Retro Review: Predator

Decades of experimental and often misguided movies have shown that the blending of multiple film genres can often lead to a mess of a movie. The simple truth is that it is downright tough to appeal to fans of more than one genre within a single film. Released in 1987 and spawning multiple inferior sequels in the decades since, Predator is a film that many enjoy but often overlook in the larger scope of movies.

But what many don’t understand is that Predator strikes an incredible balance between action, twists, and star performances. Best of all, Predator pulls a mid-film twist that shows real intelligence on the part of director John McTiernan and writers Jim and John Thomas. Predator is half action movie, half science fiction, and all Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. Movies don’t get much more fun than this.

The setup, and really the entire plot in general, are incredibly simple. Delta Force Major Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger) and his team of commandos are called in to rescue a group of officials held hostage by rebels in the fictional country of Val Verde. While these men are the best of the best, what they do not realize is that they and the local woman they have taken with them for information are being hunted in the jungle by something far deadlier than them. What starts out as a testosterone-fueled shoot ‘em up like Schwarzenneger’s Commando or one of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo sequels gets the rug pulled out from under it when the deadly alien only referred to as The Predator begins taking out these soldiers one by one.

Is there much more to Predator than that? Not really. Does it need to be more than this when everything in this film is so much fun? Absolutely not. This film has no pretense of being more than a really well-executed thrill ride, so those looking for deeper meaning may not find Predator to their liking. But what this film does well, it does with the best of them.

Schwarzenegger really exudes that vibrant movie star quality here. While it’s clear that he’s never been the greatest actor, the man was truly the definition of a movie star in his prime and Predator is a fantastic example of that. The charisma and charm he has is on full display here. Plus, Predator gives him some of the best action scenes of his career. While the movie starts out as an ensemble piece, Schwarzenegger is the one that carries the film and creates the best scenes.

Perhaps most strikingly, Predator manages to be several things at once while actually staying true to its vision all the way through. There are multiple scenes of Dutch and his commandos, played by Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and more, taking out insurgents with guns, knives, and explosions galore in classic ‘80s action. The gruesome manner in which each man is picked off and the creeping terror slowly closing in is as frightening as any horror movie. The concept and execution of The Predator itself is an example of fantastic practical creature design, ranking up there with the likes of the Xenomorph in Alien or the eponymous monster of The Thing. The sci-fi elements in Predator may only be limited to only the monstrous hunter, but it is definitely enough to make this just as much of a science fiction movie as any other classic in the genre.

By opening the film with an establishing shot of an alien spacecraft circling Earth, Predator establishes that this is a world where aliens exist, even if the humans don’t know that. While this may undercut what would be a huge twist midway through the movie, it helps keep the alien developments from being a jarring blindside that may lose some viewers. After introducing the protagonists of the film, they quickly set off on their mission, trekking through the jungle in pursuit of the people they are meant to rescue and slowly. On their way, they uncover all manner of gruesome evidence of someone who has been killing people throughout the area. Once the movie begins to show the men from the perspective of whatever it is that it tracking them, most often in infrared mode, it is clear that they are being hunted, which sets up the real hook of the entire film – The Predator and its inevitable clash with Dutch.

And what an amazing and iconic movie monster The Predator is. McTiernan smartly crafted the movie to play off a slow series of reveals of its antagonist. First, we only see developments from the eyes of the alien. Then, the audience is shown the creature cloaked, rendering it invisible except for the light bending through it. After seeing legs, arms, and other bits, The Predator is shown in its full form as it rises up from the water while chasing Dutch, shorting out its cloak. But that’s not all! That iconic helmet is hiding the hideous and amazingly detailed alien face underneath, which is shown off in final battle with the hero, with Dutch’s response to the final reveal of The Predator being one of the movie’s best lines. While time and many sequels have burned the image of The Predator into the public’s consciousness, this must have been a fantastic reveal at the time. Thankfully, the alien creature is kept mysterious, with its motives and origins unknown, except for the hint that this is all for sport. Like the best monsters, a murky origin makes for greater scares.

Interestingly, The Predator originally had a vastly different (and far inferior) look and was played by Jean Claude Van Damme! But the troubled production of the film led to not only the departure of Van Damme but a complete redesign of the creature by icon Stan Winston with some input by James Cameron of all people. The result is one of the best monsters in cinema history. There’s a reason why this alien creature spawned a franchise that extends beyond this film and into comic books, video games, and more.

Importantly, McTiernan’s film maintains a tone and quality throughout that doesn’t waiver, which is crucial in keeping all of these elements in play with just the right balance. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, with the pace of the film and the propulsive score by composer Alan Silvestri never letting up on the tension. Silvestri strikes notes of both impending doom and heroism and the rolling tribal drumbeats used for The Predator are iconic. There’s very little wasted space in the runtime of Predator, and while the early moments of the film may not have the energy found in the final scenes, the movie as a whole can be compared to a coil being wound up tighter and tighter. The tension just keeps mounting until all hell breaks loose in the incredibly tense booby trap scene, leading to non-stop thrills until the end.

Predator just gets better as the film goes on, with the best truly saved for last and the film clearly divided into three distinct acts while still feeling cohesive and streamlined. The first act of the movie revolves around the mission to save government officials and is fairly simple, save for the mysterious being tracking the heroes. It’s also where the conflict between Dutch and Dillon (Weathers) is set up, allowing for some character building. Not a lot, but some. The second act is where Predator really takes off, as the squad slowly gets picked off in the jungle and the audience learns more about the creature. It’s also the most horror-like piece of the movie, as the action quiets down and the hunt really begins. Finally, the third act is all about Dutch facing off against The Predator one-on-one with no weapons on his side. Interestingly, for a film well known for having a ton of quotable dialogue, this final act is nearly wordless. Dutch is all alone and The Predator doesn’t speak, but the audience is sucked into the tension as these two prepare for their legendary battle under the thick jungle canopy. If you weren’t actively looking for dialogue, you may not even notice it lacking.

If you’ve never seen Predator, I won’t spoil the developments of the final fight. But rest assured, this is one of the best ever put on film, with Dutch not only outgunned but outclassed physically by his alien opponent. Schwarzenegger is rarely ever in a film fight where he isn’t at least as strong as his enemy, which makes this encounter so refreshing and thrilling, leading to a showdown that is a blend between a typical action movie fight and the final desperate struggle that often ends a horror film.

Almost 30 years later, Predator still holds up incredibly well. The reliance on practical effects keeps the movie from aging poorly and the quality through and through means that this is a film that will stand the test of time. There’s no need for nostalgia in order to enjoy Predator, just an appreciation for great action movies.

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