomas, it was as sci-fi pulp film entitled Hunter. Producer Joel Silver saw its potential as a big-budget star property, which worked out well with Schwarzenegger in the lead despite originally mixed reactions. But when Schwarzenegger, who was one of Hollywood’s biggest draws at the time, refused to return for the more expensive sequel directed by Nightmare on Elm Street 5’s Stephen Hopkins, Predator 2 failed to be the box office draw of the first film ($57.1 million compared to the first film’s $98.3 million, not counting inflation). By the time the third film, Predators, rolled around twenty years later, the pool had already been sullied by two Alien vs Predator films (2004 and 2007) that had failed to catch on. While Nimrod Antal’s Predators was meant to immediately reinvigorate the franchise, it’s $127.2 million box office take wasn’t enough momentum to get the hunt started again. Just below the surface of these sequels are some interesting elements of humanity’s infatuation with violence and gun ownership, particularly in the Los Angeles-set Predator 2. But the stakes largely remain unchanged, with the climaxes being built around humanity’s survival thanks to violence rather than considering why the Predator’s violent nature comes so close to mankind’s own. This question seems like something Black, who has become increasingly invested in how the politics and policies of violence shape our legacy, will undoubtedly explore.

Black, who joined The Predator in 2014 after the success of Iron Man 3, will maintain the continuity of the previous films and build off of the existing, though slight, mythology. The franchise’s pulp origins are the perfect space for Black, who has made his directorial career out of elevating pulpy subject matters. Beyond that, Black can do what none of the previous Predator films have managed: make us care about the characters. Antal’s film came close, but it still exists within the sphere of the first two films where these characters are personality types, defined by their consistency and ability to be cannon fodder. The humans in these films have never managed to be more interesting than the monster. The Predator’s teaser trailer focuses on the human characters, suggesting that Black will finally create a Predator film that truly feels built on emotional stakes, with characters who have more potential than simply existing on the course they’ve been set on from call sheets.

The Predator doesn’t feel like just another reboot, or an attempt by 20th Century Fox to cash in on a recognizable IP. It has all the potential of being a film with a vision that could make us reconsider the property, and offer a new chapter that doesn’t just settle for good, but great. Despite its relationship to those aforementioned franchises, The Predator series has never had its Aliens or Terminator 2 (1991), the sequel that breaks new ground by simultaneously thrilling us and tugging at our heart strings. Given Black’s abilities, he’s going to tug hard, but most importantly, he’s going to surprise us. Because despite everything we think we know about what Black has in store, he’s proven time and again that we’ll never see him coming.

  • Richard Newby
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