Equal parts popcorn flick, meme machine and Vietnam allegory, Predator remains the apex of ’80s action – even after lacklustre sequels have hacked at its mystique. We explore the franchise traps that prequel Prey must dodge to be a worthy successor.
Predator is one of those rare masterpieces that everybody likes. And that’s because there are a million different ways to watch it. Depending on your prerogative, you can see it as an all-guns-blazing action flick, a genuinely suspenseful thriller, a gore-loaded slasher film and/or a pertinent metaphor for the US’s involvement in Vietnam. All hammered into your memory by a deluge of Schwarzenegger one-liners.
It’s a masterstroke that, as the past 35 years have taught us, cannot be replicated. So why does 20th Century Fox keep trying again and again and again? Oh, money. Right.
At the time of writing, Predator has been followed by three full-blooded sequels and two Alien crossovers, which range in quality from passable to crimes against humanity, and a prequel called Prey is just days away. With the once-great Predator name now limping its way into the 2020s, it’s easy to write the new entry off as dead on arrival. However, there’s hope – all Prey has to do is not mess this opportunity up.
As facetious as it sounds, coming up with a good Predator follow-up shouldn’t be anywhere near as hard as it has been. Let’s look back at that testosterone-soaked classic. What would people want to see again? Well, the Predator, obviously. But we’d need to see it bigger, badder and better, since its dignity was dented by the future governor of California handing his ass to him. This means the gore and grisly kills come back as well, and they return in much more impressive and creative doses.
Beyond that, Predator’s narrative arc isn’t one you can use again and again. It’s a mystery film that gradually unfolds, teasing more and more about its antagonist until the climax finally reveals the mandible-faced monstrosity. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Return to that format of slow-pace hints with the same villain and you’ll almost instantly get an audience gazing at their phones, fully aware of the payoff and unwilling to waste 90 minutes of their lives to get it all over again in a new coat of paint.
This is where Predator 2 went wrong. It changed all the wrong things. What we should have got was a sequel that switched up the Predator’s role, in much the same way Aliens transformed the Alien. It feels cheap to compare the two franchises given the intersections between them (and we’ll get to them), but Alien positioned its titular baddie in the same way Predator did its own: as a near-invisible, unstoppable murder machine. And Aliens maintained the intrigue not by going back to the same well, but by subjecting us to the horror of a fully fledged swarm and jumping ship to the action genre.
Predator 2, to its credit, changed its backdrop to the urban dystopia of, umm, 1997 Los Angeles, and gave us Danny Glover and a hunting party of Predators. The problem is that that’s all window dressing: the Predator is still a shady, long-distance sports hunter and Glover’s role is the exact same as that of Schwarzenegger’s in the original. Combine that with writing and directing that just isn’t as good as John McTiernan and Jim and John Thomas’s respectively and you have a recipe for tedium. As a result, Predator 2 made half as much money as Predator at the box office and reviews welcomed it with the kind of warmth usually reserved for war criminals.
Next: 2004. Alien vs Predator. Oh dear. To its credit, Paul W.S. Anderson’s action/horror crossover does indeed alter the Predator’s narrative role, changing it from an all-out villain to an anti-heroic supporting character out to eliminate the irredeemably savage Alien threat. And the silent interactions between the Predator and the lone human survivor, Lex, are far and away the film’s greatest achievements, showcasing the devising of battle plans and a growing mutual respect without any dialogue. It’s all exclusively visual and it’s genius. It’s just everything else that sucks.
At its core, Alien vs Predator is still just a slasher flick. Everybody knows the characters are nothing more than a body count waiting to happen, each getting killed off before we’ve had any chance to invest in them. Compare that to the bold personalities and one-liners of the original Predator and it can’t hold up. Also, for the third time in a row, every Predator that’s engaged in combat has died by the end of the film. This supposedly high-tech warrior race is starting to look like it couldn’t hunt a dodo given the chance.
Somehow, Aliens vs Predator: Requiem was worse. At points, it is genuinely a challenge to call it a “film”. The word means moving images projected onto a screen, and there is so much indistinguishable blackness that it’s more akin to a slideshow of shadows. The characters are even less memorable than last time as well. That said, when you can see what he’s up to, this Predator – “Wolf”, named after the clean-up guy Harvey Keitel plays in Pulp Fiction – is very good at his job. But then both it and every Alien on screen dies at the hands of a government nuclear bomb. A waste of time in every conceivable sense.
2010’s Predators is the closest we get to a worthy Predator followup. Adrien Brody leads an ensemble cast, each playing mercenaries abducted to the Predators’ planet-wide game reserve for the galaxy’s deadliest hunt. The roster of Predators hunting our heroes expands to three, although a subplot of an intraspecies war and the Predator we’ve all come to recognise getting massacred by some new, stronger variant ends up going nowhere.
It’s an issue dramatically worsened by Shane Black’s 2018 sequel The Predator. Again, for some reason, the OG Predator abruptly looks weak against some new evolutionary spin-off, when all anyone wants is the original villain to finally look threatening for the first time since 1987.
Having starred in the film that started it all, you’d think writer/director Shane Black would have steered Predator back on course. While he did cram his script with quips, they were more frequently misguided jabs than they were likeable, friendly roasts. Also, there’s a subplot about autistic people being the next evolution of humankind, which, needless to say, stirred controversy like a hyperactive witch at her cauldron.
There’s a three-and-a-half-decade-long string of guides on what not to do and, re-exploring it, the golden rule is to keep the Predator imposing, but do it in a new environment with a new narrative. Prey – set in 1700s America – is already refreshing the locale. However, it needs a great story that uses the creature in new but still-chilling ways to avoid being yet another trip to the doldrums.
A good sequel to Predator is far from impossible. It’s just that nailing it – much like conquering the hunter itself – is elusive, difficult and doing being unfazed by the piles of dead failures that came before.
Prey is streaming on Disney+ from 5th August.