There’s a certain comfort in the familiarity of an established franchise, that warm feeling we get whenever Murtaugh remembers that he’s too old for this shit, but by and large sequels suck. Unless they’re about car racing, the longer a series goes, it treads the path unto audience apathy and incomprehensibility. This is not to say that every sequel is uniformly terrible, or even necessarily lesser than the original. Aliens, Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, Godfather 2 are all worthy sequels that surpass the original in at least one case. The science to making a good sequel is obvious to everyone who has at least two functioning brain cells, which is why it baffles studio executives so much.
The conventional wisdom says that sequels need to be more. More explosions, more characters, more noise, more PG-13. This is why the treatment for Friday the 13th Part 20 is just Jason Voorhees screaming at a pair of covered boobs which are on fire. The best sequels are necessary, or at the very least not unnecessary. They can accomplish this by upping the stakes, pushing for a change of venue, or trotting out a different and more dangerous bad guy. Republican primaries work in much the same way. My point is this: if a sequel keeps the same stakes, just offering more of the same, it’s going to feel faintly unsatisfactory. And frankly, we all get enough of that at home.
The Alien franchise illustrates this perfectly, producing two great films and then immediately falling off a cliff. (I use Alien rather than Terminator because as good as Terminator 2 is, it makes no fucking sense, which somehow makes it even better.) Alien is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Taking the simple premise of a haunted house in space and adding the second greatest creature in film history, Alien is a master class in how to cram as many dongs into frame and still call it art.
The story of James Cameron pitching Aliens is legendary in some circles, and should quell the bizarre idea that Titanic somehow caused him to sell out. Supposedly, Cameron walked into the pitch meeting, which included a large white board across one wall. He wrote a single word on it: ALIEN$. Instead of sticking with horror, Cameron made the decision to turn it into an action film, which was met with some derision at the time (“Rambo in space” was an often parroted piece of criticism). Whether Aliens is properly an action film or survival horror is subject to debate, but the true brilliance was bringing the alien one step closer.
And so we come to Alien 3, which shit all over that last movie we loved so much. Beyond that, the alien was still out in space. First movie, the alien is on a spaceship. Second movie, it’s on an offworld colony. The only logical place for that third movie to go is earth. The sad part is, everyone knew it. But they didn’t do it, and the movies suffered.
Predators… now Predators makes sense. No sane person would compare the Alien and Predator franchises in terms of quality and were only linked by a single shot in Predator 2 that seemed specifically designed to blow my young mind. The first two Predator movies were solid action films, the second of which included that most 1990 of preoccupations: the Jamaican Voodoo Posse. In each film, the predator grew more immediate. In the first, he was off in the jungle, in the second he came to LA. It took twenty years for a proper sequel, but we got one in Predators, which was smart enough to shake the franchise up. You can’t get much closer than the city, so instead, the film brings the antiheroes to the predators. Specifically a game preserve world for a little safari-in-reverse.
Before we get too far into this, I’m not holding Predators up as great art. I won’t be talking about subtext. Because Predators is a hundred minutes of everything you want in a movie and about seven that you don’t. The appeal of Predators is simple: it’s a throwback film uncluttered by all the extraneous shit that bloats most modern films.
Recently, Clint wrote about the blight of backstory in modern American cinema. There’s this bizarre conviction that film equals novel and since novels have backstories, so should movies. Remember that part in Die Hard where we found out when John McClane learned to use a machine gun? How about that part in Alien where Ripley revealed that her mother told her a story about a xenomorph? Or that scene in Predator where Arnie talked about the time, back in Austria, the Archduke taught him archery? Of course you don’t. Because they weren’t fucking there. John McClane just knows how to use an SMG, Dutch is an alien-killing Robin Hood and Ripley intuits that the alien’s secret weakness is the sight of a willowy actress in her underpants. Predators has an almost perverse lack of backstory. It dumps its eight antiheroes on a world, gives us maybe a sentence on each, and lets them be awesome. The bulk of the characters never even reveal their names.
Hey, remember that character from the old Transformers cartoon you loved so much? The one you used to fight with your friends over who got to play with him? Yeah, you know who I mean. Sam Witwicky.
Wait, what? No one has wanted to be Sam Witwicky. Ever. Except maybe for his inexplicable ability to pull plastic tail. This insanity, that an audience would give a fuck about the one loser in the middle of a giant robot battle, has infected the entire industry. “You need a character for the audience to identify with, and that character must be human.” And must suck, apparently. As kids, we identified with robots, with mutant turtles, vampires, elves and nearly anything else. Predators has no Sam Witwicky character. It comes close with Topher Grace’s hapless doctor, but the protagonist is Adrien Brody, a grim mercenary with a pathological need to come up with new ways not to give a fuck.
So who are these nameless men we’re supposed to cheer for? Basically they’re a collection of total badasses pulled from the testosterone-soaked depths of a Deadliest Warrior marathon. There’s a Spetnatz commando wielding a minigun (and played by winner of UFC 6 Oleg Taktarov), a Yakuza who only needs eight fingers to cut fools up with his katana, a Mexican cartel enforcer (played by sentient bloody elbow Danny Trejo), a veteran of a Sierra Leone death squad, an Israeli sniper and a death row inmate (Walton Goggins, reminding us why we love him). These people are all killers literally dropped into an arena to get with the murder. The film allows them to merely exist without excuse, apology or mercy. Even the redemption angle comes with a question: was it actually redemption or did our hero merely accurately predict the actions of his enemy?
Take those badasses, send them up against a trio of predators with some new gadgets and watch the awesomeness happen. This isn’t the Predator movie we were waiting for, simply because we never dreamed that someone would have the stones to make it. Its existence flies in the face of conventional wisdom, like it somehow snuck out of the studio without the executives catching it.
For Christ’s sake, the thing is even rated R.