Predator (1987) certainly isn’t Shakespeare. It is utterly devoid of subtlety and soaked in testosterone. It has been hailed as the apex of silver screen masculinity, and some of the film’s more egregious displays of manliness have become so infamous they have subsequently gained sentience and lived long, fulfilling lives all of their own. In this way, Predator is the embodiment of the cult classic. Conferring the status of ‘cult’ upon a film is not necessarily complimentary. Many so-called cult films are objectively dreadful, and their subsequent longevity can be attributed to their services to irony, gratuitous violence, unintentional hilarity or all of the above.
Predator rises beyond the expectations of both a film destined for cult status, and a stereotypical action vehicle. If one is prepared to look without prejudice, Predator can be appreciated for its craftsmanship and not simply as fodder for the irony brigade. Director John McTiernan sought to subvert established expectations. Arnold Schwarzenegger - the literal one-man-army - is presented as part of an ensemble. It is obvious from the first shot of the Austrian Oak, Cohiba ablaze, that he is the main man, but those alongside him (including 80’s legend Bill Duke) live and breathe in their own right. What’s more, there is a weary edge to Schwarzenegger’s persona of Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer. The smiles are mostly wry and the trademark quips are virtually absent. Juxtapose this with the immaculate, quip-loving John Matrix in Commando (1985), and the difference in tone is undeniable.
After some nameless, faceless guerrillas are dispensed with in typical 80’s fashion the film truly begins, transforming the hunters into the hunted. McTiernan adheres to the ‘less is more’ principle in gradually revealing the eponymous antagonist, utilising classic horror film tropes to tease what is an enduringly original villain. We habitually view proceedings from the Predator’s point of view, via clever distortions of sight and sound, and gain a sense of the extraterrestrial threat. The Predator is fearfully described as the jungle come to life, as it systematically murders its prey, one by one. The Predator film shoot was legendarily gruelling, testing the physical and mental endurance of the cast and crew to breaking point. That intensity is adroitly harnessed for dramatic purposes, and a sense of near-madness pervades throughout.
Dutch spends most of the film attempting to escape with his increasingly bedraggled squad, before facing the monster alone at twilight, in a struggle that is as beautifully photographed as I’m sure it was physically taxing to perform. Although the film thus climaxes with ‘Arnie versus the world’ the subversion of expectations is complete. He triumphs not through strength but cunning, resourcefulness and luck. The beaten Predator, having earlier honoured Dutch for his tenacity, attempts to declare a nuclear draw. Though ultimately victorious as the last soldier standing, Arnold Schwarzenegger - America’s Hollywood hero - is left to reflect on a pyrrhic victory, and having finally got to the chopper, the film ends with a broken and exhausted man; by no means a hero.
Predator arrived at the perfect moment, for the 1980s was the era of action. Arnold Schwarzenegger was approaching ‘peak Arnie’, and he remains to this day the complete action star. Then there’s the element of surprise. In 1987 the Predator creature was brand new, and the shock of seeing that fantastically grotesque countenance for the first time is impossible to replicate. For thirty years attempts have been made to further harness the visceral power of the Predator creature - originally created by the late, great Stan Winston - with oodles of gore and Predators by the dozen (in all shapes and sizes), but it’s mostly been an exercise in futility. So my message to Shane Black, director of the recently released The Predator (2018), and the various executives granting him (and others) lease, is simple: Stop. The middling reviews and mediocre returns are not occurring in a vacuum. Predator was the net result of a sprinkling of originality, the perfect star and consummate timing. As I said at the beginning of this piece it’s not high-art, but then it isn’t trying to be. Predator is expertly constructed, endlessly quotable and all things considered, a genuinely good movie.
In the safe pair of hands such as those of director John McTiernan, one can expect a film that merges merciless carnage with occasional glimpses of rugged humanity. Pairing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger at his musclebound peak would seem like a no-brainer. And you don't really need your brain when watching Predator.
Cigar chomping Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and his team of mercenaries are called upon by Colonel Dillon (Carl Weathers) to track down a cabinet minister who has gone missing in the jungle. Unbeknownst to them, an alien terror lurks in the undergrowth. One by one, the team are picked off by an invisible assassin, accompanied by gratuitous shots of Arnie's mountainous biceps and famously ridiculous macho dialogue which has found its way into the lexicon of any self-respecting movie fan.
There is no doubt that the Predator creature design is an inspired creation from Stan Winston. For the most part, John McTiernan abides by the “don't show the monster” rule, presenting the life-form as an unstoppable invisible force, as if the protagonists are being attacked by the jungle itself. The infra-red point-of-view imagery of the Predator is brilliantly unsettling, and there is clever sound design, with the creature's hearing being given a rattly, lo-fi quality.
The tension of the film is in the quiet moments – the waiting, the chirps of the wildlife, the ringing of a spinning, empty gatling gun chamber following a fear-drenched shoot out. As Bill Duke's Mac uses the lyrics of Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ to comfort himself as he descends into quiet, panicked madness, I found myself strangely moved. And then he gets his head blown off.
These unexpected and welcome moments of nuance are, almost without exception, disappointingly sabotaged by Alan Silvestri's score, which sounds like it belongs in another film. In fact, it sounds as if the majority is lifted wholesale from his work on Back to the Future (1985) – thumping piano pedal notes, dramatic cymbal clashes, muted trumpet blasts, brief melodic flourishes in the strings and militaristic snare and timpani rhythms. It over-eggs the onscreen action, creating a disconnect between image and music that is plain distracting, thus undoing a lot of McTiernan’s building of tension. I labour this point because it is symptomatic of a frustrating aspect of the film as a whole – falling between the stools of being a megabucks blockbuster and a taut B-movie, therefore not quite attaining either status. However, the film is at its most successful during the final act, as a mud-caked Arnie (looking not too dissimilar to Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979)) plays a game of cat and mouse with the alien creature in the climactic battle. This sequence is an impressive study of controlled claustrophobia and suspense, and lifts the film to another level. Predator may be slow out of the starting gate, but it finishes strong.
Ultimately, here is a film that does what it says on the tin – violent and visceral, bridging the gap between Rambo and Aliens (1986). It is not a film devoted to character development, nor is it a meditation on the desensitising effects of violence. That is not its remit. It runs the gamut from clunky and clumsy (most of the dialogue) to utterly superb (the final showdown between Dutch and the Predator). In terms of Schwarzenegger’s career, it is a natural progression from his similar role in Commando (1985) and his iconic appearance in The Terminator (1984). For McTiernan, it is a solid, if slightly frustrating stepping stone towards greater heights in the following year’s Christmas favourite, Die Hard (1988).