We’ve all seen Predator, probably more than once. In fact, we’ve probably seen Predator 2. Maybe Predators. And Alien vs. Predator. And Alien vs. Predator 2. We might have read the comics. (Yes, the Dark Horse comics too.)
Here’s the thing. We all know that the predator is an alien. We’ve known that the predator is an alien since 1987. We can never unknow the predator’s fundamental alien-ness.
And that does Predator a disservice.
Because, burbling away under Predator’s veneer of action movie dumbness, there lurks a pretty good horror film.
And because of that, because of its carefully calculated combination of over-the-top kersplody Rambo-esque Dudes with Guns styling and thoughtful, deliberate exploration of horror tropes, I’m going to make a bold stand. Predator is actually… really good.
And we tend to forget that, because we forget that there was a time we didn’t know that the bad guy in Predator is an alien. Because we’ve lived with the alien-ness of the predator for the last quarter of a century. Because our drunken argument about which is the bigger badass, the predator or the alien, have improbably wound up as a film franchise in its own undeserving right. Because we can’t unknow the simple fact that the villain in Predator is an alien. Because we can’t watch Predator now without expecting that, without looking forward to Arnold Schwarzenegger fucking some creepy alien’s shit up, without recalling the combo of machismo and faceless central American jungle and terrorists and glowing blood and skinned bodies and kersplody.
But we should.
So, go back with me. Unspool the thread of your life; follow that slender line back. Back to 1987. Back to a time before Jesse Ventura was governor of Minnesota. Back to a time before Arnold was governor of California. Back before Jurassic Park, before T2, before Dukakkis and the tank. Think back to a time when the Iran-Contra Affair and Ollie North headlined the news every night, a time when He-Man and Transformers dominated the Saturday morning cartoon set and kids ran around pretending to be Rambo. Remember hair-metal, slasher films, the war on drugs, Just Say No, PTSD and the continuing social and political fallout from the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic and Ryan White.
Now go watch Predator. I’ll wait.
There, now. Wasn’t that good?
Predator isn’t just a big dumb action movie. It looks so much like an action movie that it’s easy to forget that it isn’t. I mean, really. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger. It takes place in the jungle. It’s packed with giant men and their giant biceps and their giant guns blowing shit up. If that’s not the textbook definition of an 80s action film, well, I don’t know what is.
Oh, I do too. And so do you. That’s Predator’s hat-trick. It’s a very clever, very well-constructed horror movie and, like the best horror movies, continually subverts its audience’s expectations. It begins with – well, that’s the problem. That’s the one thing that blows Predator’s cover. It actually begins with a quick scene of an alien spaceship approaching the Earth, with the suggestion that something’s landed.* Then we get credits and move into the action movie sphere with which we’re so comfortable: big dudes with big biceps. There’s some sort of gobbledygook about having to send a covert ops rescue mission into the jungle to rescue some kidnapped muckety-muck. We learn that Arnie, a character with one of a film’s worth of Hard Man names, Dutch, is friends with another dude with big biceps, Dillon. They have a big-bicep-off. So manly! So action movie-y! Then we meet the rest of Dutch’s team – Mac, Blain, Billy, Poncho and Hawkins. Mac is Blain’s buddy! Blain chews tobacco and carries a big gun! Billy is an Indian, with mad tracking skillz and a big fucking knife! Poncho speaks Spanish! Hawkins is a nerd!
We get the obligatory helicopter scene, as our heroes are lifted into the jungle: cock-rock blares, camouflage paint is applied, naughty words are uttered, and tobacco is spat! Then boom, they’re in the jungle! They cross the border into a hostile country! They yell! They sweat! They find a downed helicopter, and realize that not all is well in Whoville! There’s some yelling and sweating as Dutch begins to realize that Dillon is maybe untrustworthy. You see, Dutch knew the guy in charge of the downed helicopter!
Then things get gross. There are flayed bodies hanging from a nearby tree, and the dogtags beneath the bodies suggest that they’re from the team that preceded Dutch’s – the team with the downed helicopter. Good God, what happened to them? Is this faceless central American jungle full of drug-running-terrorist-cannibals? WUT THE FUCK, YOU GUYS. Everyone is sad for a while, and Dutch gives Dillon the stink-eye. Our heroes continue.
KABLOOIE! There is FIGHTING and a lot of EXPLOSIONS AND SHIT BLOWS THE FUCK UP and some QUIPS are QUIPPED and then more EXPLOSIONS BOOOOOM. This is our heroes fighting the terrorist-guerilla-drug-running-cannibal-baddies, whom they have found in their random faceless jungle headquarters in the middle of nowhere. Some manly man-isms are yelled, sweatily, (“I don’t have time to bleed”) and a hostage is taken – a woman, of course. Dutch and Dillon have it out about the fact that Dillon lied to Dutch and was just using him to kill some baddies, not rescue anyone. Dutch, who made a point of mentioning at the film’s beginning that he and his group are not “assassins,” takes this somewhat amiss. Tempers frayed, the group begins its journey back to the pick-up point.
On their journey, however, they’re hunted by some thing and the thing gradually picks the team off one by one, in increasingly disgusting fashion, and ultimately Dutch and the thing fight it out and Dutch just barely wins and there’s, like, a giant nuclear blast and the film ends with Dutch and the improbably surviving woman being airlifted, bloodied and hollow-eyed, out of the jungle while some sort of patriotic Taps-esque trumpet thinger plays us into the credits. What did Dutch and his team fight? Was it some terrifying native? A highly trained guerilla team? Columbian drug-lords? (In the 80s, the Columbian Drug-Lord was the go-to effective villain; “Columbian drug-lord,” then, is always a safe first guess in films involving jungles and movies.)
And that’s Predator: the action movie.
So, yeah. Predator is an action movie. But it’s not a very good action movie. In fact, it’s a totally ridiculous action movie. Indeed, if Predator were just an action movie, it would be… well, either ridiculously successful or a total failure. It’s an action movie by committee – each character can be summed up in three words, the plot is both absurdly simple and simply absurd, and the dialogue is dire. Allow me to provide a sample (I paraphrase, of course):
ARMY DUDE: [yelling; sweating] Blow the caps off the ass-ends of the fucking shitholes in the left quadrant helicopter MD-40 tank-gummy wingerwanger! Do it! NOW!
OTHER ARMY DUDE: [yelling; sweating] I can’t get a bead on the shitfucking asswindow’s flamberdoodle cocksucking AKAK-77 three! [gets shot; drops gun and grabs own bicep. Blood leaks from between his fingers.] ARG! I’m hit, sarge! I’m runtfucking hit!
THIRD ARMY DUDE: [yelling; sweating] FUCK THIS JIMMERSLAMMER BULLTURD! [pulls off grenade belt; arms all 97 grenades with a single swipe of his massive cock; tosses belt improbable distance into house/shack/hole-in-ground where all twenty Central American drug-lord/terrorists/kidnapper/bandits are hiding.]
GRENADE BELT: KABLOOIE.
ARMY DUDE: [quip]
But Predator is toying with you. Predator is no action film – well, it’s not just an action film. The real movie is hiding under all those sweating, yelling, exploding, bicep-bulging Army Dudes and their guns and quips. The real Predator is a tense body-horror-heavy thriller about a small group of wholly underprepared people in an unfamiliar, confusing and hostile environment, being hunted by an unknown, malevolent other they can’t possibly begin to comprehend.
Y’know. Like a haunted house movie.
That’s right. Predator is a haunted house film. Consider: the protagonists labor constantly under oppressive sense of being watched. They’re trapped and begin to turn against one another. They slowly realize that they are not and cannot ever be capable of fighting off th thing that haunts them. They get picked off one by one by something that cannot be killed via ordinary means.
And the predator itself? The film treats it like a supernatural threat, as well as an action-movie villain. We know there’s something dreadfully wrong in the jungle within 13 minutes of the film’s opening, when our heroes find those flayed bodies. We get monster-cam, a thermal-energy bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, 20 minutes in. We get a little shot of the monster itself – specifically, its huge, clawed hand – in monster-cam half an hour in. We hear the monster. Our heroes sense the monster.
And even then, we don’t see the monster. We see the monster’s ghostly presence, the area around the monster. The monster’s negative space. We get glimpses of the monster’s parts here and there. We see its blood, glowing green against the reassuringly terrestrial jungle. Its tentacle-like hair. Its claws. Its glowing eyes.
But we don’t have any idea what’s chasing Dutch and his crew, any more than they do. And, with that thermal energy bird’s-eye view, it could be something ordinary. When we get our first monster-cam, there’s no indication that we’re seeing through the eyes of anything except a normal human with some sort of advanced technology goggles and a major bone to pick with our heroes – maybe a super-guerilla-drug-lord.
And then it starts picking them off, one by one. In incredibly disgusting ways. Our heroes, who’re under the impression that they’re still in an action movie, respond appropriately for their genre: they blow shit up.
It doesn’t work. They can’t fight the super-guerilla-drug-lord. They can’t fight it with huge guns. They can’t fight it with huge knives. That’s when they – and we – realize: they can’t fight it because it’s not what they think it is. It’s a monster. An alien. An other. It’s simply better equipped to hunt in the jungle environment than they are. And so they die.
Until, in a neat inversion of the film’s first hour, Dutch - wounded, mostly unarmed, isolated, and, y’know, still stuck in the exact middle of nowhere - stumbles on a trick to render himself invisible to the monster. Now he can fight it. And so he does, by using the environment that was previously hostile to him against the monster. The tables aren’t turned, not exactly, but Dutch does manage to even up the odds a bit, by making himself invisible and mucking up the monster’s technology enough to make it visible. The monster may still have the superior firepower, but Dutch has enough Action Movie Skillz left in him to design weapons and traps the monster doesn’t expect. So they fight, mano y monstero – and the monster totally gets into it, whipping off his helmet and roaring at Dutch during their final confrontation in what is essentially a man/monster dick-measuring contest. The monster is clearly having a whale of a time, and things certainly look grim for Dutch.
If you’re still not convinced that Predator is a horror film, get this: Dutch doesn’t kill the monster. Dutch grievously wounds the monster, sure, but the monster gets the last laugh (literally) by nuking the jungle. Dutch doesn’t kill the monster because, according to the laws of this slipstream horror/action genre mashup, he can’t. The monster kills itself as a final, frankly kind of hilarious “fuck you very much” to Dutch et al., and Dutch barely fucking survives. Action movies, especially of the type Predator is so knowingly aping, rely on the catharsis of hero-kills-villain resolutions to counter all the explosions and quips and yelling and sweating and gratuitous violence. The villain gets what he deserves, and the hero is the means of delivering those deserts, and everyone goes home happy. But horror films deny their audiences that kind of catharsis, as they deny their characters any real sense of accomplishment or satisfying resolution. Because, by definition, the hero of a horror movie cannot kill the villain.
Because the villain is us. The real horror in horror films exploits is our niggling fear that, at the end of the day, it’s the awful things inside us that will win. Our rage, our anger, our bigotry and hatred and fear: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters of every stripe are simply expressions of the things we fear most about ourselves. The monster in Predator is no different: it’s an alien trophy-hunter, with no object but to kill for the sport of it, and better equipped to do so than any game it might run up against. Like big game hunters and their prey in our world, it cannot be defeated. It can only lose by accident, or by its own hand. Listen closely to what the predator growls at Dutch before setting its bomb. It says something, in its strange voice – and that something sounds an awful lot like I am you.
There’s a lot more to pry out of Predator, like the tongue-in-cheek humor of having an Austrian actor playing a character called “Dutch” sent illegally by an American agency to infiltrate a central American country, or the script’s clever subversion of all those apparently lazy action movie tropes it employs. The fact that, in monster-sound, Arnie's manly voice sounds like a child's wimpering. Oh, and Shane Black, who plays the nerd? He’s also the guy who wrote the first two Lethal Weapon films, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Official Pornokitsch Favorite Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also directed), so triple Pornokitsch hugs and kisses to him. But I’ve gone on long enough.
*Except for that blasted opening sequence, with the alien ship, which pretty much ruins my haunted-house theory by revealing the monster too early. So let’s pretend the producers demanded it be put in because they were afraid people wouldn’t get that the film is about a giant alien monster, because producers are crass, craven people with no faith in an audience’s ability to figure out what’s going on, and move on with our lives.
Monsters: The Predator. And, uh, us.
Mullets: Alas, everyone was sporting military buzz-cuts or shaved heads for this one. But the predator has great tentacle-hair, don’t you think?
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: the woman in Predator exists for two reasons: first, to deliver the exposition that the “demon who skins men” or whatever has been hunting in this jungle for a while. Secondly, as a nod to the action movie trope that demands a woman be rescued. She’s actually fairly hard-core, at first, and does a credible job trying to escape Dutch’s crew – but she’s, honestly, totally unnecessary. And turns into a victim/doormat by the film’s end.
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: Predator 2 was… not great. Not terrible, but not great. The rest of the films in the franchise can bugger off and die. They’re pretty much ruined the legacy of this film. Also, the less said about Arnie and Jesse V, the better.
Doesn’t Anyone Think This Shit Through? I’ve managed to convince myself that, for once, someone did. And I love that someone.
Comprehensive Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: Top of the scale, folks.
P.S. I know I promised unicorns this time, but I got distracted. Next week!