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“Die Hard, but at Disneyworld”
It was solely to watch Prey that I took advantage of a two-month Disney Plus subscription offer. I’ve not had much time to watch TV recently, but I would have stuck with Disney+ if I’d thought it worth the full £8-a-month sub. On balance, for me, it wasn’t. But, yes, Prey justified the admission fee on its own.
You can read a review of it here, plus reviews of a couple of other relatively recent action releases on Disney. Handy if you’re too busy to bother committing to our era’s obligatory two-hour running lengths without a recommendation.
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Imagine you outsourced the plotting of the next episode in the Predator franchise to the “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” department of an elite US university. You’d get something like the storyline of Prey. If you enjoy films as entertainment, and especially if you enjoy action films, this sounds like a bad joke; but Prey’s script and direction were handled by people who seem to admire and understand the genre. As a result, it’s possible to ignore the implied politics and ride it like a rollercoaster, rather than roll your eyes at a disguised graduate seminar in post-colonialism—which it also is. Perhaps this is the new (winning) rule for HR-compliant corporate entertainment: “Go Woke; But Remember The Blokes.”
Why is this slogan apt? The protagonists of Prey are 18th-century Native Americans living on the Great Plains, so it ticks the Indigenous Peoples box; and, since it features French-Canadian fur trappers as secondary antagonists, it also ticks the Anti-Colonialism and Pro-Sustainability/Anti-Animal-Exploitation boxes. The principal is a young Comanche woman, who is—not entirely unfairly at first—not taken seriously as a hunter by her male peers, filling the Pro-Feminism box. And the film was greenlit by a female executive under a billing of going “against gender norms”, so anyone who hasn’t completed their woke bingo card by this point hasn’t been paying attention.
But blokes who love SF/action films have at least a couple of rules of their own: For example, the rule-of-thumb with Star Trek films is that the even-numbered ones are better.
The rule-of-thumb with Predator films is that the ones set in the wild are better.
And Prey is set on the Great Plains in the 18th century. There’s plenty of wilderness to go round for everyone.
The film not only respects a central aspect of what makes the best Predator-derived works gripping—the only hope humans ever have of defeating the technologically superior trophy-hunters-from-space is for Homo sapiens to fall back to the killer cunning that left him last Homo standing on his own planet; it also works because it’s tightly scripted, well directed, and performed with talent and commitment by a young cast.
The usual gratifying tropes of the franchise are present too: This “retro Predator” still has some nifty hunting tech gadgets, cleaves to the species’ code of honour, and, once started, is determined to finish the hunt1.
Given the bowl of offal that Disney reduced the Star Wars franchise to after it bought that one, it’s especially satisfying that the end of Prey makes sense in itself, draws together the threads of this “episode” of the Predator myth, and integrates with existing canon/lore—rather than spitting on everything that’s preceded it in order to make everything that follows easier to write and make those mountains of new merch in the warehouse easier to shift.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 3
If I’m tackling the Mickey empire, I’m pretty much obliged to review something from the Marvel comics-derived superhero franchise that Disney also acquired recently (in the process unifying, multiple, previously disparate, IP empires into one multimedia blob, including two separate branches of Marvel at the cinema itself).
The current media consensus seems to be that, since the end of the vast Avengers arc with Avengers: Endgame (especially the departure of Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark), Marvel has lost its point, lost consumers, or lost direction—or all three. Since many cinema critics hate comic book adaptions in general, hate the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular, and are tired of big-budget, CGI-heavy sequels, this consensus has gone unresisted.
Rotten Tomatoes shows that critics are still saying nice things about individual new items of Marvel content. A quick google of recent commentary about the MCU also shows that critics are also expressing their view that various Marvel sub-franchises have outstayed their welcome. Sadly, much as I hate to be the nobody who jumps on the somebodies’ bandwagon, I am (mostly) not going to be joining the Maquis on this front.
Don’t get me wrong. No one involved in GotG Vol III has been anything less than highly competent. It’s not the fault of the makers of this film that it didn’t matter to me very much what happened to characters I had already invested time and interest in. The film even answers questions that many of those viewing previous Marvel movies will have genuinely wanted answering. But it’s inevitable that a kind of fatigue sets in with all but the most committed fanboys and fangirls when a series of well-told stories have reached what seemed to be a natural conclusion, but the people telling them don’t stop.
