RE:View – PredatorThe Dark Herald
On April 30th, 1975 Saigon fell to North Vietnam.
The pictures of Americans being evacuated from the roof of the embassy couldn’t have been a clearer image of defeat for the United States of America. This was as close as America ever got to what France must have gone through in the Franco-Prussian war. Disgrace of arms. The men who had been junior officers in last war had failed the country as old men.
We had been beaten and everyone knew it. There were endless recriminations over how this had happened and who was responsible. There were endless dissections of America’s strategy and tactics. Endless replays of the major events.
Everyone on the Right wanted to know the answer to an unanswerable question. Could there have ever been a way to win?
And then in 1985 we found emotional catharsis:
There is no explaining to Millennials and Zoomers how much this scene electrified the country.
We roared in the theaters as we watched Rambo triumph over the minions of the Evil Empire. We found release in First Blood Part II. Liberals hated it because if they felt the good guys had won in Vietnam, which made everyone else love it even more. The military suddenly developed an odd fascination with oversized cutlery. Hell, even the Battalion commanders were wandering around Lejeunne with swords on their hips.
And Hollywood suddenly had a new template for action movies. It’s hard to believe it, but there hadn’t been much change to that genre since Errol Flynn’s day. But things were changing now. Thanks to Reagan and Rambo, America was feeling powerful again and after 1985 that was very much reflected in the rest of our pop-culture.
Big, boomy and bloody was now the order of the day.
And nobody was bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
There is an aphorism that goes when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Hollywood’s version of that is, when the zeitgeist is ready the star will be discovered. Schwarzenegger couldn’t have become a star in any other decade. I won’t say that he was a terrible actor, he just wasn’t good. But that didn’t matter in the least. No one on Earth ever went to one of Arnold’s movies to enjoy his subtle mastery of the thespian craft.
His strengths were physique and his charisma, and he had plenty of both. And in fairness, he also had some decent comedic timing, and that’s not something you can learn.
Conan the Barbarian, got his name out there, but it also gave him a bit of an image problem. Sure, he was a good choice for that role but what else could Hollywood do with him? Yes, the guy had drive and ambition but so what? There just weren’t any parts that could use him.
Then came the backdoor hit (on VHS) of Terminator and Hollywood decided to give him a second look. The stunning success of Rambo resulted in a quick and dirty action vehicle for Arnold called, Commando.
Commando made respectable bank against a fairly low budget and so, the unthinkable happened. The foreign bodybuilder with the thick accent and the unspellable name was suddenly in demand in Hollywood.
Big Arnold’s next project was something unusual for him. A science fiction horror film called; Predator.
Film opens with military helicopters flying along a jungle coastline which back then was strongly evocative image of military intrigue.
The choppers land and men who really eat their Wheaties get out. They are wearing “appropriate civilian attire” and military haircuts. At that point in time, Vietnam veteran security contractors were in their mid-thirties to mid-forties and these guys fit that mold perfectly. There is no explanation provided and none needed.
An interesting carry-over from Rambo is that the uniformed military was back in favor in the movies. The Sixties tropes of mad American Generals and troops as war-criminals waiting for a chance to victimize the little brown people of the Earth had been banished. The guys in uniform were to be trusted again.
It’s the CIA civilians that are going to screw you. So, when we meet the General, we know he’s a good guy and when he looks askance at Carl Weathers you know that he’s Company Operative and will be trouble for our team.
There follows one of the most iconic handshakes in history.
Arnold wins the handshake and the audience is then briefed about the upcoming mission. Local diplomats friendly to the US have to be extracted from Marxist rebels. The US can’t be seen to be directly involved in this because they are being held in a hostile country. Thus, Arnold’s team has been called in.
Seems straight forward enough. Although this happens all the time in the real world. The SEALs just give credit to some host country’s “special forces.”
After the boots are on the ground, we get our first hint that all is not what it seems. A Green Barret Team has been found. Or rather their skinned remains have been found. Which raises the question of why the Green Beanies were there because neither surveillance nor live-extract is their jobs. There was consternation over their having been skinned, although that can be a pretty typical third world touch depending on your location.
Arnold and company press on although they are now convinced that Dillon isn’t telling them everything.
They find the rebel command post with the hostages. A rebel shoots one of the hostages in the head as casually as if he was taking out the garbage.
Time to roll hot.
There follows a great Eighties action scene where the rebel camp is shot up and Arnold’s team emerges completely unscathed… Except for Jesse the Body Ventura who had one of the greatest lines in movie history.*
The other hostage had been killed but it turns out they weren’t local diplomats at all but CIA. Arnold is very, very upset Carl Weathers by this revelation.
