Review: The Predator: Autism is Magic

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(Spoilers—and some triggering ableist language—follow.)

Regarding The Predator as a whole film: Picture yourself telling a story. Some are better suited to storytelling than others, but it’s a good bet you know the basics of telling a story; there are beginnings, middles, and ends, there are details you set up and then pay off, there is a clean thread of logic that you run along from start to finish.

Now imagine telling that story while you’re trying to run a five-minute mile.

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That’s the short of The Predator‘s issues. The sharp, badass dialogue, clever ideas, and funny reversals that Shane Black (Iron Man 3The Nice Guys) made his bones on in the second act of his career are there, but it’s directed and edited like he’s running for his life. If I were to summarize the film’s setup in a way that captured the experience of watching it, it would look like this:

So there’s a battle up in outer space and a portal opens and the ship being attacked goes through and crash-lands on our planet and over in Mexico Boyd Holbrook is trying to snipe some cartel guys with his team but then the alien ship crashes and the alien which is a Predator by the way you know what a Predator is anyway the Predator kills Boyd’s teammaates but he gets out alive along with some Predator tech that he sends to his PO Box for safe-keeping before he’s taken to be interrogated by the Army who wants to put a lid on alien activity but he’s a chump who doesn’t pay his bills so the post office sends it to his estranged family’s house and his autistic son thinks it’s a video game meanwhile Sterling K. Brown runs a government facility that’s keeping an eye out for Predators and he brings in super-smart biologist Olivia Munn who’s good but Brown is super arrogant and kind of evil anyway the Predator that killed Boyd’s team is still alive and it escapes from Brown’s facility and Munn runs after it at the same time Boyd and a group of section eights including Trevante Rhodes Thomas Jane and Keegan-Michael Key decide they want a piece of this Predator too and when they find out Boyd’s son has the tech that the escaped Predator is looking for things get super real.

Can you follow that? Maybe, but it’s uncomfortable, maybe even panic-inducing, right? That’s what happens when the storyteller barely has a grip on the story he’s trying to tell, likely because he’s distracted. “Running” is the example I use because the film is edited breathlessly, yanking you from one scene to the next without giving you time to soak in what’s happening or learn more about who these people are. Then once the film gets into its third act, it’s clearly out of breath and contorting under all the lactic acid coursing through its veins, and it just completely loses the plot. You get chunks of it between heaves as if it’s recalling a half-remembered fever dream: “Global warming…Twinkies…evolution…big hunt…shoulder mounted cannon blows the guy’s own head off…Predator dog…blinded…pet…” The movie doesn’t so much end as it collapses in a puddle of sweat and possibly vomit. Was it enjoyable? Maybe. But it’s exhausting and hell if you understand what exactly happened.

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This is all uncharacteristic of Black’s work as a director; he’s never struggled with pacing and clarity like this before. There’s a couple of factors I’m tempted to blame—studio interference, general disengagement with the material—but it would all be Monday morning quarterbacking and I admire him too much to blindly cover for him. Point is, this movie sucks, and if that was all there is to it, I’d pad this out for another 400 words with some talk about the solid acting (Sterling K. Brown is a standout, one of Black’s finest villains) and the surprisingly inconsistent cinematography by Larry Fong (Zack Snyder’s go-to DP) and call it a day.

But this is Cinema From the Spectrum, and if you haven’t heard, there’s an autistic character in here that plays a big role in the story being told. Consider me behooved to talk about it.

It’s like this: Rain Man came out in 1988 and I think it’s safe to say it’s been informing the media discourse about autism ever since. Ray Babbit had fairly low emotional intelligence and was barely able to function in society, but he had a hidden knack for math that his brother was able to use/exploit to their advantage. You have to remember that this is a time when autistic people were just “retarded” and were dealt with by locking them in an asylum and writing them off beyond paying the bill every month. Rain Man hasn’t aged well for people like me or my friends, but I’d argue that it was instructive early on. It made us visible and empathetic; it got the ball rolling. I think there’s good in that.

