The Messy Nihilism And Shared DNA Of 'The Predator,' 'Alien: Covenant,' & 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'

***The following contains MINOR SPOILERS for “The Predator,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” and “Alien: Covenant.”***

There’s a scene midway through Shane Black’s “The Predator” where a government agent named Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) explains to biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) that the titular creatures have been visiting Earth more frequently because they smell blood in the water. They know humanity — and the planet — is on borrowed time, and this is their moment to step in and implement a complete takeover. That’s quite a nihilistic worldview for a sequel to a streamlined 1987 action-thriller in which macho mercenaries are hunted by a then-unknown extraterrestrial force.

READ MORE: ‘The Predator’ Is An Enjoyable Popcorn Flick With The Undeniable Shane Black Flair [TIFF Review]

One can argue that the streak of nihilism in “The Predator” comes with the Shane Black territory. From Martin Riggs’ suicidal ledge jump in “Lethal Weapon” to Jackson Healy taking back up the drink and lamenting the end of an era in the final moments of “The Nice Guys,” Black’s films have always been populated by hard-edged masculine dudes who have lost some — or all — meaning in their lives, and by the end of the film, don’t necessarily get it back. While “The Predator” has no shortage of rough-and-tumble tough guys who crack jokes to hide their PTSD or try to put a bullet in their own skull, there is something about this film’s particular brand of faithlessness in humanity that isn’t specifically tailored to Black, and it’s a kind we’ve seen in other recent entries in longstanding monster movie franchises.

In particular, Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” and J.A. Bayona’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” are the films that come to mind. All of them depict humanity as showing blatant disregard for these very clear external threats and punish them thoroughly for attempting to play God. In ‘Covenant,’ David (Michael Fassbender) — a creation himself — takes after his makers and creates something more sinister. As seen in ‘Fallen Kingdom,’ smarmy businessmen are trampled and eaten alive by dinosaurs who should have stayed extinct, but are now out in the world and humans must learn to co-exist with them. The Predators sense that despite their shortcomings that humans are still a strong race and would be a perfect species to share DNA with and strengthen their race. Despite being top-notch biologists, businesspeople, and military personnel, the characters in these films are not perceived as intelligent, or to be making intelligent decisions.

With that assessment comes questions. For all three films — who seemingly have nothing in common besides the fact that they are entries in beloved and long-running series — are the one-dimensional characterizations just bad writing, or are they intentional, existential dark comedies? Do the filmmakers have complete and utter contempt for humanity and, more specifically, the audience? Or, are they merely interested in using the guise of a film franchise to explore the themes they want to explore that may or may not be congruent with the traditional mechanics of the series?

The simple answer is: “Yes. Many things can be true at once.”

To say that these respective filmmakers have contempt for the audience might be a bit extreme, but each film attempts to subvert and deconstruct what is expected of the series while also succumbing to the pressures of also having to deliver those expectations, thus resulting in fascinating messes with complete tonal confusion. Scott doubles-down on the heady philosophies of “Prometheus” with seemingly no interest in Xenomorphs, but throws in grisly Xenomorph action regardless that feels tacked-on. Bayona blows up Isla Nublar in an attempt to upend the past to move forward (very ‘The Last Jedi‘-esque), but still insists on inserting clear-cut heroic protagonists that take away from the film’s murky grey area. And Black attempts to take the piss out of the “Predator” series, recognizing that the concept is a one-trick pony that hasn’t yielded a good entry since the 1987 original, and at times, feels like it’s going to bust out into a “Gremlins 2: The New Batch”-style self-parody. But then plot kicks in, haphazard character traits rear their heads, and still holds on to hope that it will make something that is equal to its predecessor.

READ MORE: ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’: The Franchise Erupts, But It’s Never Enough [Review]

The messiness shows with audiences as well. “Alien: Covenant” has a 56% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.4 on IMDb (very low for a franchise genre film), and made $74.2 million on a $90 million budget (lower than the original “Alien” unadjusted for inflation). ‘Fallen Kingdom’ did more than okay financially but has an equivalent RT and IMDb audience score, which won’t bode well for the inevitable follow-up unless the film itself surprises. And while “The Predator” isn’t out yet at the time of this writing, you already see the discourse happening, despite only being seen by press, TIFF badge holders, and people who printed out tickets from Gofobo and stood in line for hours to be amongst the first viewers. It already has a weak 2.9/5 score on Letterboxd, and Twitter is set ablaze by responses in the “IT’S SO BAD!” range. If word-of-mouth is poor, there’s a chance it may even lose the #1 spot in the box office to the second weekend of “The Nun.”

It’s difficult to interpret whether the filmmakers themselves got cold feet with the nihilistic approach to these stories, or the producers came back with notes that said these films can’t be that much of a bummer. But regardless of the path, the outcome is the same: these films are essentially about how nothing matters and life is meaningless, which are ballsy themes for $100+ million productions, but it’s difficult to get the audience to care if there’s no reason to be shattered by those revelations. “The Hunt Has Evolved” is the tagline for “The Predator.” These franchises too are looking to evolve, but are being held back, either by audience reaction, the producers’ fear of audience reaction, or both. When you have properties like these that are (mostly) too big to fail and each has more mediocre-to-bad entries than good entries, that is the time to take a chance. Just follow through with it all the way.