The Predator (2018)

Everything about The Predator makes it sound like it’s exactly My Thing. Director Shane Black’s most recent feature, The Nice Guys, is one of my favorite comedies in recent memory. His 1987 collaboration with screenwriter Frank Dekker, The Monster Squad, was a personally formative introduction to classic horror tropes & monsters for me as a young child. The original Predator film (in which Black appeared as an actor in a minor role) isn’t exactly my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, but is still a wonderfully tense, over-the-top sci-fi creature feature with an incredible monster design. Black’s latest sequel to that action-horror milestone even participates in a suburban-invasion monster movie trope that I’m always a sucker for, making me far more forgiving than most audiences for little-loved films like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Strange Invaders, and even Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. That’s why it’s so baffling that The Predator is likely the worst experience I’ve had with a movie all year, a total letdown.

After the laugh-a-minute slapstick violence of The Nice Guys, the last thing I expected from The Predator was to relive my discomfort watching the Deadpool movies. The same performatively #edgy, coldly sarcastic, Gen-X throwback humor that makes Deadpool so exhaustingly unfunny is rampant here, with Black & Dekker indulging in their worst impulses as provocateur humorists who believe they’re pushing the envelope of Political Incorrectness but at this point are only reinforcing the status quo. The difference is that watching Deadpool with a live audience is an alienating experience where everyone in the room Gets The Joke but you, whereas The Predator’s humor falls flat with the entire room. Jokes about “Assburgers,” Tourette’s, “loonies,” and men named Gaylord play to laughless, stony silence. An extensive bit where Olivia Munn must strip naked to escape death is only made more uncomfortable by extratextual reports of the actor’s anger over been tricked into working with an undisclosed sexual predator in the cast (in a since-deleted scene). The problem isn’t that this style of juvenile shock humor is too offensive or tasteless to be enjoyed in public. It’s that it has become so old-fashioned that it’s too hacky to be funny.

A UFO crashes, releasing a Predator at the edge of the suburbs. The government attempts to cover it up. Escaped mental patients feebly attempt to kill it. A precocious child (played by Jacob Tremblay, who might need the talent agent equivalent of Child Protective Services at this point of his career) saves the day through his autistic superbrain. It’s all wacky, disconnected nonsense barely edited together with any sense of linear coherence in service of franchise-minded worldbuilding. Some of the franchise set-up is admittedly fun – namely in the film’s conceit that the Predators are intergalactic travelers that purposefully merge their DNA with various species, leading to hybrid specimens like dog-Predators & gigantic mega-Predators. Mostly, though, it makes The Predator feel like an inconsequential episode in a franchise looking to reinvigorate itself for future follow-ups. In true Deadpool fashion, Black & Dekker even joke about that franchise-wide storytelling style in the dialogue, having a government goon explain that the Predators have arrived on Earth before in ’87 & ’97, “but lately visits have been increasing in frequency,” a blatant dig at projects like the Alien vs. Predator crossovers and 2011’s (totally fine, but mostly forgotten) Predators. The problem is, though, that like most of the film’s humor, the joke falls flat and only serves to question what we’re even doing here, why we’re even bothering – both as creators and as audience.

Not everything about The Predator is horrendous. Olivia Munn & Trevante Rhodes mostly escape with their reputations intact. Sterling K Brown is, despite the material, genuinely fun to watch as a scenery-gnawing government goon, making even the emptiest phrases like “Fuck yeah,” land with surprisingly satisfying humor. Jacob Tremblay & Keegan-Michael Key fare the worst, but can’t be blamed for the idiocy they were employed to recite, dialogue where phrases like “Shut the fuck up!” are considered the pinnacle of verbal quipping. Some of that failed humor is softened by the cheap-thrills payoffs of the film’s hard-R gore & creature feature delights, which are admirably dedicated to practical effects. Speaking as a shameless gore hound & a lover of over-the-top monster movies, though, there’s no amount of practical splatter or space alien badassery that can fully cover up the stink of a comedy that fails this disastrously to be funny. The jokes are plentiful here, but plenty unamusing – sucking all of the fun out of the room with each #edgy punchline. There have likely been worse releases this year, but none I would have seen on purpose, none with this amount of unfulfilled promise.

