Fitting Homage vs. Exploiting Nostalgia – A Comparison of Sequels

There are a pair of 2018 movies that I watched recently: Halloween and The Predator. Both of the original movies (1978’s Halloween and 1987’s Predator, respectively) are among my favorites in their respective genres. My reactions to the two were almost as different as possible.

Halloween felt like a nice blend of classic Slasher with more modern Gorn and Dark Action Girl vibes, with references to previous movies that still worked just fine for someone who didn’t understand them (for the record, the only movies in the series that I have seen are the original, H20, and Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween, so the others flew over my head during my viewing). While I wouldn’t rate it as high as the original since it neither inspired as much fear/horror nor provided enough other elements to make up for what it lacked on that front, it was still a good movie that I enjoyed watching.

Unfortunately, such was not the case for The Predator. Despite having a good opening scene that served as both a reference to the initial firefight in Predator and an abridged summary of Predator 2’s plot (government-sanctioned inflictors of violence are working against drug cartels when a Predator drops in and starts taking trophies), it quickly gave up any pretenses of competence for ridiculous Hollywood Science (often coming from a scientist who had two awkward scenes mocking the use of the name “predator” for a trophy-hunter, to boot), general buffoonery, weak visuals, and blatant rehashing of elements of the first two movies in ways that felt entirely hollow and meaningless (for further evidence of this, I’d only seen the first two in the series prior to watching this one, and finding out about the other references later did nothing to increase my appreciation in hindsight). On top of all that, it just bored me. If I’d at least ended up hating the movie, I could see getting behind it as a sort of So Bad It’s Good parody art. Instead, it left me apathetic, which is the worst thing a piece of entertainment can do.

Before I get into ruminating on why I had such different reactions to these two films, I have three brief comments about the situation with Steve Wilder in The Predator. I think that people who’ve made mistakes deserve a chance to repent and make up for them. I think trying to cover up his past as a convicted sex offender shows a lack of remorse which forfeits any claim to repentance. And I think what I’ve read about the scenes that were removed indicates they had virtually no impact on the quality of the final film.

The obvious place to start is a comparison of the leading antagonists, Michael Myers and the Predators, particularly with respect to (what I knew of) past Canon.

In the original Halloween, Myers is an amoral psychopath who has an internal drive to kill people, generally with chokes and/or stabs. He can shrug off absurd amounts of punishment and move with such stealth that it’s unclear whether he’s just human or something more, but he gives zero indication about anything going on inside of him and often seems to have an oblivious disregard for what is happening around him, too.

2018’s Halloween not only maintains all of that but adds onto it. Despite the efforts of psychologists and journalists, Myers’s original motives still remain a complete mystery, and the film implies that he personally couldn’t care less about what had happened forty years earlier except insofar as he still refuses to give up once he’s zeroed in on a target (Laurie Strode in both cases). While his methods of murder expand to include more blunt force trauma, all of his kills still involve direct physical force at an intimately-close distance. There are a couple of teases that maybe his mask has a further element of evil power to it, but it’s still left entirely ambiguous as to whether that’s actually the case or just a matter of reading too much into coincidences. Myers still moves around with no overt attempts to hide and implies that there is a method to who he picks to kill (as he passes on convenient potential-kills multiple times) without showing enough of a pattern for others to understand the reasoning. In pretty much every way, the 2018 sequel builds on the different aspects of what made 1978 Michael Myers notable, and it does so without undermining the character’s foundation.

In the original Predator, the titular alien is a seven-foot-tall behemoth who set up shop in a jungle to test its martial prowess against the most dangerous humans that it could find. It stalked its targets from a distance, utilizing technological advantages like adaptive camouflage, computerized language analysis (though whether this was fully automated or a form of higher natural intelligence is debatable, given how it echoed “what the hell are you?” in its final moments), and some sort of advanced infrared vision (capable of filtering out most ambient temperature effects without reducing the visibility of its potential targets; notice how the visuals of the Predator’s point of view become much less clear after it removes its mask during the final showdown with Dutch). There is also a clear element of sport or honor to what it does, since it picks off its targets during times when they’re capable of fighting back and shows respect to its worthiest opponents (Billy and Dutch in the movie, plus Anna mentions that it had done likewise for notable targets in the past as well). Lastly, it believes in Better to Die Than Be Killed, since it activates a self-destruction explosive once rendered incapable of fighting further. Predator 2 maintains all of that (aside from trading the jungle environment for Los Angeles) while adding further spectrums of vision to its mask’s capabilities and giving hints of a further code of honor, with Harrigan being rewarded by the other Predators for his victory.

