I had no intention of seeing The Predator, ever. Not only had I not seen any film from the franchise, including the two Alien vs Predator films, it just wasn’t something I would pay to see in the theater or at all. At best, it would probably be seen at a friend’s house where we would sit for roughly two hours doing our own running commentary because of how utterly inept it is at being a sci-fi action film. Instead, I saw it on a Monday evening because an online friend had passed my contact info to someone on NPR’s Morning Edition for a story on Hollywood’s depiction of autism. The Predator not only had an autistic character, but it had it as a critical plot point.
In a film that can best be described as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest retooled as a bad episode of The A-Team with an alien thrown in, this damaged piece of celluloid has many awful facets to it but the worst aspect was the depiction of autism. Right now, it’s easy for Jacob Tremblay to be typecast in roles that can be essentially boiled down to “disabled angel” with varying acclaim. From deaf child Tom from Shut In and the protagonist with Treacher Collins syndrome in Wonder to his role as autistic savant in The Predator, he’s falling into a dangerous pattern where these roles should arguably go to people with those actual disabilities called for in the story. Despite the fact that disabled actors do exist, these roles are given to able-bodied actors for the sake of bringing star power to a film for better and worse. Here, it’s reprehensible.
In The Predator, Tremblay plays the protagonist’s son, Rory McKenna. In the first scenes we have with him, he shuffles towards a group of kids playing a game of chess. His motions are awkward, attempting to make conversation but is turned away. Two bullies pull the fire alarm as a prank to trigger sensory overload, sadly checking off another box on the Hollywood Autism list because we need to have a meltdown scene to show that this character is distinctly different. This is also the only part that the film gets right. After the bullies surround him and hurling around the “ass burgers” pejorative (despite the fact that clinical term has been eliminated from the DSM 5), they end up knocking over multiple chess tables. Channeling Raymond Babbitt’s savant ability to calculate the number of spilled toothpicks, he proceeds to reset every single chess board and put everything in its right place. This skill never comes into play for the rest of the film, serving as shorthand for “genius ability”.
At home, he receives a backlog of mail from his father when the mailman shows up at the door. Rory rattles off a numerical military designation and then bluntly states that his father kills people, expecting the audience to get a chuckle from the deadpan delivery; not so. After bringing the mail in, he opens the box that has the Predator armor. He fiddles around and accidentally triggers the holographic computer interface. With zero indication given to the audience that he knows linguistics, Rory manages to contact another Predator by essentially seeing the Matrix; unsurprisingly, a variation of the iconic raining code appears in some scenes. At this point, Rory is simply forgotten about until the second act.
Our ragtag group of cardboard characters are trying to retrieve the armor but they can’t locate the faceguard. Turns out Rory used it for a Halloween mask in an effort to not be seen by the bullies. They do find him in front of a party house. An angry partygoer chucks a beer can at Rory, triggering the helmet’s weapon system. This essentially obliterates the partygoer, meaning that an autistic child committed accidental murder; don’t worry, this is supposed to be hilarious. The bullies make themselves scarce and exit the film. Rory then runs off to the local baseball field where our heroes rescue him from Predator Dogs.
In a brief exchange, someone drops the r-slur and Rory’s dad tries to do his job by telling the team to not use that term. While this is a meager attempt to try and give Rory human worth, that is immediately obliterated with a professor’s theory that the Predators are trying to steal Rory’s DNA because “autism is the next step in evolution”. Rory is no longer a human but an object, a plot device. Last time something this happened, you had the deplorable Bruce Willis suspense film Mercury Rising wherein there were uncomfortable scenes with a screaming kid being manhandled by our hero and our villain wanting this kid murdered. And since the Predators hunt for sport, as lampshaded by our cast multiple times, Rory will end up dead if they succeed.
Speaking of death and autism, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the holes in this professor’s theory. Yes, the idea has been proposed quite a few times but is also something that is held in some high regard in fringe groups. The ongoing debate on whether gene-editing techniques like CRISPR should be used to remove the genes that cause autism is even ethical raises alarm bells. Assuming that the professor’s stance is against gene-editing in that aspect, why do society still have the persistent belief that autism is something that should be cured if it’s “the next step”? The movie wants to be called pro-neurodiversity film but it can’t really do that if at the core, there might be a dead autistic kid if things go south and said kid is treated like an object.
Rory does end up kidnapped by the Predator and is rescued by the troop. We then see him some time later sitting at his own workstation in an underground facility with some other scientists as they examine some cargo. He seems content with this new arrangement as it’s similar to his basement workstation but he’s just there to fill space in the scene. There’s no indication that his father, after all that’s happened, will try to show more love and affection to him other than getting him this position. Perhaps this will be shown in the sequel if it ever comes to pass. At the time of this writing, it’s on track to regain its budget in the second week of wide release. It’s a safe bet that with all of the controversy surrounding the film before the release, the mixed reviews, and dumping it a few weeks before the prestige films roll out, we won’t see a new Predator film for several years.
When I walked out of the theater with my partner and his brother, I apologized for wasting their time. The general consensus was that it wasn’t worth paying for in the theater, much less setting aside the time to stream it. Even if there was no controversy about cutting out a registered sex offender from the film, it still wouldn’t be enjoyable. The script needed a serious overhaul in how it introduced characters and how Rory was a critical part. You can have autism and science-fiction work together but this was not a glowing addition to the genre.
If you’re looking for a science-fiction film with a better representation of autism, skip this and watch last year’s reboot of Power Rangers. I saw it last year in a similar situation to The Predator: unfamiliar with the franchise, aware of the autism element in the film, and had a less than enjoyable time watching it. Unlike this film, Power Rangers goes the extra mile to not only just have an autistic character present in the cast but a person of color as well, something that you rarely see (the ill-fated Dolly Parton vehicle Joyful Noise comes to mind as one of the exceptions). They make him part of the group and he pulls his own weight in the showdown against Rita Repulsa. Will we see what happens with them next? Hard to say as no news about a sequel has come to light in the year since it was released.
If you’re a fan of the Predator franchise, you might as well watch it to be a completionist but save yourself the trouble and just watch it at home. Outside of that, it certainly wasn’t for me and easily won’t be for any other autistic person out there. I hope that something better comes along but for now, I must get to the chopper (either the helicopter or the motorcycle, take your pick) and leave this film in the dust.
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