-Brandon Ledet

Burning Sands (2017)

Burning Sands is one of those Netflix-distributed indies that premiered at Sundance in January and then promptly resurfaced on streaming after a brief couple months’ gap. I’m sometimes frustrated with this relatively new distribution path. In the case of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in particular, it felt a little defeating to watch one of the best films of the year (so far) never even earn the chance to build up word of mouth momentum in a theatrical run before getting lost in the Netflix deluge. In the case of dirt cheap indies like Dig Two Graves and Burning Sands, however, Netflix distribution can be a kind of saving grace. Without being able to stream these kinds of moderate festival circuit pleasers at home, it’s likely audiences would never have direct access to them and they’d slip away into oblivion. The only problem now that they’re readily accessible, though, is getting them to stand out enough so that they’re not lost in the constant flood of digital content.

Burning Sands distinguishes itself from the overcrowded market of digital era indies in the intensity & specificity of its setting. Following the violent vetting process for fraternity pledges at a Historically Black College at the height of the trials & torments of Hell Week, Burning Sands is both a solemn reflection on the toxicity of traditional masculinity and a loose philosophical exploration of how the horrific vestiges of slavery have carried over into modern black identity in America. Set on a college campus named after Frederick Douglass, the movie frequently looks to his academic writing on the horrors of slavery as a window into black fraternity tradition, often with interesting, but vaguely defined results. It’s not a film that consistently wows or provokes contemplation, but when it does choose to crank its intensity in either its physical violence or philosophical prodding, it leaves a long trail of moments & images that stick around long after the credits roll.

Scenes of romantic, familial, and academic struggle threaten to drag Burning Sands down into forgettable melodrama tedium. The movie authentically captures the feel of a college campus, right down to the red cup parties that break out in the most depressingly bare apartment living rooms (complete with an accurate snapshot of the modern rap radio zeitgeist, Future included). Most of the drama staged in that setting can feel a little flat, though. There is a near unbearable amount of tension built in Burning Sands‘s hazing scenes that feels tonally at odds with its freshman year anxieties over grades & girlfriends, to the point where one half of that divide feels inevitably inferior. Still, each kick to the ribs, drunken experiment with branding, and regimented pressure into sexuality hits with full impact and the power of its strength in imagery & tension ultimately outweighs any of its moments of underwhelming melodrama. Burning Sands feels much more interested in the horrors of hazing than it is in fretting over freshman year anxieties and it’s all too easy to see why.

Burning Sands is far from the Hell Week exploitation of last year’s GOAT, but it’s difficult to pinpoint an overarching theme or message it’s trying to convey in its dramatic narrative. At times, it feels like a love letter to the bonds humans make in crisis. At others, it feels like an alarmist picture exposing the methods that manufacture that crisis on college campuses. Themes of slavery, militarism, police harassment, and even flashes of homoeroticism rattle around in its loosely defined moments of dramatic tension without ever landing with a solid thud. It’s possible that a more solidly defined thesis would have earned the film more attention once it hit streaming on Netflix. Honestly, I’d think that the presence of Trevante Rhodes (who was excellent as adult Chiron in last year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) as one of the fraternity brothers who torment the pledges to test their loyalty would’ve been its best chance for widespread recognition, but the film has seemingly been allowed to slip into immediate VOD obscurity anyway. The extreme specificity in setting & subject and the brutal moments of violent tension lead me to believe that Burning Sands will eventually find its audience, though, maybe even with people who can better make out the function of its central message & dramatic conflict than I have been able to. Even if it never does, it at least floated enough fascinating images & ideas to remain distinctively memorable, which is a modern indie’s first hurdle to clear.

-Brandon Ledet