Cinemanalysis: Predator (1987)

by Jason Flatt

The Predator is one of film’s most recognizable and terrifying monsters. With The Predator (2018) out this weekend, a look back at the original Predator (1987) is in order.

Perhaps other movies had done it before, but John McTiernan’s Predator did it right. Combining the action and horror genres together has the potential to thrill when the balance is struck just right and Predator found that formula. In some ways, the film is practically two distinct pieces combined together. The first act is nearly pure action and war drama. The second act is nearly pure creature horror. Altogether though, it is a bombastic hyperbole of an adventure fit for the billed action heroes like Arnold Schwartzenager, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura. The over-the-top antics of the first act are exactly what the second half needed to be successful. The pure, nonstop energy the film begins with catapults not only the characters but the audience as well into the dark of night where the Predator reigns and there is no certainty of escaping.

Predator may not have codified the alien hunter trope like Ridley Scott’s Alien did in 1979, but it was unique in its approach and stands in the upper echelons of horror greatness. The horror was not just born of jump scares and gruesome deaths. The Predator turned the macho hunters into the hunted. It took its Vietnam War veteran cast in the now familiar setting of Central America and all of its first act bloody glory and made the heroes the victims. By taking on all of the qualities of the action hero itself: heavy weaponry, overconfidence, complete dominance, and seeming invulnerability; the Predator stands out as one of film’s greatest enemies.

Predator HandshakeAin’t Got Time To Bleed

Much like the military action of the time of its 1987 release, the detailed objectives of the mission were not quite clear, but the overall goal was simple: “take out the bad guys to protect our men and country.” The film was sure to cast a large swath of Vietnam War veterans and take place in the similar yet contemporary jungles of Central America. The lack of detail about what country they were in, who the bad guys were, or even the last names of any of the main characters would be instantly familiar to audiences because that was precisely what their concept of American military action was: covert and express operations in unknown places against unknown threats. Just like real life, so long as there seemed like just cause, everybody would go along with it. This helped get the action up and running right away without having to build out any world around the conflict about to ensue.

The blend of action and horror Predator provides sets it up as engaging, first, at the surface level. Part of what made its approach so fulfilling was its pacing. The film was able to simultaneously take on the essential task of building suspense through elongated ominous scenes while also creating a fast-paced sense of urgency through short quippy lines and a very short time frame for the whole film. The two-act structure of the film did this in mirrored ways from one another. In the first act, as Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his band of soldiers storm the enemy village, the sequence seems to trail on forever. Highly explosive scene after succinctly coordinated scene makes this opening lengthy yet tight at the same time, and all action-filled. Elongating the opening served to pump up audiences, generating the same endorphins the soldiers had flowing through them so that when terror struck, the endorphins would still be high and the reaction to the Predator and its threat therefore that much stronger.

There is then a short middle portion of the film where Anna (Elpidia Carrill) is captured and then Poncho (Richard Chaves), Hawkins (Shane Black), Billy (Sonny Landham), Blain (Jesse Ventura), Mac (Bill Duke), and Dillon (Carl Weathers) are all been picked off by the Predator (Kevin Peter Hall). The response to this terror is purely instinctual. There is no emotional attachment forged with any of the squad members before their demises. The expediency with which each character is introduced disallows this completely. They are each colored with enough stereotype from the war genre to be satisfying: the cowboy, the nerd, the government man, and the kid too young to be there, for example. Yet, no attachment makes the team expendable, exactly as Dillon coarsely describes them before the mission even begins. The objectification of every character makes their deaths as meaningless as the Predator sees them; which is precisely what makes it such a terrifying villain.

Predator MonsterThe Predator

For a brief moment, Mac and his team realize that if they drop their weapons, the Predator might stop coming after them because, as he points out, there is no sport for the creature if the men are unarmed. Removing all motive from the Predator except for the thrill of sport made the villain unique and utterly terrifying. Other monsters often are provoked or defending their kin or territory. The Predator turned something that humans usually take for granted, their superior weaponry and their standing as the apex species in any environment, into their demise. This was also the same dynamic the Americans treated their mission against the insurgents with. The Predator’s horror feeds off of the superiority the characters assumed they had and the security the audience falls into along with them. Earlier in the movie, the troops are so scared by the Predator that they unload the near entirety of their ammunitions blindly into the jungle. In part, it is a show of brute force and a chance for an exhilarating action shot. It is also a show of their futility. No matter how much firepower the men possess, they are impotent in the realm of the Predator.

