In ‘The Predator’ The Aliens Are The Best Characters

This time around, the predators in The Predator are more alien than monster. In the original, and throughout the unexciting sequels, what steers the predators is simple: the hunt. Their singular motive is spare and creepy and the perfect platform for straightforward action, but it made them one-dimensional creatures. Monster rules. Monster simplicity.

This time, the predators are characters themselves with more discernible motives than the human factions vying to kill the predators or take control of their technology. Whatever its weaknesses, The Predator gets its titular aliens right, offering an overwhelming sampler of violent, extraterrestrial skirmishing that works more often than it doesn’t.

There’s a lot of story in The Predator (there’s a lot of everything in The Predator). The predators aren’t just collecting trophies when they rip out spines, they’re collecting DNA for hybridizing projects, creating more and more perfect hunters. Meanwhile, Predator society is experiencing an unspecified rift. The opening in space, with one predator ship under attack from another, establishes the battle lines that eventually lead to the arrival of the bigger, deadlier predator promised in the trailers. Also, there’s a bunch of gobbledygook about Asperger’s Syndrome being a superpower and the predators maybe colonizing after global warming wipes us out.

But while The Predator is chockablock with science-flavored infodumps (often left to Olivia Munn’s Casey Bracket, who does science stuff whenever she’s not accidentally shooting herself with a tranquilizer gun) and predator mythos-building, the actual story is fairly spare: a fugitive predator crashlands on Earth and is hunted by a team of alien hunters, a bus load of V.A. hospital psychiatric patients and a massive predator tracker sent to kill the fugitive and retrieve the technology he stole.

The Predator is the kind of movie where each character gives their name and a two-sentence bio within 30 seconds of their first appearance on-screen. Getting to know them beyond that is only occasionally gratifying. Trevante Rhodes as Nebraska Williams, a steady hand despite his suicidal tendencies, works well as a counterbalance to Boyd Holbrook’s more proactive sniper character, Quinn McKenna, who first sets off the predators’ attack on suburbia by mailing predator tech to his home address to prevent getting railroaded in a government cover-up.

The rest are more distractions than assets (and no, the kid, played by Jacob Tremblay, is far from the most annoying character). Keegan-Michael Key gets by on good comic timing, though even that’s strained. As for Baxley (Thomas Jane), well, hope you like Tourette’s jokes leftover from early-2000s South Park. The flat jokes are a strange misstep for writer-director Shane Black, who, between The Nice Guys, The Long Kiss Goodnight (and yeah, let’s throw Last Action Hero in there too), has a proven track record with quick-witted characters.

But really, it doesn’t matter if an action movie has a thin ensemble. Action movies like 2008’s Rambo work just fine with characters designed to breathe, then die. The problem comes when The Predator spends its middle in various safehouses, leaving free reign for this assemblage of dumb-dumbs to congregate. There must be 20 minutes in The Predatorwhich is otherwise hurtling, at full speed, from battle to battle— dedicated to college-grade riffing (It’s frequently sexual, though oddly innocent, more Hamburger: The Motion Picture than Van Wilder).

McKenna’s foil is the alien hunter Traeger, a mad scientist and black ops monstrosity, willing to kill at the drop of a hat. His real motives for chasing predators is never made entirely clear, but Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther, American Crime Story) attacks each line like Traeger’s job satisfaction is through the roof, like each new bit of sadism is the most fun he’s ever had, which makes up for whatever else is lacking in the vague collection of mercenary powers aligned against McKenna and his Loonies.

But the best character is the fugitive predator himself, who wakes up in an alien autopsy lab soon after being wounded by McKenna in a South American jungle. His escape is the highlight of The Predator, as he tears through soldiers and scientists in a whirlwind of bloody violence. Whether smashing a lab table in frustration or briefly picking up and wielding a human machine gun, the predator’s first big action sequence sets the bar far too high for the rest of the movie.

the-predator-2018 It doesn't get any better than this. 20th Century Fox

The introduction of a new, 11-foot tall, all-CGI predator can’t come close to the the tactile grittiness available to the rubber-suited fugitive alien clawing and leaping, or running down a dusty road from a bus full of hooting, shotgun-wielding maniacs. While the new predator is an oddly compelling character—he’s a dogged investigator, who slices through humans with an uncaring nonchalance—his action scenes eventually take on the generic patina of a Marvel Studios third act, crashing The Predator back into giant monster territory.

So much in The Predator that springs from the imaginations of Black and his co-writer Fred Dekker (Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps) feels like the work of people who put genuine thought into every cool and fun possibility the predator aliens can offer. Whatever its deficiencies, The Predator is too overstuffed to ever be boring and is loaded with small, playful touches that put it far ahead of any other Predator sequel.