Late to the Party: Predator (1987)

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: John McTiernan’s sci-fi action slasher masterpiece.

So I just watched Predator for the first time and I have to ask – how self-aware is this movie? Let’s start with the most memed part of the film, the epic handshake between Dutch and Dillon:

This is silly isn’t it? Both Schwarzenegger and Weathers are acting like it is silly. And yet, it is also framed as kind of awesome? That’s the thing with this movie – it is full of machismo and spectacle and I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to take it.

If I take Predator literally, it is a story about a group of extremely violent and rather sexist men who battle against Marxist guerillas, treacherous jungle and a vicious alien1 before the alpha male of the group finally triumphs. In short, a conservative power fantasy.

If I think Predator is a bit smarter and more self-aware, I’d say it was a story about how guns and bravado aren’t important – being resourceful and clever is what helps you succeed. The alien is vicious because he is a hunter who kills for his own amusement. In other words, a mild deconstruction of 80s action films.

I can’t decide between either interpretation.

Consider the first big set piece of the movie, when Arnold2 and his commandos attack a guerilla base in the Latin American jungle. This scene is ridiculously over-the-top, with the team firing thousands of bullets and demolishing every building in the camp with explosives. Arnold starts the engagement by sabotaging a vehicle the guerillas are using as a generator – he places C4 in the back, deadlifts the truck off its mounts and sends it careening towards a mess hall, killing a dozen men in one go.

Watch it – my description is not doing the scene justice!

This sequence is impressive (the pyrotechnics in particular are spectacular) but none of the commandos are complicated or thoughtful – they are basically all ultra-masculine stereotypes. They don’t hesitate to kill dozens of people in a shootout rather than waiting and trying a stealthier, less lethal approach. Jesse Ventura’s character is so unconcerned about the situation that he quips “I ain’t got time to bleed” when another soldier points out that he’s injured.3

You could argue that having the commandos steamroll the guerillas establishes their hyper-competence, making it more shocking when the Predator starts picking them off one-by-one. But if that is the case, why is there a fifteen minute gap between the base assault and when the Predator starts attacking? Most of that time Dutch is just complaining to Dillon that the C.I.A. lied to him, so the impact of the guerilla firefight has dissipated by the time the Predator makes his first kill.

The movie feels pretty unfocused overall, and that leads to a lot of missed opportunities to build character relationships and create tension. When the script was first presented to Schwarzenegger, it was about a single soldier being hunted by an alien. Arnold suggested a rewrite so a squad was being pursued instead – considering his range as an actor, a wise decision.

What is this facial expression Arnold?!

The problem is that the revised film is sloppy. The opening twenty minutes is dull. The subplot of Dillon lying to Dutch is uninteresting. There are too many squad members and because they are so stoic, it is hard to feel anything when they are murdered. Anna has no place in this story – her only role is to demonstrate that the alien doesn’t attack civilians and to relay unnecessary exposition about “El diablo cazador de hombres4 who appears in the hottest of summers.

I’m sure it sounds like I hate Predator but I really don’t. The alien design is memorable; the killing and dismemberment of the soldiers is suitably disturbing. I absolutely love the scene where one of the commandos spots the alien and they spend a full sixty seconds firing wildly into the jungle without killing anything, an unsubtle but inspired directing choice from John McTiernan.

Worth noting that the CGI invisibility effects are very impressive in this scene as well

My biggest issue is that this feels like a story that could be done better. The final scene is emblematic of the problem – Arnold is the only soldier left and upon discovering that the Predator uses heat vision to track its victims, he camouflages himself in mud, sets up a bunch of elaborate traps and builds a bow and arrow to replace his rifle. Forgive me for not seeing Arnold – a 6ft tall bodybuilder! – as the underdog in this scenario. This isn’t Sarah Connor overcoming the Terminator – this is two alpha males fighting to the death.

My goodness! How on earth could this weakling possibly defeat an alien?!

So, how self-aware is Predator? I think the movie is trying to be subversive but the actors are too limited and the characters too static to really sell the idea. Dutch doesn’t have an intriguing arc like John McClane or even Jack Slater does.5 I would recommend giving it a watch if you haven’t already but you aren’t missing that much if you don’t.

Sources and further reading

Avocado Movie Review: The Predator (2018)

Predator Is Suprisingly Deep For An Action Movie

Patrick (H) Willems – Predator: The Smartest Genre Mash-Up Ever? Probably!

The YouTube channel Cold Crash Pictures also has an excellent video on Kevin Peter Hall (the actor inside the Predator suit) that I really recommend you watch: