RETRO MOVIE – Made during Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s heyday, 1987’s Predator was not only a brutally hard sci-fi/commando action-horror but also one of the first films in which the “Austrian Oak” started to peddle a bit more acting – of course, his heavily German accent is still hilarious today. He clearly has a dominant physical presence on screen, but this performance makes him look more human than a robot. There have been several sequels since then, and we’ll see another on Disney Plus shortly, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the original.
At a time, John McTiernan was at the forefront as Hollywood’s greatest action film director. He began his prolific career with the critically acclaimed Give Me Your Life Dear and went on to make some of the best action films and thrillers of the following decade, including Give Me Your Life Dear 2, Hunt for Red October, The Last Action Hero and The Thomas Crown Affair.
While he is remembered for his incredible and influential action film directing that inspired generations of filmmakers in his later years, it cannot be overlooked how prolific his initial foray into Hollywood was. His first Hollywood effort was the largely forgotten and trashed 1986 horror film, Nomads. Despite being panned financially by critics, the film’s release nevertheless impressed a major star in Arnold Schwarzenegger. He appreciated the film’s tense atmosphere and the fact that it could be shot on a low budget. Schwarzenegger approached the young director, still at the beginning of his career, and asked him to take on his next big-budget action film, The Predator.
“Get to chopper!!!”
Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the leader of an elite special rescue unit. He and his team are called to Central America after a helicopter carrying a cabinet minister crashes in the guerrilla-occupied jungle. Dutch is tasked with finding the wreckage and bringing the survivors home. Reluctantly, he allows CIA agent and old army buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) to accompany him.
The six-man team and Dillon find the wreckage and discover the skinned bodies of the passengers hanging from a tree. The team’s tracker (Sonny Landham) stumbles upon a clue that leads them to a guerrilla camp (and one of my favourite clean action scenes of the decade). Dutch and his team take out the command, find out why they were really sent, and then venture deeper into the enemy jungle towards an exit point.
But then things take a turn. From the start, director John McTiernan hints that there is something else in the jungle, something perhaps not so human. When this otherworldly creature kills some of the Dutch’s people, it becomes clear that humans have now become prey.
Action porn and horror were the keywords
Predator became John McTiernan’s first masterpiece and one of the most influential action films of the 1980s, a decade that brought us almost exclusively blockbuster films. The film has the same machismo and courage that characterised so many films of that decade. Like the best blockbusters of the era, such as Jaws, Jurassic Park and Aliens, it embeds the exaggerated action and charisma of action films like Commando and Conan in a horror-like setting. It was one of the forgotten classic secrets that defined old-school blockbusters, something that modern filmmakers either no longer remember or are too weighed down by the shackles of overblown political correctness.
Part of the reason old blockbusters hit so close to home is that they let the films into horror territory to overplay the film’s stakes further. The film opens with a half-hour of some of the craziest and funniest action sequences ever put to film, as our team of hard-core SWAT officers literally slaughtered a South American rebel terrorist group to rescue the remaining hostages. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team are unstoppable killing machines, slaughtering any resisting terrorists with a staggering barrage of bullets and bloody stabbings until no one is left alive. The visuals are not without their brand of action pornography.
Only one of their number, Blain Cooper (Jesse Ventura), is injured and only slightly. The sense of invincibility and courage is important to the setting up of the primary concept of The Predator. Dutch’s commandos may be the strongest and most skilled soldiers on the planet, but they face a force they weren’t prepared for when an unseen creature begins stalking the team. From there, the film becomes a defacto slasher movie as the powerful and unknown creature slowly begins to slaughter the once invincible squad.
Almost Jean Claude-Van Damme as the Predator
The design of the mysterious and titular Predator creature went through several stages of development, including a much sillier version filmed with Jean Claude-Van Damme. The final design is a masterpiece brought to life by special effects legend Stan Winston. The real genius, however, came from John McTiernan, whose masterful direction helped establish the creature’s motivations and ethics entirely through his actions, without dialogue or explanation.
Functionally, it is an extreme version of precisely what the commandos represent. A hunter living by a strict code of honour seeks to prove himself through the hunt. His bravery is greater and his professionalism a hundred times more effective because of the addition of alien technology. The exact opposite and mirror image of the commando’s greatest weakness.
Predator also builds to a final confrontation that stands as one of the best of the decade and the genre, as the last survivors of the conflict face off in a one-on-one duel that draws on the most essential skills of both characters: wits and survival skills. The final confrontation is elemental: the human super-soldier played by Schwarzenegger and the alien creature call on their most primal instincts. For a film that starts with bombast and explosions, it ends up being one of the most gripping and exciting parts of the film, as all technology ceases to exist, leaving only the very personal stakes of the two warriors.
Predator is one of the best examples of visceral action films made in Hollywood in the last thirty years. It’s a blend of different genres and styles that fit together underneath an over-the-top tone, making it one of the most cathartic cinematic experiences of its time. The Predator as a monster has become identifiable as one of the most beloved film monsters of the 1980s, alongside Alien’s Xenomorph and The Thing’s mutant human monsters also from another planet.
“If it bleeds, we can kill it”
Including this year’s Indian Predator, mentioned in the introduction, the creature has already appeared in seven major films, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. He has even enjoyed cameo roles as a playable character in video games such as Call of Duty Black Ops and Mortal Kombat X. That’s impressive, as there hasn’t really been a film in the franchise that could match the quality of the first film. Arguably, the only films that have managed to recreate some of the magic are some of the games, while none have been as significant in terms of pop culture as the first film – which just goes to show the impact it has had since.
Many attempts have been made to bring back the magic formula of McTiernan’s original ‘The Predator’, but none have come close. Of course, some will quickly dismiss the film as one of those 80s visceral action movies. But not only does “Predator” stand out in the crowded action genre, but it has also held up remarkably well after over thirty years. I had a perfect time rewatching it now in 4K, and I can confidently say that it ranks among Schwarzenegger’s best films.