Predator is a 1987 film that remains to this day one of the most beloved films of its kind. It tells the tale of a seven-man rescue squad who is stalked by an extraterrestrial hunter in the jungles of Central America. Cleverly combining science fiction and horror, Predator blends these two genres with the style of new wave action cinema that took flight in the 1980s, creating a unique thriller that's often imitated, never equaled. Its titular character reached the status of a Dracula or Frankenstein, and many a line from this film has been uttered amongst friends ever since.
Still, while many profess their love of Predator, most will agree it's not exactly great cinema. Surely other films of the mould, Aliens for example, are much more tactful and clever in their filmmaking? Nonsense, I say. Predator on the surface may appear like just another action film that's been pumped with testosterone to excess, but there's much more here than meets the eye. Discarding the clever camera work, brilliant score, and stunning makeup by monster master Stan Winston, Predator may have one of the most intelligent scripts in action movie history.
More Macho Than The Rest
Predator was in the realm of hyper-macho action films that took off in the early '80s, along with the likes of like Commando and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Although, instead of giving us just one action icon, Predator has every one of its main cast fit the bill. With talents like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura and Bill Duke, each of these characters could have been the star of their own action movie. They've got big guns, they've got "big guns," and they're ready to kick ass and take names.
The opening action sequence of Predator is exactly like the ending of any action film of the era: Our heroes mercilessly killing droves of faceless terrorists who don't know how to shoot straight. The sequence is complete with explosions, bad punchlines, and our characters getting surprisingly trivial wounds given the massive amounts of flying lead. Surely once these guys bump into an extraterrestrial hunter, they'll have no trouble taking them down.
Not so fast, folks, because this movie was directed by John McTiernan. McTiernan may well be the master of the '80s action aesthetic, but all of his most noteworthy films, from Die Hard to Hunt for Red October and even the underrated Last Action Hero, have one thing in common. They subvert the conventions of the action genre. Die Hard traded out a bodybuilding behemoth for a skinny cop who tended to whine, and Last Action Hero exposed these types of films for what they were: cartoons for adults. Predator may well be the most subversive of all.
First, lets start with what happened immediately after that big battle scene. The character of Blaine for example, played by Ventura, is one of the most iconic characters in the film. Not only is he portrayed by one of the biggest members of the cast, he also sports the most impressive weapon of anybody — his trusty mini-gun known as "Old Painless." This is a character that in any other movie would have been one of the longest surviving characters. In Predator though, he's one of the first to die.
In spite of Blaine's impressive weaponry, the Predator dispatches him with ease; Blaine never even knew his enemy was there. Immediately after this, the rest of the cast arrives on the scene and fires into the jungle for a full minute. For their trouble, the Predator is only slightly wounded and they've cleared a nice chunk of real estate. In their first real match against their enemy, the characters' weapons are shown to be completely useless. Blaine's mini-gun is completely emptied, leaving it as helpful as a bag of cotton balls. What's an '80s action hero without guns, eh?
That one of the film's biggest stars is killed so suddenly immediately puts the audience on edge. Not only was Ventura's character killed, but killed with nary a real fight scene. People may not have expected Blaine to make it, but they did expect him to go down swinging. Instead, the character dies not with a bang, but a whimper. If that could happen, what chance do the others have? The answer is, not much.
An Impressive, Worthy, Undefeatable Big Bad
The film continuously teases its audience with action typical of the genre, and then snatches it away. Weathers and Duke go on a two-man quest for revenge, but only make the Predator's goal of killing them all the more easy. Sonny Landham's character Billy is wrought with menace and a calm demeanor that promises a great battle will follow, but his knife duel with the creature is over in less than a second. How could one creature be so powerful as to tear down these men so quickly? The answer is in how the Predator is designed.
I don't mean by look, of course. The Predator is made as a counter to every single action hero trope you can think of. Firstly, there's his cloaking device, which renders it virtually undetectable to our heroes until it's too late. If you can't see it, you can't shoot it. Then there's the Predator's weapons, which are highly specialized and efficient killing implements that outmatch the arsenal of the heroes at every corner. Finally comes its size and physical strength. Arnold may be big, but the Predator is bigger. All seven of these characters could have piled onto this monster, but the Predator would have just thrown them off.
The playing field isn't so much leveled as it has been pulled out from under our protagonists. The Predator is the first genuine threat they've ever faced. At this point in the '80s wave of action films, none of our beefy stars had ever fought such an opponent. The Terminator is the film that came closest, but even then Arnie didn't face such an enemy. He was that enemy, relentless and unstoppable. This film promised a clashing of titans, and instead we got a giant crushing an ant.