We just haven’t moved beyond that initial template, as demonstrated by Robert Downey, Jr.’s immortal “never go full retard” monologue in Tropic Thunder:

 

 

Downey’s character is a celebrated Australian actor who knows how to game the system for accolades and has gone so far as to permanently dye his skin and take on a “black” vocal affect in search of his next award. The scene is meant to satirize actors who take dramatic “other” roles that “raise social awareness” because they want a cookie an Oscar. (The repeated use of the word “retard” is in line with that. Neither Ben Stiller nor Downey’s characters are meant to be seen as good people.) Now I go back and forth on whether it’s society that influences our art or vice versa, but I think this scene also reflects how first-world societies want to see people who are disabled, be it emotionally, mentally, or physically. They can’t just be disabled; they have to have some sort of special quality that “redeems” them, something that makes them even with the rest of society.

Autism is becoming a point of obsession with Hollywood lately. In recent years we’ve had an explosion of stories where high-functioning autism plays a role, including The Accountant (which I love*), the ABC series The Good Doctor (which I don’t), and the Netflix series Atypical (which I haven’t seen). That’s not counting shows and films where the word “autism” is never mentioned but the implication is obvious, such as The Big Bang Theory and Ramin Barani’s take on Fahrenheit 451. (Incidentally, the fact that they never call it autism allows these movies/shows to get away with some terrible portrayals of it, but that’s for another time.) In most cases, when a character has autism, it’s balanced out with savantry. Christian Wolff from The Accountant is a math wizard. Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor has a brilliant mind for medicine.

(*I suspect I’m in the minority within the autism community on this. When the film first came out, I wrote a review that summarized my feelings on why it was such a good take on autism despite leaning on stereotypes. I think it might be time for a revisit to see if my feelings have evolved; I might even write up a more in-depth breakdown in the future. Keep an eye out for it.)

Like with Rain Man, these stories aren’t necessarily terrible on their own. When you put all of these portrayals together, however, a pattern emerges, suggesting that if we’re not savants, we’re not worth shit. Bob’s Burgers actually called this out perfectly in its very first episode (though as far as I know Tina Belcher isn’t meant to be autistic):

So yeah, add Jacob Tremblay’s Rory McKenna to that list. When he’s introduced, he’s dressed in a neat button-down shirt and slacks in some kind of lab where everyone’s playing chess. A couple of bullies pull the fire alarm, which causes him to shut down while everyone files out because loud noises bother him. Those bullies approach him, knocking over chess sets, looking to eat some “ass burgers,” but they walk away after realizing Rory can’t fight back and there’s no fun in it (this beat’s a little hazy in my mind). The fire alarm ends, Rory gets up, and—to a twinkly piano-and-strings accompaniment, the kind of arrangement used every time a composer wants to say “THIS PERSON IS SUPER GIFTED Y’ALL”—arranges all the chess boards the way they were.

Let me nitpick this, bearing in mind that I’m drawing from my own experiences and there may be others on the spectrum who identify more with how Shane Black put this scene together.

  1. Autistic people do often have a problem with loud noises, but—again, speaking personally—it’s tied to our comfort in peaceful, orderly environments. I actually just had a fire drill at my job; when the shriek of the alarm hit, I flew backward in my seat and yelled “SHIT,” my hands immediately flying to my ears; not my proudest moment. In the scene, Rory’s hands kinda float to his ears before he starts stimming.
  2. Any teacher worth a shit would make sure Rory was out the door with his fellow classmates, but we can let this go out of respect for dramatic convenience (and frankly, it’s not implausible that Rory’s teacher isn’t really worth a shit).
  3. Rory’s bullies snarking about “ass burgers” is definitely something that dickhead middle schoolers would do, so that gets a pass.
  4. I can buy into Rory putting the chess pieces back the way they were, but it’s presented as something that we should be impressed with—and it is impressive. But that’s where I start having problems.

See, considering what comes later, I can see why Black opted for an outsider’s perspective on autism (as opposed to trying to get us inside Rory’s head) for this scene, which is empathetic towards Rory’s social struggles and deeply impressed with his preternatural talents—which ultimately include a knack for understanding the language and the tech the Predators use. But in doing so, he makes it a little harder to understand and thus identify with Rory, and he kind of misses one of the bigger points of our struggles with neurotypical society, one that a more aware script might have been able to tie into the film.