The aliens in The Predator do maintain some of those traits, to be fair, particularly if everything that humans say about them is ignored, but they also seem to lose ground on every point. They’re still huge, with the larger Predator being eleven feet tall, but they lack as much physical presence since the proportions no longer look believable (likely a result of relying too much on CGI done without an eye on obeying physics, though that alone doesn’t explain why the eye spacing of a mask for someone the size of Shaquille O’Neal would fit a small preteen boy). They still use futuristic technology, but they’re less consistent with maintaining the adaptive camouflage (casting shadows/silhouettes in the school scene, for instance), their language analysis has somehow regressed enough to need a human-developed translator to communicate (in the same film where a young child figures out the Predator language in less than a day), and they give no indications of being able to see outside of our normal visible light spectrum. The aspects of sport/honor are mostly relegated to Informed Attributes since the action devolves into rampant slaughters or firefights in lieu of proper duels or stalking (despite one of the protagonists being a sniper, which should’ve lent itself to a live-action version of the fight with The End from Metal Gear Solid 3), and their signature self-destruction is entirely absent. That’s not even getting into how much stupider the Predators themselves act, with one having a mechanical supersuit that it opted not to use for no sensible reasons while the other substituted copious hubris and laughable hunting “dogs” for actual individual prowess, so the apparent twist of them using genetic modifications seemed to do them no good. Everything that made the Predators in the first two films remarkable was undermined, and they were given nothing to make up for it.

Of course, there’s more to a movie than just the leading antagonists. Let’s consider the rest of the casts.

Halloween brought back Laurie Strode, still recognizable as the character from the original film while having been affected by the trauma of surviving Michael Myers’s killing spree. Her daughter Karen is aptly-named but fits well in the role of someone growing up under Laurie’s tutelage, while her granddaughter Allyson is pretty much a reprisal of the original Laurie (which still makes sense for a teenager in Haddonfield). Dr. Sartain gives the movie another professional with a personal investment in Michael Myers, but it’s clear from the start of the movie that he feels fascination if not admiration for Myers, unlike Dr. Loomis in the original film, so the message is sent from the opening scene that there’s more to the movie than just relying on what was good about the original. Similarly, the scene of Laurie recreating Myers watching the school from across the road while Laurie’s/Allyson’s teacher is giving a lecture about fate is probably the single most effective moment in the first half of the movie at showing a connection between Laurie and Myers, which then pays off wonderfully during the climax with Laurie disappearing after falling from the balcony just as Myers did in 1978. The father, Ray, is a bumbling fool from the start, but he shows enough affection for Karen and Allyson (and some attempts to sympathize with Laurie and Cameron) to build emotional investment. The other teenagers aren’t anything special, but again, all of them are sensible enough in their roles to buy into them (Vicky’s interactions with Julian being the highlight in this regard) and to not cheer for their deaths. While some of them feel similar to characters in the original film, they’re not complete copies and don’t feel forced into those roles.

Sadly, the same can’t fairly be said about The Predator. Just like Predator, the main protagonist is the leader of a band of misfit personalities with exemplary military skills. The main leader is a white man with almost-unreasonable skills who kicks off the first major conflict with a surprise attack (Dutch/Quinn). The secondary leader is a black man with questionable leadership who ultimately tries to find redemption in a clear act of self-sacrifice (Dillion/Nebraska). The pair with the most on-screen chemistry is a white man and a black man who are clearly very close emotionally despite initial appearances and may be involved romantically (Mac and Blain/Coyle and Baxley). There’s a minority with spiritual beliefs who sees what’s happening in a more supernatural light than the others (Billy/Nettles). There’s a bland white guy who accomplishes very little of note and is easily forgotten even prior to being the first of the band to die (Hawkins/Lynch). There’s a non-white woman with non-combat value who the soldiers kidnap early on and worry about looking after up until the climax (Anna/Casey). The only slight twist is that nobody copies the support-role soldier niche that Poncho had, but that’s offset by having Baxley also take on Hawkins’s role of provide comic relief for the audience when he talks about pussies (though, in fairness, Baxley doing so involuntarily actually made it feel less like soulless replication than any of the others). Similar comparisons can be found between the people in Project Stargazer and the DEA agents in Predator 2, although at least those aren’t all cast with actors from the same racial profiles as well (which isn’t something that I’d think much of normally, but when the only minorities in the main team fill the exact same roles as the ones from 1987 across seven people, it’s something that’s hard to overlook once noticed).

Now, to be fair, Casey Bracket and Rory McKenna don’t have direct analogs from 1987/1990 (Casey’s role relative to the soldier team copies Anna, but Casey herself is quite distinct). They’re also two of the worst characters in the movie. Casey is supposed to be a brilliant biologist, and the movie even tries to highlight how seriously she takes her work (as opposed to Project Stargazer’s scientists) with her quibbling over the Predator’s behavior not fitting the technical definition of a predator. On the other hand, she barely bats an eye at human and Predator DNA being able to splice, thinks an exoskeleton can exist under the skin, and sees autism is an Evolutionary Level that works like 80s-era Hollywood Autism rather than a range of different ways for the human brain to work. She ends up feeling not so much like a brilliant biologist as like a dummy who picked up a few buzzwords. Rory is a preteen boy who’s somehow able to figure out the Predator language and use their technology is just a matter of hours because he’s autistic. This somehow convinces the larger Predator that Rory is Earth’s ultimate warrior. Oh, and he shows no remorse or coping for accidentally murdering someone while trick-or-treating because he decided to go out with a Predator’s mask on (and that somehow actually works when it’s just held in place by tape, even though it had been established from the original movie that the mask is integrated with further parts of the Predator’s attire). Then again, given how cavalier Rory is with talking about his father killing people, he might also be a sociopath.