Dismantling the audience’s sense of security in their superiority is the Predator’s primary weapon. However, the armaments it utilized certainly contribute too. Its active camouflage, thermal vision, and very futuristic and high-powered explosives were all unfamiliar and unexpected. They help make the Predator into the stand-out monster that it is. However, the monster was not just a menace, it was a threat. The audience watches this foreign being drop from its spacecraft at the beginning of the movie. Then, in a short period of time, it takes out the best the United States Military has to offer with such little effort and minimal firepower. It stands as a sharp reminder of how tentative even American military might, and superiority altogether, can be. The mini alien invasion came adorned with cultural parallel. The Cold War was at its final boiling point and uncertainty over the future of world order and nuclear proliferation undoubtably were soaked into the context of the Predator’s apparent sovereignty over the jungle. All of the machismo and self-aggrandizing that happens after victory in the first act would come crashing down in a new world order. Truly, the Predator’s greatest weapon is its mere presense. Presiding as the new apex predator, guns and glory are not just fun anymore, they are also terrifying.

Predator DutchWhat Are You?

Fortunately, the Predator does not win. It becomes conceited and falls to its own false sense of superiority. After going one-on-one against Dutch all night, the creature deems him a worthy enough foe to face without its thermal vision. Without the mask it wears, the Predator can barely differentiate shapes from one another. This is displayed through the directorial genius of providing the Predator’s first-person point of view throughout the film. In spite of this disadvantage, the monster is so confident in itself that it takes on this handicap in an attempt to make its potential victory against Dutch even more enjoyable. With the same inflated ego the American troopers held only hours earlier, the Predator was deceived. It avoided one of Dutch’s traps, thinking itself wise and cunning for doing so, only to be trapped by another one.

Dutch, on the other hand, actually exhibits growth here. Once the Predator is pinned down and its death is imminent, Dutch sees its gangly green blood and helpless body laying there and decides to have mercy on the creature. In a twist of normalcy, the American wants to put down its arms. Unlike the monster, he takes no joy in the death of his enemies. The Predator only sees this as a weakness and uses the opportunity to activate a self-destruct sequence. Even in this last act of self-preservation to its ego, the Predator fails, as Dutch escapes in time to be airlifted to safety.

The role reversal for the American hero is the real victory. It represented not only a battle victory but a moral one. The first act of Predator is a hyper-violent romp through an underpowered village that may or may not have deserved such a vicious attack. This is especially in light of the Predator being the culprit of the vicious murders the military found, not the locals. They capture a surviving Anna to prevent her from alerting authorities to the illegal American murder that had just occurred and treat her poorly. The Americans were cold and heartless. Then the second act concludes. Dutch is a hero with a triumphant swell of the score and only the Predator to blame for the senseless violence. The threat of the Predator is ended, and the specter of the first act no longer looms over the victory. Dutch, with his mercy and emotional growth, is a hero now twice over.

The moral ambiguity of Predator’s ending is reflected in the final back and forth between Dutch and the Predator asking each other “what the hell are you?” Are Dutch and the American troops the superior beings they think they are? Are they truly any better than the brutal Predator they nearly were completely defeated by? Most action flicks end where Predator’s first act did: the heroes are heroes and the explosions they caused and the women they objectified were all the reward anybody needed so long as the bad guys were dead. Predator is not most action flicks. It put down its weapons, even when the enemy refused to. It may have been messy along the way, but when it most counted, it became remarkable by refusing to be like its contemporaries. Predator turned the tropes it used freely in the first act on their head for its conclusion, resulting in a brand new way of terrorizing audiences while still providing all the machine guns and machismo they came for in the first place.

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