I originally came across Predator not long after I first saw Aliens. In desperate need of another edge-of-the-seat soldiers vs. monsters thrill ride, I came across a review of Arnie’s second greatest 80s sci-fi film in the Radio Times prior to an airing on ITV. It seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered: a small group of elite U.S. soldiers are picked off one by one by a malevolent extra-terrestrial. Indeed, it was released almost within a year of James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster, and it is not too difficult to imagine 20th Century Fox giving it the greenlight in order to capitalize on the success of its Alien sequel.
Schwarzenegger is Major “Dutch” Schaeffer, commander of an elite military squad, who is asked to rescue an American VIP from the clutches of South American rebels after his helicopter crashed south of the Mexican border. Joining him is a former colleague, Dillon (Carl Weathers), who now works for the CIA. As they close in on the rebels, it becomes clear Dutch’s team is not the first to attempt the rescue, and that an unseen third party is making short work of any passing combat units that happen to be in the area.
Predator is of course quite different from Aliens. It is strictly earthbound (bar the opening shot of a spaceship); it is set in the present day; and it is most assuredly an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Almost at the peak of his box-office popularity, Arnie is front-and-centre throughout the film. There are naturally a few of his trademark quips, thrown out while merrily dispatching South American rebels (“Stick around!”). But, like James Cameron before him, director John McTiernan is savvy enough to know how to use his star to best effect. Lean and mean, with only an occasional smile to acknowledge he isn’t another machine from the future, Arnie is an unquestioned leader of men, and, with rippling muscles, the very definition of Eighties Action Hero.
They may share some similarities, but it is fair to say Predator has not aged as well as Aliens. The 80s obsession with muscles and machismo is very much in evidence, as is the gung-ho American militarism of that decade. While Aliens successfully integrated themes such as motherhood and America’s failure in Vietnam in to its narrative to create a science fiction masterpiece, Predator has no such intellectual ambition. It is as narratively streamlined as possible, focusing purely on Dutch’s team and their battle for survival throughout. Dialogue is pared down to orders, quips and manly poses.
But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The film had the good fortune of falling in to the hands of McTiernan, who turns what might otherwise have been a routine Arnie action flick in to a thrill machine as lean and mean as its star. Predator was McTiernan’s first great film, and he would go on to direct the definitive 80s action thriller, Die Hard, the following year. His skill at generating suspense and shooting action is abundantly clear with Predator, surprisingly only his second official directing credit. Jumping effortlessly from one set-piece to the next, Predator is an object lesson in how to fashion an edge-of-the-seat entertainment with a reasonably modest budget and a star who can barely act. The explosive assault on the rebels’ camp is merely the curtain-raiser for the real action that kicks in once Arnie’s team try to return to base.
The script dispatches Dutch’s crew in a variety of entertaining ways (though not without a fight – the moment where Old Painless is unleashed never fails to raise an astonished smile) until only Arnold himself remains. The scene where a mud-covered Dutch realises the Predator is unable to see him is a great moment, and one senses McTiernan relishing the approaching showdown. It’s a genuinely suspenseful, largely dialogue-free finale that sees Dutch, armed only with a knife and his commando training, try to outwit his nemesis with a few nifty traps made from a log and some sharp sticks.
Alan Silvestri’s memorable score effectively conveys the exotic nature of the Predator’s preferred hunting ground, and also that of the alien itself. Designed by the late Stan Winston, the Predator has justly entered the Hollywood Monster Hall of Fame (should such a thing exist). While it may lack the nightmarish terror of Giger’s Alien, it makes up for it with intelligence and some cool technology. Plus it really is one ugly motherf*cker. Combined with McTiernan’s directorial intelligence, Predator can justly lay claim to be a minor genre classic.