So, if you like this sort of thing, I can guarantee that you will like this particular thing. You will not be disappointed. You might well be moved by the backstory of Rocket the enhanced raccoon. You might feel a glow at the buddy-buddy interactions between The Gang. You might well smile affectionately as beloved characters grow into new in-universe roles over the course of the episode.
But you will not experience nirvana. You will not see the face of God. If you are a sucker for cute anthropomorphic animals, you might cry a bit—especially if you are particularly emotionally attached to trash pandas. But you will cry because the makers of the film very much wanted you to and have manipulated you cynically into doing so. And, of course, you’ll laugh, because these films can always pay enough good writers (and actors) to put in at least a few good jokes.
If you still have a gen for the MCU, then I recommend this. If you don’t, then you already know exactly how little you think you’ll care and can plan accordingly.
Ryan Reynolds is near the top of the list of good-looking goofs you hire if you want to make a good-looking goof-fest, even a good-looking goof-fest that’s nominally about AI. Thanks to his Deadpool reboots, he is definitely top of the good-looking goofs you hire as your protagonist if you need someone to break the Fourth Wall and mock his own heroics.
The twist in this case is that Reynolds plays a video game character, Guy, who doesn’t even know there’s a fourth wall to break. We enter his imaginary world and see it as he does: rendered in the full detail of our own. That is, even though players of “Free City”, the game-within-a-movie, only ever perceive the online world they rampage through, Grand-Theft-Auto-style at limited resolution, we see it from Guy’s perspective, with no visible pixel grain.
This is important to at least one of the subtexts of Free Guy, one that must have been obvious to the people making it, who, after all, work in Hollywood: It’s the question of what happens when the players realise that all the world is a stage and that they are merely players, or, rather, in this case, that they are merely NPCs (Non-Player Characters).
Especially given the contemporary derogatory slang meaning of the abbreviation “NPC”, there are plenty of obvious jokes to be made about an NPC who works in a bank. Free Guy gets these out of the way early on.
The eponymous Free Guy’s black sidekick scores bonus irony points by a) being called “Buddy” and b) inverting the usual buddy-movie trope2 to play the straight guy to the main guy.
The dynamic of the in-game protagonists established, the movie pulls out to show us the “real” world surrounding them, outside the servers hosting Free City. Within the game, this starts with Reynolds’ character being seduced by the song of real-world-dweller Millie Rusk’s pointlessly hot3 online avatar “MolotovGirl”.
Talking of “pointless”, we should, I suppose, be pleased that Rusk’s real-world friend Walter "Keys" McKey is played by a man, because his is the sort of role movies used to dump on women—often, puzzlingly, without objections from large numbers of women: Keys acts as Rusk’s initially somewhat clueless man-on-the-inside of the generically evil corporation responsible for Free City, mopes after real-life Rusk, and is our proxy on the receiving end of chunks of exposition. But Stranger Things’ Joe Keery is a trouper and does well with what he’s given.
One thing that might seem trivial, but which completely shifted the way I perceived the story from the way its authors intended: At the start, more than one character refers to Keys as Rusk’s “ex-partner”. If you’re a Brit hearing this American English, there’s a good chance you’ll spend the rest of the movie taking that to mean that the two of them are former lovers. Don’t make the mistake I did. They aren’t.
If I say much more about the story, I’ll be giving away too much away. Because, the film’s credit, while there are outcomes that follow from them that you would predict correctly from my description of its premisses, there are also things you wouldn’t4 and they are just about enough of these to keep you watching through the stretches of proceedings when the flippancy of the dialogue and the intentionally cartoonish-realistic action effects and stunts aren’t enough to hold your attention. The surprises, and the suprisingly big laughs, only really kick in in final act, when some elements from earlier on pay off nicely and some other elements seem to arrive from another dimension, but are so funny that you don’t care.
I wouldn’t pay a fiver to rent Free Guy, but I would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out if it’s available to them as part of an existing subscription of theirs.
Disney Plus is no longer a subscription service of mine but I had some fun watching some of the content it had to offer while I could. You might enjoy it too. But don’t go there looking for Art.
Predator franchise trope bonus bonus: There’s no post-credits scene, but the final credits themselves are accompanied by an animation whose final scene hints at a future prequel.
To be fair to Hollywood, one of the archetypal buddy movie franchises, Lethal Weapon, does this too.
The game-within-a-movie conceit once again lets the film have its cake and eat it.
I wonder how many of these surprises spring from Ryan Reynolds’ brain. Whatever else you think of him, he’s a naturally funny man.