The Devolution of the Predator

The Predator franchise spans six movies so far. And while none of the movies can be considered a masterpiece, some were better than others, and some even achieved cult status. But I won’t comment on the qualities of the film titles. In this essay, I want to focus on the predator as a species. In particular, how it devolved from a truly terrible force of nature to a bumbling idiot.

The predator in the original movie was a horrible monster. It was terrifying, and seemingly unstoppable. Thanks to the very simple story (as an aside, an action movie with a very tight and linear story and limited dialogue has a god chance of becoming a cult classic – see Predator or Dredd), the predator is a single-minded killing machine. He is pitted against the herd of the most dangerous prey on Earth, and he easily picks them off one by one, until the last man standing discovers his weakness by accident and kills him. The predator is like a tornado: inevitable, unwavering and unstoppable, save for a lucky accident. In this, he is on par with the xenomorph from the Alien franchise, as utterly dangerous and without a conscience.

Three years later, the sequel was made. This time, the predator is loose in a futuristic Los Angeles, where he indiscriminately kills gang members and police alike. The final confrontation is between it and an LA detective. The detective prevails in a hand-to-hand combat on equal ground. Once dead, other predators, who watched the duel, emerge, congratulate the detective and leave the planet. Something profound changed here: The predator is no longer an unthinking monster that enjoys killing. His entire society has suddenly become one of gentlemen sportsmen, who play fair and who respect their enemies (note also the elevation of humans as prey to humans as enemies). In addition, a predator can suddenly be bested by a detective, while the best members of special forces could barely sting him a few years earlier (no offence to Danny Glover who played the detective). In this movie, the predator certainly lost a lot of his earlier ferocity and mystique and became nothing more than yet another alien species with an ugly face and a few fancy weapons.

Then came the two Alien vs. Predator movies. The first one tried to make the predator strong again, but it failed. It takes place in an ancient pyramid under the Arctic ice, which the predators use as an arena for hunting the xenomorphs. A group of human explorers stumbles into the middle of the fight, and in the ensuing carnage either get themselves killed or help the predator defeat the aliens, for which they are rewarded with their life and additional respect. The predator in this movie is a formidable opponent, but he’s almost amiable towards the humans. What’s worse, though, is that he increasingly relies on his armor and weaponry. He’s become a civilized man who enjoys extreme sports, while trying to remain as safe as possible. Where in the second Predator movie the aliens were like rugby players, here they devolved into playing American Football.

The second movie in this crossover, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, is easily the most forgettable of the franchise. But I digress; I promised not to comment on the quality of the movies. Here, a group of xenomorphs hijacks a predator spaceship and crash-lands it in a small American town. A predator is dispatched to deal with them. This movie doesn’t do justice to either party. Most notably, the xenomorphs breed like rabbits, but that’s necessary because the groups of random hillbillies from the town are killing them almost as fast. The predator is not that prominent in the movie, and his most important aspect is that he sacrifices himself for a group of humans, whom his predecessor considered nothing more than wild game. The movie was strongly reminiscent of Critters, an 80s cult classic, only without the humor. The quality of the predator was below humans, as evidenced by the xenomorph kill count.

Predators billed itself as a sequel of Predator 2, and it tried to insert some predator lore into the franchise, which would explain the dwindling quality of the predators. Here, a group of the deadliest individuals from Earth is abducted onto an alien planet, where a group of predators is hunting them. We meet two predator sub-species: the larger one, presumably the same as in the first Predator movie, hunts the humans. The smaller species (presumably from Predator 2) is held captive by the larger species, and while just as ugly as its bigger cousins, it’s nowhere near as dangerous. The smaller predator even strikes a deal with the humans. Here, the predators become a little more imposing and dangerous again, and they are largely dispatched by people willing to sacrifice themselves, either as a bait or as suicide bombers. Still, the idea of multiple predators hunting in a group in familiar terrain, getting killed off, is a stretch. Had there been three predators from the original movie on Earth at the same time, they’d depopulate at least a mid-sized country before the rest of the world nuked them, just to be safe.

The latest installment of the franchise features the two sub-species again. The smaller predator is trying to bring an item to Earth, which would give people a fighting chance against the larger predators. Meanwhile, the larger predator has come to stop him and collect an autistic child. This movie inserts another piece of predator lore: The predators are not actually collecting hunting trophies, but DNA samples, which they then splice into their own DNA, in order to improve themselves as a species. That’s why in the past, they had always targeted the physically strongest members of our race, but now they consider autism a desirable trait. The two predators battle it out, and the smaller one is easily dispatched. The larger is then killed in a confrontation where he first kills a number of soldiers but is no match against a scrawny soldier and his autistic son. Another piece of important trivia concerns the predator technology: their weapons act independently by returning fire against their attackers. Just like AvP: Requiem was heavily influenced by Critters, this movie was a clone of the Dolph Lundgren movie Dark Angel.

So here we have the final step of predator devolution. On one side we have a smaller predator who turns out to be fully sympathetic to the human race, to the point where he is willing to sacrifice himself in order to help them to survive. In the other corner we have the large predator, presumably the same species from the original movie and Predators. However, instead of an evil entity who hunts humans (and other species) for sport, he simply does his job by sweeping up the necessary biological material. Not only that: his species has become so inept in fighting that the weapons have become autonomous, and when he’s forced to fight he relies on raw strength (augmented by all the genetic splicing), but actually looks clumsy and inept.

I can understand why the filmmakers made the predator weaker. The original predator meant inevitable death for almost any protagonist, and in order to increase the tension, the movie studio execs had to make the species weak enough that it’s never certain which characters would survive (the screenwriters then messed up this strategy by writing all too predictable scripts). That doesn’t change the fact, though, that this movie franchise is a textbook example of a monster devolution, from a nearly perfect being to little more than a smart animal. The predator is not the only victim of this trend: xenomorphs went through a similar devolution, as did other species. While the Alien franchise resisted this trend a little, by increasing the quality of the protagonists instead of decreasing that of the antagonists (far easier to do, as the humans if the first movie were space truckers and not highly skilled killers), the later movie installments saw an increasing quantity of xenomorphs proportional to their decreased quality. It’s a shame, though. I wish the makers of a future monster classic would ramp up the tension by improving both the protagonists and antagonists throughout the series, instead of dumbing down the monster.

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