OUR 300th MOVIE: PREDATOR (1987)

  • Director: John McTiernan
  • Writers: Joe Thomas and John Thomas
  • Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Shane Black, and Kevin Peter Hall
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Visual Effects)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, Apple TV, and YouTube

The winner of our action movie vote for our 300th featured movie here on the site turned out to be, by one vote, Predator. Never say that your vote doesn’t matter! Predator’s status as one of the “manliest” movies ever made remains intact to this day. The subject of a middling reception on its release, it became a major financial success and spawned an ongoing franchise, which has included six sequels to date with more likely to come. What no one could have guessed at the time in a million years is that the cast of this movie included not one, but two future governors, as in of actual states and stuff.

I’m going to describe the plot of the movie, and it seems like camp, and does sometimes play that way, but I would say that the thing to really know about Predator is takes itself entirely seriously. It is trying to have cool explosions and stuff, sure, but there’s no irony to it. It really thinks that these super muscle-y guys coming in and shooting machine guns while yelling at the top of their lungs is genuinely awesome. I mean, it is sometimes, for sure. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the peak of his Schwarzenegger-ness (before he started to sometimes take himself less seriously and do movies like Twins and Jingle All the Way), plays the head of a commando team sent into the Central American jungle, supposedly to retrieve a cabinet minister who has been taken hostage by some local guerrillas. They find a previous team that was sent in skinned and hanging upside down from a tree, but assume that it was the guerrillas. Then they attack the guerrilla camp and mow down everyone in an extended sequence of just machine guns and explosions, and seem surprised that the hostages end up dead. Soon after, they discover that they are being hunted by something else, and things get increasingly gory and desperate. As it turns out, the thing hunting them is a very technologically-advanced alien, for which there is never any explanation given.

It is not just Schwarzenegger, the former Austrian bodybuilder turned massive Hollywood star, whose muscles bulge throughout this movie. The team’s military handler is played by Carl Weathers (previously seen in this space playing Apollo Creed in Rocky), who greets Arnold with a very amusing handshake that immediately turns into a very veiny arm wresting match. Most modern viewers will notice that the most over-the-top member of the commando team is played by former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, whose character is a self-described “goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus.” They may not recognize Shane Black as the team’s vaguely nerdy radio operator, who makes several very weird jokes about how large his wife’s vagina is (Is that a genre of joke? What does that even mean?). Black went on to become a successful Hollywood screenwriter for movies like Lethal Weapon, before directing his own movies like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Nice Guys, and also Iron Man 3. His most recent movie was actually a return as the director of The Predator (Hollywood needs to stop this nonsense, your sequels need either numbers or subtitles or both), the sixth movie to feature the titular alien.

The Predator itself works extremely well as a creation of make-up and effects, especially once it takes off its helmet for a final confrontation with Schwarzenegger. The creature itself was designed by special effects wizard Stan Winston, whose other projects included The Terminator and Jurassic Park. The original plan had been for the alien suit to be occupied by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme, on the theory that he could perform some of the creature’s crazy physical feats. However, it soon became apparent that Van Damme was too short to be intimidating against the various other behemoths in this movie, and he also spent the whole time complaining about the alien suit. He was soon replaced with the 7-foot-2 Kevin Peter Hall. In addition to playing the Predator in several films, Hall would also star as Harry in the TV series Harry and the Hendersons. Hall also had trouble with the suit, which was not actually designed such that it could be seen out of. Instead, he had to act out scenes beforehand with his helmet off, in order to memorize where everything was. The great voice actor Peter Cullen is listed as providing “vocalizations” for the alien, though if this constitutes more than a couple of lines I’m not sure.

While Winston’s alien effects still hold up, much of the rest of the special effects in the movie play as dated today. In particular, the alien’s heat vision, which was supposed to play as badass at the time, is just extremely silly in 2021, sorry guys. The gory bits, like Ventura’s character getting blown up right through his chest, splattering bright red blood everywhere, are so over-the-top that it’s hard to take seriously. For better or worse, they don’t really make them like this anymore, in a world where PG-13 action movies are the rule. 

Yet Predator certainly remains influential. Watching this movie a week after The Suicide Squad, I was left thinking that movie’s director, James Gunn, has clearly watched Predator a bunch of times. That movie also includes a lot of action in a jungle, a commando team sent in by a vaguely shady American government that hasn’t given them all the information, and an over-the-top scene where an entire camp’s worth of guerrillas are massacred, while two very muscle-y guys compete to see who can kill the most people. Another thing the two movies have in common is that the one surviving rebel is a plucky woman who joins our heroes against their will and ends up entirely extraneous to the movie (played here by Elpidia Carrillo, in The Suicide Squad by Alice Braga).

I would hardly call Predator a masterpiece in the way that, say, Die Hard, the next film from the same director, John McTiernan, would become. Its plot develops in fits and starts, and the characters get little development. They are tough guys whose characters mostly consist of being extremely over-the-top versions of tough guys. At one point, Schwarzenegger’s character says, “We’re a rescue squad, not assassins,” and several times he lights up and starts puffing on a cigar in incongruous situations. That is the extent that we ever learn about the main character in the movie, it’s kind of nuts. But when you have Schwarzenegger shouting, “Get to the choppah!,” you don’t need character development.

As I mentioned, this movie’s success has spawned a series of sequels, including Predator 2, while the alien shows up in 1990 Los Angeles and fights, among others, Danny Glover, Gary Busey, and Bill Paxton, 2010’s Predators (which I saw in a movie theater and recall thinking it was better than I expected), starring Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, and, perhaps ironically, Alice Braga among a group of humans who find themselves in an extraterrestrial game reserve, and Black’s 2018 The Predator, along with two further “crossover” movies with the Alien franchise, titled Alien vs. Predator. The latter are the sort of movies that are more interesting as a concept than in practice. But this very 80s action movie, down to a closing credits where all the people we just watched die horribly turn to the camera and smile while the names of the actors flash on the screen, is very much a thing that works on its own. If you thought my description sounded like the kind of movie you would like, you will definitely like this movie.

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