Franchises often start with a nobody who’s got a good idea. Predator actually came from two unknowns, brothers Jim and John Thomas, struggling screenwriters who wondered what it would be like if somebody made a Rocky sequel where he fought an alien. Originally called Hunter, the script found its way to super-producer Joel Silver, who had just made Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger and was looking for their next project. This was when Schwarzenegger was first becoming a star, when his movies were seen as trashy but, because each of them was a little more successful than the last, kept getting a little bit more … well, maybe not ambitious, but at least somewhat more expansive.
Thus: Arnold and his commando buddies fight an alien — a big, ugly, awesome one created by the Stan Winston studio with mandibles and long hair and the ability to disappear. Pit that guy against Arnold and you’ve got a hit. Critics were not fond of Predator — though Roger Ebert was a big fan — but audiences loved it. Arnold got bigger, the screenwriters ended up writing Wild Wild West, and a franchise was born.
After a failed sequel, it took 15 years for the next generation of filmmakers, all of whom grew up watching Predator on VHS, to relaunch the franchise. With the release of this week’s Prey, the series’ first prequel, we attempt to rank the seven Predator movies. Yes, even the ones with the alien from Alien in them.
7. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
So much of Hollywood today is about respecting the brand — about making sure you don’t mess up the movie so bad that you kill the franchise. Well, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem was so bad that it killed one (the Alien vs. Predator franchise, of which it was the first and final sequel) and damaged the other two to such a degree that they’d both completely start over in the next four years. Directed by the founders of the special-effects company Hydraulx, Requiem looks and feels like a movie where you just hire the special-effects guys to direct it to keep the CG as cheap as possible. Unfortunately, the human characters — who, alas, are a much bigger part of this than the title characters — are not special effects, though at least you can (occasionally) make out their faces in the dark. This is the sort of movie where you can imagine the agents for both Alien and Predator asking for their names to be taken off.
6. Predator 2 (1990)
The simplicity of the original film — humans trapped in the jungle with a space alien killing them one by one — is replaced by a complicated plot involving drug dealers, a Los Angeles heat wave, and internal LAPD politics. Whatever happened to just letting Predator, you know, hunt? Actually, Predator 2 isn’t all bad, thanks largely to an expansion of the concept of Predator, even adding multiple Predators by the end. (They’re not monsters, they’re just hunters … just like us.) The movie has that late-’80s pseudo-RoboCop ugliness that is unpleasant although not necessarily mindless, but it was a huge flop that killed the franchise for decades. Still, it may all be worth it for the outtake in which Danny Glover dances with multiple Predators.
5. The Predator (2018)
This recent revamp wanted to sport a somewhat irreverent tone, acknowledging the original film’s datedness while also relishing its hard-R spirit. Unfortunately, The Predator’s best joke ends up being that Shane Black, who played one of Schwarzenegger’s compatriots in the 1987 film, serves as co-writer and director of this version. Not that the Black Touch did much to help: Even the man behind Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys — movies that struck a savvy balance between comedy, action, and character — couldn’t save this franchise. Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, and Olivia Munn make for a suitably endearing ragtag team who take on the Predator, but the film lacked the inspired mayhem of Black’s best work, trying so hard to re-create the anything-goes mentality of ’80s flicks that it never feels like anything other than pastiche. Put it this way: The Predator plays like the sort of woeful franchise restart that the characters in a Shane Black script would make fun of.
4. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Alternate history: James Cameron was working on a script for a fifth Alien film when he learned Fox decided it was going to make an Alien vs. Predator movie instead. Cameron immediately stopped writing, saying this proposed new film would “kill the validity of the franchise” and that it “was Frankenstein Meets Werewolf, Universal just taking their assets and starting to play them off against each other.” (Cameron essentially nailed the next 20 years of popular culture.) The movie did not turn out to be the end of the world — or the end of the Alien franchise, for that matter — and it’s not even necessarily that terrible. Basing the film on a comic book rather than the movies that came before it turned out to be an excellent idea, freeing Alien vs. Predator from being a McTiernan or Cameron knockoff and, instead, just letting it be big dumb entertainment. Directed in typical, perfectly trashy fashion by Paul W.S. Anderson and featuring an impressively (and surely unnecessarily) emotional and committed lead performance from Sanaa Lathan, this is a dopey, fun movie that absolutely understood the assignment.
3. Predators (2010)
Back when he was still starting out, after El Mariachi and Desperado but before Spy Kids, Robert Rodriguez had grown up loving Predator. He had written a script that pretended Predator 2 never happened, focusing on a series of hardened killers being dropped on an alien planet where they are hunted by Predators. That screenplay sat around for 15 years until Fox executives told Rodriguez they’d like to make it: With some tweaks, and Hungarian director Nimrod Antal behind the camera, they rebooted the franchise armed with an impressive cast, including Laurence Fishburne, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Danny Trejo, Topher Grace, a then-unknown Mahershala Ali, and a wildly muscled-up Adrien Brody, if you can imagine such a thing. Predators isn’t perfect — it mostly falls apart by the end — but it’s clever and inventive and was ahead of its time in trying to put a franchise back on track by trying something completely different. It’s a B-movie that knows it’s a B-movie and loves being a B-movie.
2. Prey (2022)
Much like Predators, Prey is a genuine attempt to shake up the formula a little. (For one thing, the Predator doesn’t even factor into the film’s name.) As he did with 10 Cloverfield Lane, director Dan Trachtenberg extends a property by keeping things pretty simple. And so we find ourselves back in the early 18th century, when an aspiring Comanche warrior, Naru (Amber Midthunder), must save her tribe from the terrible extraterrestrial. It’s reductive — but not entirely inaccurate — to describe Prey as The New World except with lots more kill scenes and shots of a creepy-ass alien. (Seriously, the Canadian locales are straight-up gorgeous.) Thankfully, Trachtenberg’s portrait of Indigenous North Americans is free of the ugly stereotypes that would have been rampant in the 1987 original, and the film even sneaks in some honorable observations about colonization. But what’s most rewarding about Prey is its consistent ability to offer up tense action sequences — not to mention, in Naru, a main character who’s the most compelling in the franchise since Dutch observed, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” We suspect people will overrate Prey since it’s the first Predator movie in forever that’s not actively bad, and yet, it’s a damn good time, even if we wish we could have seen it on the big screen instead of Hulu.
1. Predator (1987)
It started out as a rescue mission; it ended up being a savage showdown with a mysterious alien warrior. Few films are more overt in their 1980s-ness than the original Predator, which saw rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Dutch, the leader of an elite, off-the-books team of commandos who go into Central America only to come face-to-face with an interstellar killing machine. Part Rambo, part Aliens, Predator features the kind of glorious Reagan-era overkill typical of its blockbuster age, marrying shoot-’em-up spectacle to an ingenious narrative hook. And in John McTiernan, Arnold hooked up with a topflight action director who was about to come into his own. (Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October were just on the horizon.) The memorable memes and quotable dialogue you know by heart, but what might be less remembered is how appealing it is to see Schwarzenegger, for once, take on someone his own size — bigger, actually. (Honestly, one of the scariest parts of Predator is when the alien lifts Arnold up so easily, the strongman’s feet dangling helplessly high above the ground.) Once Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, and the rest of his cohort get eliminated, Dutch basically has to become a feral animal to combat the Predator, a transformation that brings out a wildness and unexpected vulnerability in that decade’s most pumped-up action hero. Cheesy, gory, kinda stupid, and weirdly charming, Predator was high-concept and disposable — and yet, its giddy enthusiasm has allowed the film to stand the test of time.