Updated: Oct 29, 2018
as reviewed by Tom
Format Reviewed: Digital HD/20th Century Fox (1987).
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 – 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) 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. 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 and his iconic appearance in The Terminator. For McTiernan, it is a solid, if slightly frustrating stepping stone towards greater heights in the following year’s Christmas favourite, Die Hard.