Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: Predator (1987)

Predator (1987)

Rated R

Score: 4 out of 5

Predator holds many reputations. It is one of the greatest films of both director John McTiernan and star Arnold Schwarzenegger when both of them were at their creative peaks. It is one of the greatest action/horror and sci-fi/horror films ever made. It is one of the manliest movies ever made, a film that will cause you to grow a beard and chest hair while watching it -- and, for many of the same reasons, it is one of the most homoerotic movies ever made, filled with glistening muscle men showing off what those muscles can do. (It was the '80s.) It is all of those things and more, one of the peaks of the distinctive subgenre known as the '80s action movie, a mix of the Rambo sequels, The Most Dangerous Game, and Alien in which elite American soldiers at the height of the Decade of Excess go toe-to-toe with an alien hunter treating the jungles of Central America as his personal big game preserve. A handful of nagging issues keep me from calling it a perfect action movie, but it's still a must-see for any fan of the genre.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is Alan "Dutch" Schaefer, a Special Forces major tasked by his old friend, a CIA agent and former commando Dillon (Carl Weathers), with leading his team into the jungle to rescue an official who's been taken hostage by guerrilla fighters. Things go wrong immediately when Dutch and his men learn that Dillon's objective was actually to recover missing intelligence; namely, they learn this after they find the bodies of the actual rescue team flayed and strung up from a tree. They then learn that those men weren't victims of the guerrillas they just killed, or of anything human, for that matter. No, a monster is stalking these woods. Armed with cloaking technology, a mask that supplies infrared vision, a wrist-mounted retractable blade for up-close kills, and a shoulder-mounted laser cannon for killing targets at range, this extraterrestrial predator is here to hunt some of the toughest men on the planet: namely, Dutch and his squad of highly-trained, heavily-armed soldiers.

At the most fundamental level, this is a slasher movie. Sure, instead of drunken debauchery we get big men firing off miniguns and grenade launchers, but the basic core here is of a stealthy killer who stalks and takes out a dwindling party of people, one by one, often with the camera watching the protagonists through his eyes as he tracks them. It's literally the Predator's M.O. He believes in fighting honorably, refusing to kill the captured guerrilla fighter Anna because she's unarmed and eventually taking off his armor and mask when it comes down to him and his archenemy Dutch at the end, and he collects the skulls of his victims as trophies and ritualistically mutilates their corpses. While the sequels would flesh out the backstory of the Predator and the species he came from (called the Yautja), the basics are all here: he's a masked murderer with a set of iconic weapons, tools, clothes, and tactics that he uses to hunt. It's no wonder that the Predator and the xenomorphs from the Alien films have been pitted against each other in crossovers: they're practically each other's antithesis, one an animalistic killing machine that lives solely to eat and breed, the other a high-tech alien version of the "great white hunter" of the colonial era (or, in modern times, the folks who go on safaris to blow away big game). If you look at it from a certain angle, it even follows the morality of a slasher, with Hawkins and Blain, who spend the early film dropping casually sexist and homophobic remarks, being the first victims, and Dutch coming across as a macho-man version of Laurie Strode in how he's among the most morally principled people in the cast.

And as a slasher movie, it is exceptionally well-made. There's a reason why John McTiernan is considered a master of Hollywood action: even on this, only his second film, he delivers outstanding sequences of battle and death as first the commandos fight the guerrillas and establish themselves as the alpha males of Earth, then get the tables turned on them by an enemy far outside their comfort zone. Whether we're seeing the jungle through our own eyes or through the Predator's infrared lenses, we're seeing it clear and crisp, able to tell where everybody is in relation to their surroundings except, obviously, the one thing that elects to keep itself concealed. The jungle looks hot and humid in the day but chilly and damp at night, a foreboding place where the threat may be around any corner. The special effects are outstanding for the time, from the Predator's cloaking and death ray to the gore he unleashes (most notably his famous spine rip) to the many, many explosions the film serves up, one of the highlights being when the Predator is lighting up the woods with his gun trying to kill Dutch and we see his silhouette against a beautiful backdrop of sparks and fire. It feels almost like a callback to a scene earlier in the film when the squad, having caught a glimpse of the Predator, is panicking and firing everything they've got in the direction of the alien, leaving a carnage of shattered trees, twigs, and dust behind without knowing whether they even hit the thing.

Said squad is composed of a who's who of '80s manly men led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of the roles that defined his career. At once both a chiseled superman and a force of righteousness who resents how his team has been led to do the CIA's dirty work, Dutch spends the entire movie showing off his guns, dropping one-liners, leading his dwindling squad in its hunt to catch the Predator and escape the jungle, and eventually entering a mano-a-mano battle of wits and guerrilla tactics once his back is put up against the wall. He's a man who you'd want to have your back in a tense situation, as the men he leads into combat do. Guys like Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Bill Duke, and Shane Black (an uncredited co-writer on the film who went on to become a filmmaker in his own right) elevate the rest of Dutch's squad beyond the one-note archetypes given to them in the script, creating a group of Men of Action who feel like they have a sense of camaraderie forged through numerous missions, the sort of team that the Expendables films were never quite able to replicate. Carl Weathers' agent Dillon, meanwhile, is an odd duck among them, distrusted after they learn the truth about the mission but nonetheless growing increasingly conflicted and remorseful about the situation he dropped the team into.

The film didn't have any seriously glaring flaws, but it did have quite a few little ones that, together, eventually added up. Within the cast, the weak link among them was undoubtedly Anna, the female guerrilla who felt like she was added simply because the writers must've felt that a film this macho might've gotten some folks to start asking the same questions they did after watching Top Gun. While the diversity in the film's cast was ahead of its time, its treatment of its sole female character sadly wasn't, as Anna spends most of the film used as a prop who the script contrives numerous ways to keep out of combat. The most commendable thing about her was that she provides some good exposition on the Predator (apparently, this isn't the first time he's come to Earth to hunt the Most Dangerous Game), that her actress Elpidia Carrillo is good with what she's given, and that she doesn't actively make things worse for the rest of the team. When Aliens the prior year was giving us Ripley and Vasquez, Anna felt like a "faux action girl" who did little more than look the part of a badass. No wonder the Predator decided she wasn't worth killing. The opening shot of the film, showing the Predator's arrival to Earth, also deflated some of the early mystery as to what was going on. We spend the first act watching Dutch and his men battle guerrillas while finding clues that something's not right in this jungle, that the guerrillas aren't the only, or even the biggest, threat in front of them. However, because of that opening, we know the answer to the central mystery the film is serving up: namely, that there's an alien on the loose, that it killed the last group of men sent into the jungle, and that it's here to kill them too. Finally, the early assault on the guerrilla base, while working well to establish the protagonists as badasses, felt rather mediocre compared to the outstanding action scenes that followed, with very little sense of place once it gets past the opening where they're scoping the base out. Apparently, McTiernan let his second-unit director take care of this scene, and while the action wasn't bad, it didn't leave the best first impression, especially in comparison to the downright excellent action that followed.

The Bottom Line

For a film born from a joke about Sylvester Stallone fighting an alien in Rocky V because they'd run out of ideas for Rocky sequels, Predator is kind of amazing. An intense sci-fi survival horror action film, it isn't quite a perfect movie, but it's still more than worth watching for any fans of any of the genres I mentioned, or anybody who wants to know where half of Ahnold's most memetic one-liners came from.

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