Sunday, June 12, 2022

If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It: Predator at 35

In the summer of 1987, Predator was the ultimate rumble in the jungle. Hard hitting pulp sci-fi guided by the sure hand of director John McTiernan, Predator surrounded peak '80s Arnold Schwarzenegger with a crew of guys - Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham - who might not have been able to match him muscle for muscle but were still convincingly tough. Shane Black and Richard Chaves filling out the rest of the team, not so much, but you gotta have a couple of normal dudes in there.

Released on June 12th, 1987, the story of Predator, with its screenplay penned by brothers Jim and John Thomas, put a team of bad asses deep in a Central American jungle where they unexpectedly found themselves up against a star-spawned adversary so proficient it could take 'em out one by one as easily as Jason slaughtering his way through a bunch of camp counselors. If you think of Predator as essentially a sci-fi slasher, with its mounting body count (and shots from the killer's POV) and its series of gory, creative deaths (far bloodier than the late '80s Friday sequels were allowed to be), then Schwarzenegger's cigar chomping Dutch is its Final Girl. 

He's the last survivor who has to prove himself to be pluckier and more resourceful than all the characters that have fallen before him in one final, do or die battle. 

In true Final Girl fashion, Schwarzenegger's Dutch gears up for his third act showdown by elaborately booby trapping the jungle in a way that would make Nightmare on Elm Street's Nancy Thompson proud. In the end, both of them are operating from the same playbook. Nancy sets up Freddy to take a sledgehammer to the gut while Dutch tricks the Predator into getting a log dropped on his head. 

When it was released in 1988, McTiernan's Die Hard was praised for subverting the macho cliches of '80s action cinema, with Bruce Willis' John McClane painfully bleeding his way through his face offs with Hans Gruber and his band of terrorists rather than breezing through them but I say McTiernan had already been breaking down those cliches in Predator. The whole movie is about how empty and ineffectual macho bullshit is. One by one these tough guys get taken out as their advanced weapons prove to be completely useless and most of them don't go out stoically but instead die screaming. Predator is very clear about the fact that none of the stuff that usually wins the day in action movies counts for shit. 

After having Dutch's team in full swagger mode in the first act, having them spouting lines like "I ain't got time to bleed," McTiernan takes the wind out of all their smirking machismo by having the Predator make quick work of them. 

Predator is typically perceived as a celebration of male bravado but it is not that at all. McTiernan ruthlessly torpedoes the cartoonish bluster of these characters. Jesse Ventura's Mac gets his chest blown out before he even has a chance to give the Predator a taste of Old Painless. When Sonny Landham's Billy decides to stand alone in a mano a mano confrontation between himself and the Predator, McTiernan doesn't even honor this encounter by showing it. Instead all we get is Billy's off-camera scream. That jacked arm of Carl Weather's Dillon that greets Dutch's handshake? It ends up dismembered, lying on the floor of the jungle, firing off rounds into the dirt. And although Dutch ultimately does win, he isn't wrapped in glory at the end. Instead he's covered in ash. 

As designed by FX legend Stan Winston (and as worn by Kevin Peter Hall both here and in Predator 2), the Predator suit proved to be instantly iconic. I wouldn't have thought that dreadlocks would look right on an alien but as soon as you see the Predator you know that Winston's instincts were spot on, right down to him wisely incorporating his buddy James Cameron's casual mention that he always thought it'd be cool to see a creature with mandibles. When James Cameron says "Hey, you know what'd be cool?" it definitely pays to listen. 

Given how well McTiernan set this franchise up for success, I think it's crazy that he never returned to the series. I mean, if Ridley Scott could come back and do a couple more Aliens, why not McTiernan on Predator? Maybe the ultimate answer to that is, well, he went to jail but to that I say "yeah but he got out" and, you know, a lot of stuff can be overlooked for the sake of the Predator.

I think it's interesting, too, that Schwarzenegger never came back. This could have been his franchise, if he wanted it to be. It was definitely his name that sold the original but he just moved on and ultimately I think that was to the series' benefit. Even though it's easy to imagine all kinds of sequel scenarios in which Dutch returns and has to gather another group of guys to take out more Predators or he starts working with the government to advise them on combating this alien threat or even to have Dutch really go on the offensive and lead a Space Force back to the Predator's home world, Schwarzenegger was out after the first film and I think that only helped the Predator franchise to thrive. 

The biggest problem with the Alien series is that they kept Sigourney Weaver around way too long. Coming back for Aliens, fine, but after that they should have moved on. The studio and the producers got hung up on the idea that Sigourney was what was driving the franchise, not the concept of the Aliens themselves and that ultimately hurt the series. With Predator, the Predators have always been the star. Going back to the idea of the first movie being a sci-fi slasher, the Predator sequels have been like Friday the 13th's in which every movie presents a fresh slate of victims for the Predators to eliminate in gruesome fashion. With the Predator, it's all about the hunt and the sequels, despite taking place in different environments (or even different time periods), have all followed the formula of Predator vs. Prey that the original established so perfectly.  

So Happy 35th, Predator. You're one classic motherfucker! 

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