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In a Silly Season, These Blockbusters Are Seriously Good

Summer is for slacking, but these movies are no slouches.

Dorothy Woodend 18 Aug

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Back in the golden days of crossover stories (and by that, I mean the 1970s, when characters from different television shows would “cross over” into other series), the titular characters from Laverne & Shirley might visit the Happy Days set. Or Mork, played by Robin Williams, would visit from the planet Ork to duel with Fonzie.

The oft-quoted descriptor about jumping the shark, meaning a television show or series has strayed from its narrative vision, comes from an episode of Happy Days where the Fonz did just that. He jumped over a caged tiger shark by waterski. That sounds amazing, you might say, but trust me it was not. It was more along the lines of oh jeez… kill me now.

Even as a youngster, I knew enough to realize that Fonzie’s days as a cool dude were done. And in subsequent years, the phrase came to be synonymous with a sudden and irreversible decline in narrative coherence.

Over the years, shark jumping has affected a number of different TV shows and films, perhaps none more so than the Predator series.

The first film came leaping out of the underbrush in 1987, with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading a rock-’em, sock-’em cast including Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura. In the original film, a team of paramilitary badasses get carved up like Christmas turkeys in the jungle of Central America, their guns and bulgy muscles are little match for an invisible foe who turns out to not be from around these parts.

Sequels arrived in due order: Predator 2, Predators, Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, and so on and so forth. By the time the series had strayed into crossover territory with Alien vs. Predator, it had not only jumped the shark but had forgotten entirely what a shark was.

The Predator, released in 2018, added the word “The” to the title as means to rachet up the terror quotient. (Desperation can often lead to abuse of definite articles.)

So imagine my surprise that the comeback kid of summer film season was none other than our old space pal.

Predator on the Plains

The latest edition of the Predator film franchise, Prey, is set in 1719, when a young Indigenous woman named Naru and her faithful dog do battle with a great intergalactic hunter. It’s a pretty even match. There are the usual outer space gadgets that slice and dice like a Cuisinart, and the creature itself, part crab, part lizard, with a little gym bunny mixed in — that monster has abs of steel.

The story is set in Comanche territory (although it was actually filmed just outside of Calgary), and features dialogue in both English and Comanche, as well as a largely Indigenous cast — you can even watch the entirety of the film in the Comanche language. As Naru, Amber Midthunder, who is Sioux, brings a dramatic weight and some serious axe-skills.

The plot isn’t all that different from previous outings: a lone alien gets dropped off on Earth for a sporting adventure, hacks his way through apex predators — wolf, bear and a whole lot of French men before running into Naru, who offers a more significant challenge.

The single most exciting part of the film isn’t the fighting and the gory stuff. (The predator’s hobby consists of taking trophies by ripping spinal cords and skulls out by the roots. Fun!) Instead, it’s really Naru and her dog trotting about magnificent forests and mountains, hurling axes at random rabbits, that are truly engaging. This is a new kind of character for the series, more in line with Alien’s Ripley.

It's probable that no one expected Prey to be a monster hit, but the film stumbled upon a good meet and matchup, a cross-genre pollination that suddenly opened up entirely new narrative directions.

In this case, it was the crossover between Indigenous genre cinema and an established science fiction vehicle. Nyla Innuksuk’s film Slash/Back was another terrific example of this kind of fusion. Although Innuksuk’s film had probably only a fraction of the budget of Prey, it packed in both genuine scares and great characters.

Even before the dust and bunnies had settled, the public was baying for more. Predators battling Japanese Samurai, French musketeers, teenage girls from Nunavut, legendary warriors from throughout time. Really the list is endless. Simply think up a bunch of worthy adversaries and set them against the space invaders. Just think what epic showdowns there could be: Predator vs. the Canadian Revenue Agency, Predator and the Haunted Mansion, Predator Goes Bananas, Deep Throat Predator. Whoops, that last one is only for adults!

In a silly season, a serious hit

The success of Prey is interesting, coming as it does in the silly season that is August, a month when film studio usually releases the dogs, the giant sharks and the people-eating alligators for the delectation of a hot and stuporous audience.

Another sleeper hit of this summer might just turn out to be tallness. Fall opened on Friday, with the slender plot of two young women climbing a 600-metre tower in the middle of nowhere and getting stuck at the top. The most obvious question of such a premise is: “What did you do that for?”

The answer is never because, well, it was tall. It’s always some emotional blarney about the triumph of the human spirit stuff. So, it has been for other films from summers past, whether alligators facilitating the emotional healing between father and daughter or sharks allowing for a young woman to get over the pain of losing her mother.

The recipe in most of these films is to take an established plot: humans versus nature, women in peril, add in a dash of new elements and serve it up quick and hot at the end of the summer.

In 'Nope,' a big ‘yes’ to cinematic abundance

The big old granddaddy of this summer that mixed genres tropes with wild abandon and geeky glee was Jordan Peele’s Nope. The film set the tone for the season with its sublime mixture of high and low — and its giddy mix of references from silly summer movies that came before it, making it a kind of multi-movie crossover fruit punch. Nope is clear about its abundant references to its blockbuster predecessors, think Jaws meets Close Encounters meets classic American western. Everything from the anime classic Akira to E.T. pops in and it is a glorious hallelujah to cinematic abundance!

There is a lot happening in this film, more than enough to warrant repeated viewings, but in short, another interplanetary visitor pays us a visit and humans must band together to avoid being sucked off the face of the Earth.

If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, get going! This a splendiferous example of imagination exploding amok in almost every possible direction.

The embedded critique of our unslakable thirst for cinematic spectacle adds an entire other layer to the film. In some sense, Nope wants to have all the cake and eat it too, but that is a-OK when a story is as overflowing as this one. There is even a reference to the badness that can happen in the sitcom universe when animals go wrong. Cue up Fonzie’s shark.

The narrative engine that drives any good crossover story is the meet and match of two good things. On their own, they’re fine, but combined, well, stand back baby!

In the dun heat of August, all one really needs is a bit of goofiness, a few thrills and some light evisceration. Cake would also be nice.  [Tyee]

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