Shane Black reboots the “Predator” franchise, which began with a splashy video-game-style horror movie in 1987 and was last heard from with “Predators” in 2010, as a big, loud, snarky, garish, testosterone-saturated, nearly incoherent cartoon. The original was an attempt to replicate the success of the “Alien” movies, the second of which had arrived only a year earlier (and the creature in which was then conjoined to the new series in “Alien vs. Predator” and “Aliens vs. Predators”). “The Predator,” as Black’s movie is called, goes back to the source, resembling the John McTiernan-Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (in which Black himself appeared in a minor role) in being a pretty simple pursuit-and-resistance story. But it’s played out on a much larger scale than its eighties inspiration—ironically, to lesser effect.
In an opening reminiscent of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” though far gaudier (the similarity accentuated by Henry Jackson’s John Williams-like fanfares), two alien ships burst through a colorful space barrier and head for earth, the smaller pursued by the larger. On the ground in Mexico, American sniper Quinn McKenna (Boy Holbrook) is concealed in some trees, awaiting the arrival of drug dealers and their hostages, presumably to free the latter. Just as he’s about to shoot, the smaller ship crashes, and a creature emerges that takes out the rest of his squad.
McKenna not only survives but scoops up a bunch of alien gear—a helmet, an armored glove and a small, shiny orb. Going to a bar in a nearby village, he swallows the orb and packages up the rest, mailing it off to his estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), who’s playing single mom to their son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rory’s bullied at school because he falls somewhere on the Asberger’s spectrum, but actually he’s a pint-sized genius, and when daddy’s box arrives, he assumes it contains video games. So he begins investigating the stuff, even wearing the red-eyed helmet to go trick-or-treating.
Meanwhile biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) is invited by the feds to a secret installation where she’s introduced—by smiling scientist Keyes (Jake Busey, no less, whose prominent teeth almost rival those of the aliens)—to the ship’s occupant, the Predator, which has been captured by ruthless government agent Traeger (Sterling K. Brown)—only the most recent of such visitors, he tells her.
It just so happens that McKenna has been taken into custody and brought along with a bunch of other troubled and troublesome guys McKenna will call the Loonies—smooth Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), motor-mouth Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), sputtering Baxley (Thomas Jane), intense Lynch (Alfie Allen) and creepy Nettles (Augusto Aguilerra, looking rather like Jack Sparrow)—to the very same facility. What a coincidence!
Naturally the Predator escapes and McKenna and the Loonies—with Casey tagging along—go after it. The pursuit takes them to the McKenna homestead, where the Predator has arrived in search of his belongings, and mayhem results, exacerbated when an even larger alien appears, along with his monstrous tracking dogs, to do battle with the first one.
What’s going on? From later exposition, it will be explained that the smaller alien is a traitor to his race, bringing something to earth with which humanity can defend itself from his kind, and his bigger brother wants it back. (That sets the stage for a major final reveal, presaging a sequel.) In any event, their confrontation results in much mayhem, followed by a madcap journey back to the large alien ship, where a protracted face-off including Agent Traeger is staged. The episode contains plenty of plastic gore, luminescent green blood, and acts of derring-do that would be too ridiculous even for a panel in a comic strip (humans standing atop a space ship as it speeds through the air, anyone?). It’s all terribly important, though, because little Rory’s fate hangs in the balance.
There’s a throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-then-toss-the-sink-in-too quality to Shane’s gaudy, wacked-out, nonsensical concoction. McKenna, played by Holbrook as a typically rebellious bad boy, is adept tossing out snide macho barbs, but that’s not enough: the non-stop juvenile jibes of the incessantly hyperactive Loonies are certain to extract bursts of laughter from the adolescent-minded too. The action is pretty constant, but despite lots of deaths, it’s all staged for quick gasps rather than prolonged immersions in actual gore. Indeed there’s a sort of childlike eighties sensibility to the whole business, down to the subplot about a sweet little boy in jeopardy and the spunky female scientist who takes no guff from anybody: the genial, over-the-top character of the whole thing feels fundamentally retrograde.
Still, it’s done up with all the polish today’s technical crews can muster, although nobody involved appears to have desired the slightest hint of realism to slip in. The aliens are like Harryhausen creations much better rendered than the stop-motion master could ever hope to manage; they’re ugly, all right, but more designed to shock briefly rather than horrify (as the creature from “Alien” definitely were).
You have to hand it to Black: he knows how to keep things moving breathlessly (aided by the editing of Harry B. Miller III and Billy Weber), and together with cinematographer Larry Fong choreographs the action sequences so that they don’t turn into a complete muddle, even in the darkness. He encourages the entire cast to act broadly, adding to the cartoonish atmosphere, and together with Fred Dekker (whose 1986 “Night of the Creeps” was even spoofier than this) provides them with plenty of jokey banter. Production designer Martin Whist adds to the glitzy atmosphere of flashing computer screens and glowing dials, and the visual effects team under Jonathan Rothbart bring what must have been Marvel-like storyboards to a kind of life. Jackman’s big, brassy score adds to the sense of old-fashioned abandon, too.
Ultimately, though, “The Predator” has all the entertainment value of an arcade game. It’s put together with professional polish, but comes off as just a slam-bang popcorn movie with the emptiest of heads. In a season when “The Meg” becomes a smash, though, that might be enough to satisfy a lot of viewers.