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Non-Review Review: Predator

Predator is an absolutely brilliant piece of work. It’s elegantly constructed, beautifully directed and cleverly written. Perhaps the smartest thing about Predator is the way that it so fantastically plays on audience expectations, offering the perfect bait-and-switch, teasing a jungle adventure in the style of Schwarzenegger’s Commando before morphing into something else entirely. It’s so well handled that the film’s reputation and prestige has done little to dampen its thrills.

A predator stalks...

A predator stalks…

The Predator itself is an iconic movie monster. Indeed, it’s become something of a horror movie staple, in the style of the alien creatures from Alien and Aliens or Freddie Kreuger or Jason Vorhees. Indeed, the Predator itself has become the subject of monster movie mash-ups like Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. It’s an instantly recognisable piece of pop culture, a horror movie creature that has made quite an impression.

And it’s not hard to see why the creature has become so iconic. On a purely technical level, the Predator is striking. It might not be as unnerving as the H.R. Giger designs of the creatures from Alien, but special effects and make-up maestro Stan Winston has still crafted a beautiful practical effect. A gigantic beast with neon green blood and claws, the make-up effects in Predator still hold up well, even in high definition. Though the creature is obviously a (very tall) guy in a suit, there’s still something decidedly an unnervingly alien about it.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

A lot of that is down to the sound design by David Stone and Richard Anderson. The Predator sounds alien. It seems to almost hum as it moves, communicating in sharp clicks and harsh sounds. There are several sequences where it echoes dialogue from human characters, but most of that seems to be technological. When the creature mimics Dutch towards the end of the film, there’s a sense that the creature is trying to reproduce those sounds through organs of articulation radically different from anything even remotely human.

The Predator itself is just a fantastic horror creation, an example of so many different elements of production design working perfectly with one another. The moment where the creature unhooks its mask to reveal its true face is one of the great horror film reveals, and it’s no wonder that “you are one ugly motherf&%$er” has become an instantly recognisable line. The creature feels very much like a spiritual successor to the Universal horror monsters of the thirties and forties, an unnerving physical presence realised through practical effects.

A well-oiled machine gun...

A well-oiled machine gun…

(Not that Predator doesn’t have any superb visual effects shots. While some of the “cloak” sequences have dated quite poorly, a lot of the computer-generated effects hold up quite well today. For example, the failure of the creature’s cloak after it follows Dutch into the water is a rather wonderful sequence that can’t have been easy to produce with the special effects available to the team in 1987. The film has aged remarkably well.)

However, as iconic as the Predator has become, it’s worth noting that it’s very much intended as a bit of a surprise or a twist in the film. The original marketing on the film was very clearly built around Arnold Schwarzenegger. My old DVD copy of the film has a cover that resembles the original theatrical posters. While there is a suggestion that Schwarzenegger is being hunted by something, there’s no indication that his enemy is extra-terrestrial or monstrous. Instead, the film plays off the iconography of other eighties Schwarzenegger vehicles like Commando.

Duke-ing it out...

Duke-ing it out…

Indeed, the film is structured in such a way as to catch the audience off-guard. We’re introduced to a crack military squad tasked with infiltrating behind enemy lines and rescuing the survivors of a chopper crash. Part of the charm of Predator is how completely it commits to this genre set-up. Carl Weathers plays a seedy CIA agent who seems to be playing Dutch’s commandos for fools. The film’s first big action sequence is right out of some cheesy eighties jungle thriller, as our characters storm the enemy camp and try to liberate any hostages.

There’s a sense that this could almost be its own movie, completely divorced from the alien stuff. There are betrayals and lies and double-crosses, and a sense that Dutch has been tricked into doing some morally questionable work by an old friend. As much as the film’s first half-hour hints towards something alien stalking the woods, it devotes just as much time to foreshadowing the fact that the mission isn’t on the level. The revelation of bodies skinned and hung upside down is treated as one piece of the puzzle, just like the reveal that the chopper wasn’t carrying innocents, but was “a surveillance bird.”

Dutch courage...

Dutch courage…

Predator commits effectively to the set-up of a jungle thriller. It defines the characters in terms of common stereotypes from a military action thriller. There’s the tracker who is in tune with nature; there’s the dodgy and untrustworthy CIA handler; there’s the over-compensating macho gattling gun operator; there’s the awkward nerdy jokey one, who inevitably dies first; there’s even the borderline mentally unstable soldier. The genius of Predator is taking this set-up and then veering sharply into creature-feature territory.

