The movie monsters known as Predators have been pitted against the famous xenomorphs from the Alien franchise in a series of comic books, video games, and films — but by most common cinematic metrics, there isn’t much of a contest. Though it hasn’t always been a box-office gold mine, every director of an Alien movie (apart from the Alien vs. Predator side series) has been subsequently nominated for at least one Academy Award. This contributes to the sense that, however uneven it can be, the Alien franchise is a premier destination for sci-fi-horror authorship. After all, any filmmaker taking on an Alien movie is placing themselves alongside Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
The Predator series carries no such prestige. It seems to be considered something of an also-ran — one of those unkillable franchises still chasing the glory of the classic original. The newest movie, Prey, is now on Hulu; like several other latter-day Predator movies, its reviews suggest that maybe this time they’ve actually done it. Maybe this time, they’ve made a worthwhile sequel to Predator.
But what if I told you that, as with the Alien series, every Predator movie was worth watching? And, further, that these movies are worth watching for much the same reasons as their distant Alien cousins: because each one shows off the style, skill sets, and preoccupations of its director. Although you could cynically see most of these movies as failed attempts to reignite a stalled franchise, the lack of normal sequels in the Predator cycle only makes the movies more fun; each one starts over and gives a different filmmaker a chance to play around with the concept of an 8-foot alien race whose entire life cycle is seemingly dedicated to the hunting of other species for sport.
The Predator movies aren’t high-minded; they also aren’t burdened with early entry near-perfection like the Alien, Terminator, or RoboCop series. In their modest and low-stakes way, they’ve become a model of what a dependable yet varied franchise should look like, and it’s a relief that this remnant of 20th Century Fox as a purveyor of R-rated sci-fi and horror survives into its menacing acquisition by content-farming Disney. Here’s a guide to the good stuff in (almost) every entry, almost all of which are currently available on Hulu.
Director John McTiernan kicked off a ridiculous hot streak with the original Predator, which he followed with Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. Those three movies show remarkable action-movie versatility between them — and that versatility is on display within Predator itself, too. It morphs from contentious guys-on-a-mission movie to stalker/slasher dynamics to a final mano a mano showcase for star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also made several classics in the wake of this film, including Total Recall and Terminator 2.
The appeal of the first section’s second-tier machismo is both part of why the movie has lingered in the popular imagination, and why it’s the only Predator in danger of becoming at all overrated. The real juice comes in the last 40 minutes of the movie, the dialogue-light section where Arnold’s Dutch starts getting aggressive toward his alien nemesis. Not all of McTiernan’s movies involve a lone hero fighting his way through impossible odds, but it sure seems like the framework that best fits his clean-line action and command of physical performers.
Predator is available to watch on Hulu.
Predator 2 (1990)
Admittedly, it’s difficult to tease out a lot of clear thematic concerns from the films of journeyman Stephen Hopkins. Due to the timing and style of his career peak, it’s pretty easy to confuse him with journeyman Renny Harlin — they both even worked on successive Nightmare on Elm Street sequels in the late ’80s. But the thing is, “early-’90s studio-action journeyman” does have a collective authorship of its own, an MTV-influenced slickness that now looks almost classical for its relative clarity and coherence. It would be a stretch to say Predator 2 is what it would be like if Tony Scott directed a Predator movie; on the other hand, Predator 2 is a lot more fun than the movies Scott was making around this time.
Set in a then-futuristic Los Angeles of 1997, it’s full of strobing lights, blue filters, garbage-strewn alleyways, and sweat; some of the kills are so stylized that they land somewhere between comic book splash panels and abstract art. The movie’s depiction of warring gangs, including a Voodoo-themed enclave, is far from culturally sensitive; then again, in a movie where pretty much everyone — including Danny Glover, Gary Busey, and the irreplaceable Bill Paxton — amps up hard, it’s hard to discern which, if any, characters lack dignity. There’s a sense of unity, too, in the Predator’s initially inexplicable decision to hunt cops and gang members in Los Angeles as its supposedly top-tier big-game targets. Maybe this one has a sophisticated sense of power of collective action — recognizing that citizens across Los Angeles are all equals in face of a merciless Predator.
Predator 2 is available to watch on Hulu.
Alien vs. Predator (2004)
While some seeds of our current franchise obsession were planted back in the 1990s, this was also a time when horror and sci-fi franchises were allowed, nay, expected to lie dormant when perceived as hitting a creative and/or financial dead end. The fact that the Predators vanished from movie screens in the early ’90s only to reappear in a cheesy “versus” movie in the early 2000s served to confer retroactive slasher-movie status upon them. At the time, Alien vs. Predator played as much like a quickie spiritual successor to Freddy vs. Jason as it did a follow-up to anything in either actual franchise it was uniting.
Yet despite its low-rent rep, Alien vs. Predator is recognizably auteur-driven. It’s from Paul W.S. Anderson, the B-movie maestro who has gained a cult audience in recent years for his distinctive approach to sci-fi, horror, and video-game-related material, most famously the Resident Evil series. His status as a cheesier but more prolific James Cameron is solidified by Alien vs. Predator, which indulges many of Anderson’s visual and thematic signatures (blue lighting, geometric compositions, game-like plotting through a maze-like setting), as well as his Cameron-esque appreciation for a badass last woman standing. Sanaa Lathan gets a rare action-hero turn as an Arctic travel guide forced to do what no one else in this series has done, before or since: team up with a Predator to defeat a common enemy.