The Schwarzenegger We Know Was Tested
Schwarzenegger is well liked as a movie star, but is often underappreciated as an actor. Though he's hardly Gregory Peck or Lawrence Olivier, he brings his own brand of likability and charm to his roles. A skilled director can work past the Brawny Man's limitations and use him well. James Cameron cast him purely for the aesthetic of the actor in The Terminator, though only after Schwarzenegger requested the role. His threatening build helped sell that he was more machine than man.
McTiernen is such a skilled director, and his casting of Schwarzenegger in Predator is among the film's most clever choices. In this film he plays Major Alan "Dutch" Schaefer, a soldier of fortune with countless battles under his belt. Considering he was one of the most recognizable and indestructible action icons of this or any other decade, to pit him against a villain that could so effectively counter him could, and did, prove very unsettling. Arnold was cast because of what the audience expected of him, and each of those expectations was deliberately dashed.
The Hunter Becomes The Hunted
As a proud holder of the Mr. Universe title, Schwarzenegger's appeal was based in part on his physical build. The film delivers on that promise early on, showing his character of Dutch lift up an entire truck during the compound battle. Then, when the fight with the Predator comes, the film snatches that away, too. Dutch throws a mean right hook straight into the Predator's face, and it does absolutely nothing. If anything, it makes the monster more eager to toy with his chosen game.
First his weapons were rendered useless, and now the very thing that drove Schwarzenegger to stardom can't save him. Just how can he outmatch his enemy? His big guns and "big guns" both got him nowhere. His only option is a battle of wits.
Action heroes of the time rarely get anything done by thinking things through. Usually a large firearm, a broken neck or a tossed steam pipe will do the job. As each of these things has proven useless to Dutch (except for the pipe but we all know that wouldn't go well), he's forced to think his way out of his predicament.
His first step is to do what the Predator has done to him: Counter all his enemy's skills. As Dutch can't harm an unseen enemy, neither can the Predator. In covering himself with mud, Dutch hides himself from his foe and he becomes the observer, carefully looking over his enemy's movements and habits before destroying the creature's cloaking device. Now the Predator is out in the open and Dutch is the one that's hidden.
The Predator reacts exactly how Dutch's team did, firing into the jungle in a desperate attempt to hit something. Like Dutch's team, the Predator only leaves his target a little injured and does a good job clearing away some valuable real estate. Without a target, even the Plasmacaster from beyond our solar system is but a light show. Like Dutch and his team, the Predator is just as easily subverted.
Turning The Table On Us Viewers
In spite of this, Dutch never really gets a heroic ending to the battle. Even when all weapons have left the playing field, Dutch is no match for the physical power of the Predator, who beats the beefy Austrian to within an inch of his life. The Terminator has been turned into a rag doll. By the end of it, Dutch is bleeding horribly, crawling through the mud and leaves, and unbelievably, whimpering. In this moment, Dutch's status as an action hero has been completely destroyed. Now he bears a far greater resemblance to Halloween's Laurie Strode. He's a victim, running and scared.
But this is not the end for Dutch. In what may have otherwise been his death throes, he lures the Predator to his doom, mortally wounding his enemy with a primitive rope and log trap. After all this time, all the thrown fists, fired bullets and lost lives, Dutch defeats his enemy with neither. Still, the Predator's death isn't a crowd-pleasing moment. It may well be the film's most unsettling and subversive moment.
Dutch stands over his mortally wounded enemy, not delivering the killing blow like many would expect and cheer for. In the end, the only thing that kills the Predator is the Predator itself. Triggering a self-destruct device, the creature mockingly laughs in Dutch's face in the voice of his dead teammate. And what does Schwarzenegger's Dutch do? Does he smash the creature's hand off and give a cheesy one-liner to make us cheer? "Gotta hand it to you." or something like that?
No. Dutch instead does what no action hero of his ilk ever does at this point in the movie. He runs. The action juggernaut that is the Brawny Man is still a victim, sprinting as fast as he can through the underbrush with the taunting guffaw of his enemy chasing him every step of the way. Even in death this enemy has sent the Terminator himself fleeing in terror. Dutch has not achieved a decisive victory. He may have escaped the blast that followed, but the Predator managed to get both the figurative and literal last laugh.
Predator is highly watchable and is viewed as one of the best to come out of the '80s cycle of action films. In spite of how well loved the movie is, not a lot give it due credit as a very intelligent piece of cinema that perverts and criticizes many of the action tropes in place at the time. Predator is more than a cheesy good time, and it's more than a hyper-macho action extravaganza. It meticulously picks apart genre expectations and destroys the myth of the '80s action hero. In a fight with a more determined and clever enemy, big guns and "big guns" just won't cut it.
The final shots of the battered and beaten Dutch say it all. You may not be able to hold your head up high, but to have survived should be reward enough.
Are you a fan of the original Predator? Let me know your thoughts and feelings in the comments below.