There are a lot of reasons that this works. The most obvious is that the movie handles the switch brilliantly. Even watching it today, it’s easy to get swept up in the opening twenty minutes. John McTiernan directs most of those twenty minutes like a black-ops military adventure, and Alan Silvestri’s score is suitably action-movie-esque. Then, once the team discovers what’s going on, things start to get a bit more uncomfortable. McTiernan starts using unsettling angles to create the impression his characters are being stalked, while Silvestri’s music becomes a lot more primal and urgent.

A dirty job...

A dirty job…

The shift also works because it’s a great concept. Part of the problem with creature feature horror films is the sense that the human characters exist to be slaughtered. The whole point of a creature feature is that the horror is something shocking and unimaginable, so you rarely have monsters preying on an ensemble that stands a chance. Slasher movie killers target horny teenagers; defrosted monsters prey on scientific researchers. These are not the types of characters who have a hope of surviving an encounter, so there’s something very grim and fatalistic about these sorts of creature features.

In contrast, using this fiendishly clever genre-switch, Predator has cleverly found a way to pit its movie monster against a bunch of highly-trained and well-armed soldiers. It provides a conflict that feels at least a little but more well-matched than most horror films, at least in theory. In practise, the creature tears through the unit quite efficiently, but the set-up seems a bit more balanced than most similar movies. It seems more sporting, and mitigates a lot of the creepy subtext of these sorts of films. Incidentally, James Cameron did something quite similar in Aliens.

Field of fire...

Field of fire…

More than that, though, it allows for some hint of political subtext without seeming too heavy-handed. Like Dutch and his team, there’s a sense that this creature is a well-oiled killing machine. “What the hell are you?” Dutch demands at the climax of the film, but he (and we) already know enough to understand the creature. Dutch himself has an almost instinctive understanding of how the Predator works. While fleeing in the jungle, he knows better than to give his captive a weapon. “He didn’t kill you because you’re unarmed. No sport.”

Like Dutch and his commandos, the creature is somewhere that it doesn’t belong. The movie makes quite a few explicit references to the small-scale conflict zones bubbling over in the eighties. Dutch and his team are linked to work in Berlin, but refused a job in Libya. The team members recall a job in Afghanistan. These are murky grey areas, and it’s clear that these operations were not strictly-speaking above board.

A bloody business...

A bloody business…

The Predator wears a more advanced form of camouflage than the soldiers seen here, but there’s a sense that it’s not too dissimilar to the CIA black ops units that tend to infiltrate and assassinate. Dutch rather pointedly makes it clear that his team aren’t as amoral as the CIA might like. “We’re a rescue team. Not assassins.” Still, it’s quite clear that the CIA wish to use him in a similar capacity, taking advantage of his training and efficiency for their own ends.

The predator might look alien, but its methods aren’t entirely beyond the scope of human understanding. It’s obviously a hunter, but it is able to disguise its actions by killing inside a conflict zone. It’s telling that the commando teams are disconcerted, but not entirely freaked out, when they discover the skinned bodies hanging upside down. It’s a grotesque and depraved act, but it’s not something unexplainable that must have been committed by an extraterrestrial monster. The suggestion is that this sort of brutality is not unheard of in warfare.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Predator never hammers the idea too hard, and it never labours the point. Any political subtext remains subtext, as the movie evolves into a beautifully effective man-versus-monster confrontation that sees Dutch pushed to the very limits of his resourcefulness. Predator might have a wealth of great ideas underpinning it, but it never loses sight of the fact that it is primarily a fun monster movie.

These clever and insightful elements give the movie a bit more depth and intelligence than it might otherwise have. Indeed, Predator is a shockingly smart horror thriller, stunning well constructed from the script to the screen. It still holds up incredibly well. The fact that the Predator remains a much-loved monster despite the fact than none of its subsequent appearances even approached this level of quality is a testament to the craftsmanship on display here.

4 Responses

  1. Do you plan to review The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly?

  2. You know my feelings 😀

  3. can you do one review for Predator 2 please? is the only movie missing!

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