After Alien: Covenant shifted cinematic tectonic plates, I thought seeing 1987’s Predator for the first time in almost 15 years was in order. Shane Black’s reboot is around the corner and you never know – there may be some dirty little secret at the centre of this franchise which alters our cinematic reality (and mind you, it shares a universe with Alien).
Predator remains my most terrifying film experience. It paralysed me with fear at the time and haunted my dreams for years. It really was a by-product of a time where every “old” film was seen cold. No trailers, No nothing. The opening scene of Predator has a spacecraft jettison some pod into earth’s atmosphere, but I missed it at the time. 12-year-old me walked into the sitting-room to see action great, Arnold Schwarzenegger, cigar in hand, hunched over a map with some army guys around and I thought I was in for something Commando-esque.
In no time Carl Weathers shows up and we get that ridiculously glorious macho man-shake between him and Arnie, overdosed on glistening biceps. Very few shots will typify 80’s action cinema like this one. Then, an Arnie-led elite squad of Special Forces operatives gears up, jumps in choppers and I awaited my afternoon action fix. But as the film unravelled, it became clear a bunch of South American guerrillas were the least of our guys’ problems.
There is something nightmarish about having your cinematic paradigm turned on its head as a child. One simple construct was: Arnie = indestructible good guy that kicks butt. So you can imagine the existential crisis I was thrown into after seeing The Terminator and Junior years earlier. The former had Arnie as the iconic Old Testament villain, who was still badass with killer lines, and in Junior, well Arnie got pregnant in Junior – stupefying. I thought I had seen it all till Predator showed us a terrified, helpless, overawed, and outfought Arnie. Pure unrelenting horror for me.
Pieces of that context envelop my assessment of Predator, even over a decade later. Parts of that child who was haunted by a dreadlocked bogey man surfaced on my latest viewing. But the fear was mostly in check. I was able to appreciate it more as a work of cinema and yes, chunks of it are dated and cheesy. The dialogue was hard to digest at times and the action sequences have 1986 stamped all over them. But there are some classic quotable lines and by God, John McTiernan’s direction is fantastic and transcendent in the way he is able to harness tension.
Predator’s plot basically has Arnie’s Dutch lead the team of Special Forces commandoes on a rescue mission in a South American jungle. They are supervised by Carl Weathers’ company man so you expect something shady beneath the surface. But suspicions become moot when we start getting the otherworldly hunter’s patiently chilling thermal POVs. Bodies start dropping as the “jungle comes alive” and McTieren’s camera becomes more hawkish as he starts to stalk his characters. The expansive jungle becomes a prison with spiked walls closing in as the tension breaks through the screen. There is something magnificently Herzogian about the effective use of setting.
This claustrophobic and tense feel in Predator is ramped up by a terrific score by Alan Silvestri, which also fuels the verve and energy McTieren infuses. Just consider flawless execution around the iconic “get to the chopper” line – the tense score as the camera lingers on Dutch as he crawls in the dirt and damp fallen leaves knowing the alien hunter hovering in the trees could strike at any time. McTieren milks similar tension with simple close-ups of distressed characters with strikingly frightened and defeated eyes.
Bill Duke features as Mac and is quite effective in this regard, gaunt eyes and all. His characterization seems to hold up as this sometimes ghastly, morose and unhinged persona. Mac’s fits of rage seem earnest and his overall prowess as an actor is acknowledged by the screenplay with a moving monologues where he talks about the “moon” and he being the only survivors from a deadly onslaught, probably in Vietnam – “the whole platoon, just chopped into meat but we walk out, just you and me”. Duke is so good here.
To piggyback on the narrative reengineering note with Alien, the motives of the Predator (or Yatuja) have been more defined with the canon gradually built around it over the years. Some key plot holes have been covered and it is closer to Rogue One, addressing the weakness of the Death Star, than Alien: Covenant’s rewiring of decades worth of cinema. But there is something to be said for unexplained horror, knowing that something has just marked you for death for no reason in particular than your very existence. No need for Vietnam War metaphor takes.
As always for stellar offerings from the 80’s, the practical effects for the Predator are enviable enough, even for contemporary times, especially the details of the Predator’s face. Dutch winds his way into a death match with it and we learn that beneath its slick helmet is one ugly melonfarmer, with an orifice resembling that of a mutated carnivorous grub. Preceding the duel, Dutch is in the grime of things crafting up grounded, but vicious, booby traps with the offerings from the jungle in an attempt hunt the hunter.
Sitting here in my mid-20s, it’s easy to see how Predator is classified as an action film, and rightly so given the mostly swift pacing and macho undertones. But I will always think of it as pure horror. No points for guessing what a Boggart would morph into for me. Genre labelling notwithstanding, Predator remains a classic and Shane Black, who starred in this film, has quite the high bar to live up to. At least with Trevante Rhodes in the new cast, we can expect some bicep action.