Unfortunately, none of this applies to Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, a misbegotten 2007 sequel that sucks despite including the potentially awesome idea of a Predator-incubated Predalien. It’s the sole true blemish on either series’ record — and fortunately, its “versus” status makes it feel like it doesn’t really belong to either. Alien vs. Predator, though, is very much a Predator movie, making its subtextual status as a poor man’s Alien part of its very concept and, like a lot of Anderson’s movies, it’s both clever and stupid.
Alien vs. Predator is available to watch on Hulu.
Director Nimród Antal seemed to step back from his career in Hollywood movies after making Predators, directing some TV episodes in the U.S. and another movie in his native Hungary. But for a few years, he was becoming an expert purveyor of contained thrillers that you might call Tight Spot Cinema. Though Predators is more expansive than his films Vacancy or Armored in that it has a whole jungle to play with, the characters still feel confined; they’re a bunch of strangers who wake up mid-freefall and are dropped onto an alien planet where, they eventually realize, two factions of Predators will compete to stalk and kill them.
The alien game preserve concept is a clever inversion/imitation of the original film, which Antal recalls in other ways that go beyond fan service. Like McTiernan, he has a knack for blocking and framing his ensemble in the jungle environment, bringing them together and cutting them apart at crucial moments. The obvious but welcome not-even-subtext of this face-off is that the humans — all professional-grade killers of one sort or another — are themselves predators, forced into a reckoning with their own humanity in order to survive.
Even its clunkiness has a pleasing, B-movie energy, and perfectly acted by an eclectic group of actors: Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Mahershala Ali; gnarly character actors Walton Goggins and Danny Trejo; genre veterans Alice Braga and Laurence Fishburne (riffing on Apocalypse Now, no less!); and, just to round things out, a former sitcom star (Topher Grace) and a mixed martial artist (Oleg Taktarov). Though it recalls the original movie plenty (Braga’s character has even heard about its events), Predators feels like the entry least dependent on Predator; it’s a muscular, stand-alone sci-fi bruiser.
Predators is available to watch on Hulu.
The Predator (2018)
The Predator, meanwhile, embraces the lineage: co-writer/director Shane Black appeared in the original film, did uncredited rewrites on its script, and came back into the fold for his own installment, which draws connections to previous sequels, remixes famous lines from the original, and shamelessly attempts to construct a springboard into contemporary franchising with an ending that teases more than it resolves. It’s also a bit of a mess, with some confusingly circular geography, an obviously revised third act, and a portrayal of an autistic kid (Jacob Tremblay) that borders on tasteless.
But even a condescending idea about people on the spectrum representing an evolutionary leap for humanity fits with Black’s affection for misfit, cynical, or otherwise irreverent characters finding redemptive heroism. (If he gets some of the details wrong, it’s because he’s such a lovable screw-up himself.) That’s the basic idea behind Black’s Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys (as well as the multiple buddy-action movies he’s written), here expanded into a group effort when McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), father of the autistic kid, gets unexpected backup from soldiers with PTSD, Tourette syndrome, and a traumatic brain injury. They’re joined by a biologist (Olivia Munn) and chased by a sardonic government bad guy (Sterling K. Brown).
The characters’ unruly dynamics match the overcomplicated narrative about a regular Predator coming to Earth in an attempt to warn humankind about an evolving (and encroaching!) species of bigger, badder Predators. Despite haphazard plotting that feels left over from his crime-picture days, Black and his frequent collaborator Fred Dekker make sure The Predator is easily the funniest entry of the series, with strong turns from Holbrook, Munn, Brown, and Keegan-Michael Key, among others, yammering and rat-a-tatting around the violent action. After several entries where soldiers and other killers are forced into uneasy, macho alliances, the male bonding here is almost touching. Also, even if the third act is a muddle, haven’t you always wanted to find out what happens when someone is on the outside of a spaceship when it puts up those laser shields?
The Predator is available to watch on FXNow or for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
It’s a little redundant for the Predator series to go back to basics. Even the most ambitious among the previous movies don’t stray especially far from a giant armored alien killing humans. That said, Dan Trachtenberg shrunk the Cloverfield series down to an intimate scale for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and attempts to do the same here, with a similarly feminist kick. Jumping back to the 18th century, Prey might be the closest thing to a remake of the original film so far, with forests and fields of the Great Plains subbing in for the jungle and a determined Comanche woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder) in place of Schwarzenegger’s Dutch.
Unlike Dutch and his crew — or any other leads in the Predator series, really — Naru actually goes looking for the Predator, determined to prove her bona fides as a warrior (and save her tribe from what everyone else thinks must be a series of bear attacks). Just as 10 Cloverfield Lane was an apocalypse-survival movie in miniature, Trachtenberg turns Prey into a neat twist on man-versus-nature that echoes the original without baldly imitating it. Seeing a Predator disrupting a civilization 300 years before its current iteration has both novelty and an odd resonance, given our country’s checkered past. Prey offers one more tantalizing glimpse at the Predators’ strange history; Disney may be tempted to sequelize it directly, but the smart move would be to keep jumping around, not letting these silly, deceptively eclectic movies get stuck in dutiful franchise mode.
Prey is available to watch on Hulu.