23 years ago, a formulaic Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle was released. It enjoyed box office, if not necessarily critical success. A lacklustre follow-up ensured the franchise was, cinematically at least, silenced for many years. The series’ protagonists were given their big screen resurrection 6 years ago with shared billing, with a sequel 3 years later. Both films were very poorly received. How, then, has such a mishandled franchise not only endured up to this point in the public psyche, but led to this week’s big budget sequel, directed by Nimrod Antal, and starring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody?

It was the Eighties, and Arnold Schwarzenegger had become the Hollywood action hero of choice, thanks to his impressive physique, and a string of formulaic hits such as Commando and Raw Deal, and the ground breaking Terminator. Jim and John Thomas’ screenplay for Predator was, as the story goes, the result of a joke that Sylvester Stallone would have to fight an alien in the next Rocky installment, having been victorious over a series of increasingly invincible opponents over the course of Rocky’s I through V.

The first Predator film played out very much like a cross between Rambo and Alien (indeed, the recently mooted Rambo concept of Rambo and company facing off against an alien monster may have been both an offshoot of this original idea, and shut down because of its similarities). A team of soldiers, deep in the Guatemalan jungle on a rescue mission, find themselves picked off one by one by an invisible, otherworldly assailant. Eventually, Schwarzenegger’s Dutch is the only character left, resulting in a Mano a Mano showdown which inevitably ends in the Governator’s victory.

As i mentioned at the beginning, it was a very formulaic, recognisable plot. There was one big factor, however, that helped it stand out. It wasn’t the fact that the cast included two future State Governors (Jesse Ventura and Arnie himself) and excellent Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black (who was apparently chosen in part so he could keep an eye on rookie director John McTiernan). What made Predator better than Schwarzenegger’s usual shtick was the presence of a truly compelling foe. Where mostly he was known for taking apart faceless goons one by one until he met up with the B-movie villain of the piece, here the situation was more or less reversed. If it hadn’t been for the presence of the Austrian actor, the Predator himself would have been the star of the movie. The alien warrior was new and unique. Whilst the creature in Alien and its sequels was driven seemingly by pure animalistic instinct, the Predator had evolved technology, such as the thermal imaging capabilities, and a clear hide and strike, hunter’s mentality. In many ways this made the enemy the more compelling character.

With a $60m gross, and good critical reception, Predator was potentially a fantastic starting point for an interesting series of movies. Unfortunately, Predator 2 was not the right follow up. The series lost star Schwarzenegger to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, replacing him with a Danny Glover who was visibly too old too old for this s^&$. It also lost director McTiernan, who had directed Die Hard in the interim and turned down Predator 2 for The Hunt For Red October.

This time around, the Predator becomes mixed up in an inner city gang war, and is hunted by both a city cop and a task-force tasked with hunting down the otherworldly being. We learn a bit more about the creature, seeing more of his ship, and see several of his kind at the conclusion. Relocating the action to an inner city environment wasn’t necessarily a bad decision, but a combination of poor story, low star power, and unfulfilled potential left Predator 2 as a financial and critical failure, effectively killing the franchise as we knew it.

Well, not exactly. Whilst the botched production of Predator 2 left no money, and therefore no viability for a continuation of the movie series, the Predator character had taken on a cult status, and led to the Alien versus Predator comic and video game series. Predator had clear similarities to the Alien series, and the combination of the two creatures was an obvious, and compelling mix. The differences between their styles, the seemingly mindless, feral nature of the Aliens versus the almost human-like tribal, hunter-gatherer instincts of the Predators meant that two completely different cultures could be explored. With no clear hero and villain, and a seemingly level playing field, fans were free to choose their favourites.

The standalone Alien movie series also continued to be healthy, which meant that this inextricable link between the two beings greatly helped the Predator to stay in the public consciousness. By that token, the Predators stood to gain far more from the relationship, almost riding on Alien’s coat-tails. It was this rivalry, and the cult popularity of the Alien Versus Predator brand that led to Predator’s big screen resurrection, in the first Alien Vs Predators movie.

However, despite the continued success and interest for the Alien movie franchise, AVP was made with a considerably lower budget than was really required to do the concept justice. Though the movie tried to remain faithful to both creatures mythology, with director Paul WS Anderson shoehorning in as many references to their previous outings as he could muster, the storyline was generally pretty weak. It did have interesting ideas about how they existed together in their shared universe. The idea that young Predator’s were sent out to kill their first Alien as a right of passage was a great jumping off point, but the movie as a whole was very poorly written, acted, and produced. Cheap costumes meant that action sequences were reduced to fast cut, dark shadow combat, rendering these battles unwatchable. Though audiences had turned out to see the two great foes do battle, most of the movie followed the human contingent of the story, and movie goers felt seriously short changed.

AVP: Requiem was arguably even worse, coming across as a straight to DVD quality production, with 24’s Michelle Dessler (actress Reiko Aylesworth) as its biggest ‘star’. No money, no ideas, no chance. It was only the AVP brand’s cult status that drew any audience in at all. Alien Vs Predator; Requiem can only be considered a total failure, and really should have killed off both franchises. However, the continued popularity of the two is a clear argument that truly compelling protagonists can survive inept filmmaking.

Whilst AVP was dragging the two combatants names through the mud, a plan was afoot to revive the Predators in their own new standalone movie. Robert Rodriguez had originally been drafted to craft a script for a Predator movie shortly after the first film’s release, and when it was decided to revive the franchise, he was the obvious choice. Dusting off his old screenplay, the director set about rewriting it for a new sequel. The Sin City helmer’s Predators script almost completely disregards the Predator 2 follow up, and both AVP films, and works as more of a Predators to Predator as Aliens was to Alien.

Relocating the action to the Predator home planet, Predators reverts back to the original jungle setting , but where the original movie had humans battling the hunter on their own turf, here the humans find themselves out of their depth as they clash with different Predator tribes, in their own environment. The casting of The Pianist’s Adrien Brody was a surprising move, sort of a halfway house between Predator’s Schwarzenegger and Predator 2’s Glover. As far as acting ability goes, however, it is one giant leap.

This is a promising move, and suggests a much less formulaic storyline may lie in store. He is backed up by the brilliant Danny Trejo, a Robert Rodriguez favourite (having starred in From Dusk Til Dawn, Desperado etc…) along with Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix trilogy), Alice Braga (I Am Legend), Topher Grave (Spiderman 3), and Walton Goggins (TV’s Justified). The relocation to the Predator home planet suggests we may well learn more about their culture, history, and the source of their technological advancement. Predators has the potential to provide a really interesting plot, and allow for a far more compelling series that truly explores the full potential of the franchise. Director Nimrod Antal is also a potentially great choice. His first picture, Hungarian film Control, gained great critical success. He has yet to replicate that success in Hollywood, however, with previous work including 2007’s Vacancy, and the so-so Armoured from last year.

Despite the prequel projects that are underway for the Alien series, whilst the Alien movies best is probably behind them, the Predator’s series has yet to reach its heights. The far more sentient nature of the protagonists, and therefore the increased potential for Predator/Human interaction means that the possibilities for future Predator films are almost endless, withmany different directions that can be explored. Hopefully Predators will perform well both critically and financially, and allow for a new set of movies that live up to the expectations of the fans, and lead to far greater stories than we have previously seen cinematically for the intergalactic hunters.

Predators was released yesterday, Thursday 8th July in the UK, and today, Friday 9th July in the US. You can read our review here.

Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann