Believe it or not, John McTiernan’s Predator burst into theaters 35 years ago and went on to rake in $98 million at the worldwide box office. Plus, anything but cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger – came off his heels The Terminator and Command – as the de facto action star of the 1980s.
The premise is simple enough: a military rescue team led by Alan “Dutch” Schaefer (Schwarzenegger) – and consisting of Dillon (Carl Weathers), Mac (Bill Duke), Poncho (Richard Chaves), Blain (Jesse Ventura), Billy (Sonny Landham ) and Hawkins (Shane Black) – battle a mysterious alien in the jungle of the fictional country of Val Verde. After his crew is picked off one by one, Dutch must defeat the nasty hunter, or end up as a trophy on the creature’s belt.
Looking at Predator again for the first time in a while, I was surprised by the low-budget quality of the production. The effects are rougher and less polished – a result of the location shooting and the apparent creature’s own clumsy design – compared to other films released around the same time – films such as RoboCop, Foreignersand Arnold’s own Total recall, e.g. Meanwhile, Donald McAlpine’s cinematography drenches the entire picture in darkness, rarely pulling back long enough to give us a panoramic view of the dense jungle engulfing our clumsy group of heroes. Jim and John Thomas’ script contains obvious allusions to Vietnam, but not much in the way of depth or characterization. Dutch and his crew are thinly drawn, with each man demonstrating exactly one trait – minigun man, dirty joke guy, superstitious Indian, coat, explosives man and jittery man with a razor – before having their guts ripped out by the monstrous villain.
In other words, Predator is far from perfect.
Yet these imperfections actually help McTiernan’s film, giving the horror/adventure a neo-realism that is missing from most big shows. When Arnold swings from a tree or falls from a ridiculous height, the stunt work is clumsy but effective. At one point Dutch lands in a pool of water and the camera pans over to reveal a large tree shrouded in a thick fog – it’s haunting and effective. The lack of color and light helps the production and makes the viewer feel like they are part of the action. We can almost smell the sweat dripping off Dutch’s face and feel the thick mud clinging to his person.
As mentioned, our heroes walk and talk like GI Joe action figures – and throw out one-liners like “I don’t have time to bleed!” – but many of them die surprisingly quickly, violently and often quite unceremoniously. I remember most of Dutch’s crew by name, which is odd when you really only consider Mac and Dillon do Worth something. Even Jesse Ventura’s Blain Cooper bites the dust before he gets a chance to use his awesome GE M134 Minigun on the Predator — which is okay, because his death leads to the film’s best scene (and maybe anyone action movie, especially with the addition of Alan Silvestri’s glorious score):
Compared to the unnecessarily complicated and overly pristine action pictures of the modern era (Jurassic World: Dominion), Predator’s simplicity and uneven quality is quite glorious to behold. It’s not one large movie, but it’s an extremely entertaining piece of popcorn magic that never tries to be anything more than necessary — and it is what makes it a great movie.
So why has it been so hard to replicate?
Since 1987, three Predator sequels have been released in theaters (not including the two terrible aliens vs. Predator rates), and each failed to conjure up a fraction of the thrills found in the original.
Predator 2 made the right move by moving the action to Los Angeles and pitting our alien villain against drug dealers and street-level thugs. But it also contained a confusing amount of Voodoo nonsense, oddly set its story in the “future” 1997 (which just means guns have flashlights), and swapped Arnold’s character for Danny Glover’s tantrums. Nimrod Number Predator (2010) mostly sticks to the beats of the original and does a great job of expanding Predator lore, but crumbles under its own weight with a clumsy third act that tries to position Adrien Brody as an out-and-out action hero. Then there’s Shane Black’s 2018 film, The predator, which crashes and burns upon entry (a result of studio meddling) despite a clever premise, a top-notch cast, and terrific production values. The verdict is still out on Dan Trachtenberg’s future Exchangewhich will be released on Hulu on August 5th.
Then again, why has no one been able to match Predator in terms of quality entertainment? What makes the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic … well, a classic?
It comes down to the aforementioned simplicity. Predator contains no extraneous side characters, no twists or turns, no complicated quests, and no explanation or backstory for any of its characters (including the Predator) beyond what is necessary to move the plot along. By comparison, the sequels delved into the Predator’s hows and whys. One of them even gave us a sneak peek at the monster’s homeworld – a clear case of pointless over-explanation.
Predator is a monster that loves to hunt the best of the best – that’s all we need to know. Once you start introducing baby Predators, Predator families, etc., you lose all sense of mystery and make the creature less offensive as a result. A filmmaker only needs to throw in our alien [location] for battle [protagonist] and then sit back and watch the magic happen. How cool would it be to see one Predator movies set in WWII? Or Vietnam? Such sequels may not offer much from a creative standpoint, but they would amaze moviegoers eager to see the latest action star go toe-to-toe with the iconic villain.
Come on, every single one of you wanted to line up to see the Rock, Vin Diesel or Mark Wahlberg take a shot at the Predator. (I’d also offer Emily Blunt, but I’m still sticking with the talented actress appearing in one Alien sequel or prequel.) Hell, I’d pay to see The Expendables v. Predator. It’s not that hard, guys. Hollywood stubbornly stuck to the formula when it came to the legion of Rocky movies and endless Die hard knockoffs, but refused to follow suit Predator.
For all its thrilling action, spectacle and star power, Predator became a classic – not necessarily because of what it did right, but mostly because of everything the sequels did wrong.