I’m not going to hold the editing mistake that randomly changes which arm Rory’s wearing the Predator vambrace on twice in one scene against the character, but that in itself summarizes how much care and attention to detail seemed to go into making The Predator.

There was one interesting character in The Predator: Project Stargazer’s lead scientist Will Traeger. Sure, he was basically a rehash of the DEA’s agent Keyes from Predator 2, but he brought some different flair and depth to his role. He also killed himself on accident by blowing off his own head in a moment of careless indiscretion with a Predator shoulder-mounted cannon. The movie itself treats this as a footnote by having it happen in poor visibility in the middle of a larger fight and never mentioning it again.

Aside from the characters, the overall competence of scripting between the two movies is also vastly different.

Halloween established its characters’ credentials with evidence on screen, left gaps for the audience to infer, provided satisfying arcs not only for Karen and Allyson in its own domain but also bridging into Laurie’s character from its forty-year-old predecessor, and always made sense internally even when it left me second-guessing the characters (a staple for a Slasher). The lack of finality for Myers fit perfectly even before I knew there were two sequels planned. My only major gripe was leaving Cameron’s arc unresolved, but it was a tertiary story arc at best, and shoehorning something more in for him would’ve been worse than just leaving it as-is.

As for The Predator, I’ve already said it in pieces, but neither the protagonists nor the Predators themselves came across as being competent, let alone the sort of elites that the movie tries to say they are. The movie tries to explain stuff about the Predators, but every conclusion that Project Stargazer comes up with seems to contradict what actually happened in 1987/1990, so I can only assume it was supposed to be a joke that they didn’t realize they were always wrong. Aside from the moments mentioned above, let me also mention that Quinn apparently digs through his fecal matter to swallow an alien’s metallic sphere over and over until it’s finally time to use it (only the initial swallow and final retrieval happen on screen, but the time scale involved implies it must’ve happened repeatedly). The “twist” of a Predator hunting another Predator fell flat for me, since even without the humans constantly reading motives into the Predators’ actions that make the most sense if you treat them as all being wrong (which still doesn’t fix the idiocy with the supersuit), there was still no anticipation built up to actually make that surprising. Something isn’t a surprising twist because it happens out of the blue with no set-up; it’s a surprising twist because it’s foreshadowed in a way that manipulates the audience into expecting the opposite until it happens.

Well, what about the special effects? It’s superficial, but surely having had thirty-to-forty years from the original to the most recent film would make a big difference on that front, right?

In the case of Halloween, yes. With the exception of some original footage that was reused, there’s much more carnage shown on screen, and it’s pulled off wonderfully, for the most part. Some might argue that the fire effects during the climax go over the top, but I found it appropriate given the amount of damage that Myers is able to take and get back up from. Laurie’s face appearing in the darkness to say “happy Halloween, Michael” was cheesy, admittedly, but aside from that, it all looked good to me.

The Predator, on the other hand, apparently blew most of its effects budget on stuff other than the actual aliens. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but the face and mandibles of the first Predator look less functional than they did in 1987/1990. More importantly, its movements are too human. Part of the appeal of Peter Kevin Hall’s performances was that his body language in the Predator suit was eerie and unsettling, with graceful flow belying raw power and alien perception. In The Predator, though, it just moves like a person. When the larger Predator comes in later, it still suffers from the same shortcomings as the first Predator (despite using its mandibles at one point for a bite that was probably supposed to be scary but just ended up looking ridiculous). On top of those, though, the overuse of CGI becomes extremely apparent because its lower body is far too small for its frame, like putting Shaquille O’Neal’s upper body on college-era Kevin Durant’s legs. To its credit, The Predator did do a good job with its gore and alien technology effects, but when the main aliens themselves look so bad, it hardly matters (I think the hunting “dogs” look awful, too, but maybe that’s just a matter of taste).

Both of these films were meant to tap into nostalgia for the originals. There’s a big difference in how each went about doing that, though. Halloween used that nostalgia in a respectful way to enhance a work that could stand well on its own merits. The Predator used that nostalgia as a crutch to try hiding that it was a weak movie with no real purpose beyond being a cash grab, and it couldn’t even do that much without screwing up simple elements of the original. Part of the genius of 1978’s Halloween was that it works well at building tension and providing scary moments on first viewing and then reinforces its concepts when you think deeper about it. 2018’s Halloween does the same. Similarly, part of the genius of Predator was that it works perfectly fine as a mindless action flick and then gets even better when you try thinking deeper about it. The Predator, on the other hand, is a boring movie that gets dumber under further scrutiny.

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