Because Shane Black’s The Predator dismayed critics and screwed theatres out of a profitable opening weekend, many dismissed it. Those who did see it stuck it out in silence, but I witnessed a man–a grown man– stand up, release a very loud, very pointed fart, and walk out, pulling a cloud of fetid shit mist with him as he loudly complained about the film’s “appalling lack of quality.” The most rewarding realization of the evening? That man’s ass said what a theater full of people wouldn’t: this movie is baaaaaad.
Regardless of its middling quality, though, the film does have worth. The brilliance–and value– of The Predator lies not in its script (which is mostly awful) or its subversion of action tropes (which feels criminally forced) but in its portrayal of autism spectrum disorders. Sure, it doesn’t always get it right. And yes, some of what Shane Black does with Jacob Tremblay’s character can absolutely (and understandably) be construed as offensive. But the intent isn’t to harm, and that’s important to realize.
Numerous Reddit threads addressed the film’s inclusion of autism as a major plot point, many of them bashing the science and intention behind Black’s creative decisions. Many of these gripes involve a certain character around whom the plot revolves: Jacob Tremblay’s Rory McKenna.
Rory is introduced the way many characters with autism are: through a clear display of both his brilliance and his struggles with sensory overwhelm. Sitting alone, he notices two of his peers playing chess. Simultaneously, two bullies pull a fire alarm, sending Rory to the floor with a pained whimper. If you’re familiar with autism at all, you’ll know that sensitivity to loud noises is a common experience people affected by the disorder share.
And then there’s the reveal that the Predators are after Rory because he’s the next link in the evolutionary chain. I’m not going to oppose the argument that nearly every person with autism in popular culture is a savant because it’s mostly correct. Savant syndrome is incredibly rare and doesn’t represent the majority of people on the spectrum. However, shouldn’t the fact that Black sees autism as an advantage work as proof that he’s attempting to shed light on it rather than mock it?
To the Redditors who were outraged by this, let me ask this: if Rory had been severely autistic instead of a savant, would that have been any better? I’m betting that this is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario; no matter which way the filmmakers go with their depiction, it won’t ever get a fair examination.
Boyd Holbrook’s character, Quinn McKenna, treats Rory with respect, love, and admiration, sentiments that people with autism don’t often receive from the people in their lives. The other men in the core group don’t quite get it, but what matters is that Holbrook’s character, Tremblay’s fictional parent, does. If anything, this difference in treatment highlights a dichotomy that needs an audience. It’s just as important to depict what not to do and say as it is to actually show what to do and say. If you’re going that route, though, it’s necessary to include both. Otherwise, it’s just people being assholes to those who are different.
Conversely, the film treats those who bully and abuse Rory with outright contempt; while trick-or-treating with the Predator helmet on, Rory encounters the bullies from earlier in the movie as well as a cruel neighbor. The man chucks a “treat” at Rory, striking him in the back of the head. The helmet’s weapon systems immediately activate and make quick work of the man (and his shitty house). The bullies scatter and Rory continues on his way. Nettles, one of Quinn McKenna’s new convict buddies, refers to Rory as “retarded,” but it’s neither condoned nor paid any attention. Let it be known that Nettles doesn’t possess the social skills or the tact to communicate respectfully with anyone, so his poor wording is very on brand.
By treating these characteristics as important but ultimately a non-issue to the people close to him, the film both validates and normalizes autism with the understanding that acknowledging it isn’t the same thing as calling it out. Placed beside other Hollywood endeavors (such as Glee and The Big Bang Theory) featuring characters with autism, Black’s approach is fairly progressive. Granted, the film’s handling of the sensory processing disorder isn’t always as kind or thoughtful as it could be. Black doesn’t figure it all the way out, but he makes some pretty impressive strides toward progress.
I grew up with high-functioning autism (formerly diagnosed as Asperger’s). When I was seven, a Tulsa doctor told my mom that I’d need to be institutionalized. It was devastating but my mom pushed against the stigma and believed that I was more than my diagnosis. I recognize the importance of accurate and respectful representation. It’s vital to a deeper, more prevalent understanding. Sadly, many of pop culture’s most prominent portrayals of this brain difference (scrapping “disorder” here) are implicitly offensive. Think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory or Sugar Motta from Glee. Both characters are petulant, self-righteous presences with season-spanning mean streaks. Sheldon is insufferable and Sugar is a damn joke. Neither of these interpretations is particularly flattering, and they both involve these characters doing shitty things with few real social consequences.
We’ve come a long way with our clinical understanding of autism, but we haven’t stepped very far in the direction of acceptance. That must change, and while it’s unlikely The Predator will severely alter anyone’s perception of anything, it can provide some insight into how (and how not) to treat someone on the spectrum.