EDITOR'S NOTE: This will now be a recurring feature where we will take a look at films that have a major anniversary this year and how they have stood the test of time.
There’s no mistaking which decade Predator was made in. Things from the 80s seem to have a certain stink about them—you can tell a song from the 80s within the first few bars, and movies are not dissimilar; we pick up on these things almost instinctively, even if we weren’t alive to experience that decade first hand. A movie like Predator, released in 1987, fully exudes this feeling. As an action film Predator is somewhat behind the times now—though it is still capable of entertaining the viewer—but twenty-five years after the fact it’s interesting as a document of what action filmmaking once was, and what the genre eventually became.
Predator is, for the most part, an utterly ridiculous film. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s motley Minoriteam crew is little other than an assortment of walking, talking clichés. The early action sequences exist solely as Michael Bay-level high-octane entertainment. (My favorite example is when Schwarzenegger’s company comes across a village where hostages are being held. They brazenly open fire on the village, blowing it up and razing it to the ground, only to find that—surprise—none of the hostages survived.) The one-liners are devastatingly crude, and every close-up of Schwarzenegger ‘acting’ is appallingly bad. Despite that, and to its credit, Predator is enthralling, albeit very much ironically. It is in the 2 Fast 2 Furious mold: we know it is not a particularly good picture; nonetheless we dare not look away.
Perhaps that’s because Predator is a bona fide slice of 80s filmmaking. Take its devotion to action film clichés, for instance. It’s almost as if Predator’s producers had a list of every trite prosaism and were determined to check off as many boxes as possible in the space of two hours. Among the best is the inclusion of an all-knowledgeable, totally infallible Native American—a shameless incarnation of old stereotypes. He has premonitions of future danger; he seeks out tracks in the jungle mud; he connects with the spiritual plane. Incidentally, has it ever happened in film that a shaman’s premonitions turned out to be wrong? But my favorite cliché is the boneheaded solider played by Jesse Ventura, an all-muscle red-blooded American type. Ventura’s character informs us that he “doesn’t have time to bleed.” Unfortunately, he is among the first to perish.
Less sardonic is the way in which the film’s score is implemented. Most of Predator is backed with a prominent orchestral score. Even dialogue-heavy scenes are trapped beneath a constant bed of music. Parts of the score are excellent, and were even reused in later 20th Century Fox films (most notably Die Hard), but silence is at a real premium here, which is the opposite of what we expect from a film today. Predator has downbeat moments—a soldier sneaks through the jungle, trying to spot the Predator—but they are rich with music. In today’s films such sequences would be soundless, in order to instill tension and fear into the audience. The audience should fear the Predator as much as the soldiers. But that feeling never manifests in Predator—the score is a wall between the film and the viewer; it feels as though we’re being held at arm’s length, repelled by the bombastic and obtrusive music. This is very much an artifact of the 80s. Die Hard or Lethal Weapon can similarly be faulted for their overzealous scoring, but this is something we’re not familiar with today. The Bourne Identity’s soundtrack, for instance, is far subtler than its progenitors’, and even modern installments in the Die Hard franchise use music more sparingly.
Yet, in the face of its many foibles—too numerous to list here, but the abovementioned ones caught my attention most—Predator completely turns it around in its final act, providing perhaps the finest twenty minutes of action we’re ever likely to see: the duel between Schwarzenegger and Predator. It is a spectacularly filmed sequence, as Schwarzenegger turns from hunted to hunter and outwits his foe. It is here that the film truly comes into its own. It is now logical and well-paced; it is taut unlike before; the score compliments the action; the camerawork becomes meaningful. Even the one-liners begin to pay off. Schwarzenegger’s “You’re one ugly motherfucker” upon seeing Predator’s face for the first time may very well be one of the greatest lines in all of film.
Predator might have done better had the majority of the film been Schwarzenegger squaring off against his nemesis. A one-on-one contest is much more compelling than watching a group of commandos drop like flies at the hands of an invisible enemy. Dialogue is minimal during this final act; this in fact helps the film, for its strong suit is the action, and exposition about betrayals and backstabbing and choppers and extraction points is only a hindrance. And, in fact, most action movies follow this one-on-one formula today. At the very least, the focus is often on a sole protagonist (rather than a group as in Predator), like the Bourne films, or a movie like Taken. Despite its overwhelming commercial success, we see few echoes of Predator in the action genre today. One expects a wave of knock-offs following a box office sensation—this was certainly how other genres grew in the 70s and 80s, like the disaster genre—but Predator’s ‘team of humans vs. space aliens’ archetype never became mainstream in film. We might chalk up Predator’s impotence to another John McTiernan film released in 1988, just one year after Predator: Die Hard.
Die Hard utterly eclipsed Predator critically and financially, and unlike Predator, Die Hard’s impact on the action genre was positively enormous. It was Die Hard that fully established both the ‘one-man-army’ and ‘buddy-cop’ archetypes that action films so frequently ape today. Fold a piece of letter paper vertically in half, and make a list of Predator knockoffs on one side and a list of Die Hard knockoffs on the other. You’ll run out of space on the Die Hard side before you even make it halfway down the Predator side. Just to illustrate: Air Force One, Speed, Passenger 57, 16 Blocks, Tears of the Sun, Mercury Rising, Hostage, Sudden Death, Con Air, Under Siege, Cliffhanger, Executive Decision. . . the list extends still further.
The success of Die Hard’s formula goes beyond the film’s critical acclaim and good box office numbers. It happens that the Die Hard model is just more appealing to audiences. We like underdogs, and it’s easier to become attached to one man when he’s fighting against a large force of evil. We like to bond with characters, and in Die Hard we’re given just one character to connect to—the protagonist. That works well in a two-hour film, but by comparison, Predator presents the audience with an array of leads, far too many to juggle in one short sitting. (It doesn’t help that Predator’s characters are wafer-thin, throwaways that merely justify the orgy of action onscreen.) But we see what happens once that fat is excised: the time spent alone with Schwarzenegger is Predator’s best. Though it’s a short twenty minutes, we now have a clear hero to focus our energy on, and we are delighted to see him succeed. A four-man hunt against the Predator would not have been nearly as satisfying.
Predator would have preempted Die Hard had it been Schwarzenegger vs. Predator all along. We can only speculate how many more Predator-like films we might have seen had this been the case. Indeed, had Die Hard not released in the first place, we might have seen more imitations of Predator. But, as it happens, Die Hard took over, and its format spread throughout film and even into television. Shows like 24 are really just extensions of the John McClane character. Where Die Hard became prolific—almost viral—Predator became inert. It has influenced plenty of films, but it has not caused a great number to copy it. It’s certainly remembered today, and it is still adored by fans of action films, but it’s not the peak of the genre that people may once have thought it to be.