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During a break in the action, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) mentions to Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) that some see autism as the next step in human evolution. Right away, I realized where this movie was going; sure enough, during the third act, the big Hunter Predator that kills and replaces the regular Predator midway through challenges all the surviving humans to run from him if they can, and that “McKenna” will be their leader, as he’s “their greatest warrior.” Is he talking about Quinn, the guy who’s been leading a team to fight back against the Predator invasion and doing a fairly good job of it? Nope, he’s talking about Rory, who’s been able to communicate with them despite being a human child.

And I’ll admit, it makes some sense; again, Rory’s a very impressive individual. But he’s treated as a sort of prize, a kid valued for his gifts and not for his personality or strategic intellect. Again, on its own, it’s not that bad; in fact, Black and Tremblay find some moments to give Rory something like a personality, including one of my favorite lines in the whole film:

Traeger (Sterling K. Brown): I bet you can’t get the door to that spaceship open.

Rory: That’s reverse psychology. I can do that too: Don’t go fuck yourself.

But whether or not you feel like that’s good enough, it’s ultimately part of a decades-long pattern of autistic characters who suffer from huge social deficits that are “balanced” by valued intellectual gifts. Here’s why that matters: A recent study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder are four times more likely than neurotypical individuals to struggle with some form of depression. As someone who lives with depression, I can partially vouch for that study, and I can tell you that people who are depressed don’t often think about what they can do well, even when we see a movie that tells us if we’re deficient in some areas, we make up for it in others.

People tell me I’m a great writer. That’s nice, I guess. But I also have to worry about reaching out to friends and family, speaking appropriately to them, not oversharing, mingling at parties and not disappearing into my phone all the time, staying calm when things don’t go my way, looking presentable, keeping a neat space, dealing with people who don’t have patience for me, and so many other things that neurotypical adults seem to just do. When all that is missing, tell me, why should my skill behind a keyboard matter?

When I see a movie like The Predator, I don’t think about how my knack for writing could balance out such deficits.

When I see a movie like The Predator, I think about how nice it must be to have a gift that makes me so important I’m thought of as the future of the human race.

When I see a movie like The Predator, I’m reminded that I’m all deficits.

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And it’d be so easy if I could just blame Shane Black or Fred Dekker or Jacob Tremblay (as if I could fully blame an 11-year-old kid for not being up on political issues within the autism community) or really anyone involved in the production for this. But ultimately, I’m not sure if they even realize they’re supposed to know better. This is all part of the pattern reflecting our society, where autism is widely seen as something that would be a net negative if not for whatever gift the autistic person in question has. Consider Autism Speaks, which is pretty much THE non-profit when it comes to Autism Awareness. As much as they’ve raised “awareness,” AS has done just as much to stigmatize autism in ways subtle (their logo: a puzzle piece, meant to suggest our fixation on logic but actually implying incompletion) and overt (their mission statement up until 2015 involved finding a “cure”). Even if they’ve changed course, I’ve yet to see an apology from them—which I believe is more than owed, especially considering how much money they’ve made off us, and would do so much to eradicate the stigma that AS has built up over the years.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for a writer/director I’ve always looked up to; ultimately, nobody made Black and Dekker write an autistic character into their script. But well-intentioned as they were, they were still clearly influenced by a larger narrative that really doesn’t understand how autism works. And maybe that’s why I’m so hesitant to work up a frothy outrage about this; because I’m still figuring it out myself, alongside so many other people. We think of autism as a trade-off, losing what’s seen as basic social and/or self-care skills to gain talent in some other intellectual area. But if we’re really the future, then it’s not going to be because of whatever random thing we do well, but because of how we do what we do. The Predator shows interest, but never really examines that; instead of showing our unique mental processes as a positive, it’s awed by our magic tricks, pitying our hangups with everything else.

This ultimately stems from the same place that every other issue with the movie comes from. The Predator is in such a rush to tell its story that it’s not paying attention to the things that matter. And when you’re not paying attention, everything else might as well be magic.


Watch the (restricted) trailer here:

 

Images copyright 20th Century Fox.


Directed by Shane Black
Written by Shane Black & Fred Dekker
Produced by John Davis
Starring Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 107 minutes

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