Combat Carl, says that he knew that he would never have taken the job if he had known the truth, so he did what he had to do.
Not sure why Arnold would have turned the job down. I mean that is a pretty good contract and a lot more straightforward than a lot of jobs those guys do.
Anyway, they’ve shot up the Commies and they are good and deep in Indian country. Time to do the Mogadishu Mile, (or whatever they called hot-footing back then).
At that point a second and all together much different movie begins.
The raid on the rebel base was a typical Eighties action scene. Lots of loud boom-boom and shots of guys legs as they got blown-up. The tactics weren’t exactly sound. All of the weapons were on full automatic all the time and of course, they never ran out of bullets. And honestly the selection of firearms was a bit odd. But it was an Eighties blast-flick, so all of this was expected and good.
In any case the battle scene did its job. The team’s bad-ass cred is now firmly established.
After the raid on the rebel base our team of contractors takes off into the jungle to get to the extraction point.
At this point the Predator begins a more active pursuit. You see frequent shots of the team through its POV represented by thermal shots.
After establishing an interplay of the various relationships. The local Communist Rebel, (who only wants freedom, justice and to kill children and homosexuals like Che Guevara did), escapes. Shane Black gives chase and the Predator picks off the weakest of the herd.
The team tries to work out what just happened and who is after them. Couldn’t be the rebels because the girl would have taken off with them. Then Combat Carl says, “the same thing happened to Hopper (the Green Berets from earlier).
The team moves off into the jungle again.
I want to take a moment here to praise John McTiernan’s work. The guy is a genuine craftsman with a real gift for suspense. And he knew how to use long shots to best effect. I also appreciated the fact that he didn’t feel the need to explain every single little thing that happened. He would show you what was going on and you could fill in the gaps yourself.
He went on from this to make Hunt For Red October and the first Die Hard movie. Unfortunately, he tied his career a little too closely to Arnold’s consequently, his biggest flops were also Schwarzenegger’s. He enjoyed a brief renaissance with the Thomas Crown Affair but followed that with the 13th Warrior and then Rollerball. His last theatrical release was eighteen years ago. Which is a shame because he was one of the greatest action directors of his day.
Jesse the Body Ventura is killed next and what follows is the most awesome and pointless scene in Eighties action history:
A lot of sound and fury that signified nothing and I totally still fucking love it.
The team finds a green glowing blood trail blood-trail and Arnold says, “if it bleeds, we can kill it.”
The next segment is when the prey turns. Which was a pretty sound idea, and it feels natural for these warriors to do that. They picked a spot that the critter from the stars was going to have to enter in order to pursue them and they set up an elaborate ambush involving most of the tropes from the Vietnam period. Deadfall logs, punji sticks, and the like.
While they are waiting in the hide, the Rebel Girl fills them in on native lore regarding the Demon Who Makes Trophies of Men. Honestly, it was just atmospheric, she doesn’t add a lot to what we didn’t know already except it only shows up in the hottest of years.
The ambush almost works and if they had been faster on the draw when it was in the net they might have won the day.
But it wasn’t time for the movie to end yet, so it escapes. We get a good look at it for the first time and Poncho is then wounded by one of their own log traps.
Bill Duke chooses that moment to lose his shit and run off into the jungle after it. Combat Carl decides to redeem his honor in blood and goes after him. We know that he’s doomed because Arnold tells him he can’t win that fight.
The Predator clips out both of them in loud and gory fashion.
Arnold, the Girl, and Poncho are trying to get to the chopper. Billy decided he’s going to pick the time and place of his death and plays Horatius at the Gate. That is also one of the most iconic scenes in the movie. And again, there was no exposition, it was all shown. The Predator didn’t use any of his energy weapons on Billy like he did with the rest of the team. You get some idea of the creature’s motivations here. It wasn’t just sadism, it appeared to have a code of honor. Because Billy was clearly challenging him to fight man to man with only blades and the alien had to accept Billy’s terms for the duel.
And unlike the rest of the team you don’t see Billy getting killed. You just hear his death-cry echoing through the jungle.
Poncho gets his brains blown out and Arnold had figured out why the creature didn’t kill the girl when it could have. She wasn’t armed.
Creature attacks again and Arnold barely escapes. He only does so because he ends up covered with mud. They did make it explicit that Dutch understood that the creature hadn’t seen him even while looking directly at him.
The climax is about to begin.
We get dueling montages. Dutch is setting up a lot of traps and the Predator is making a special project of Billy’s skull. This was clearly a much more important trophy to it than the others. The audience assumes it was because of Billy’s challenging the predator openly.
So, it feels natural when Arnold begins the fight by making a wordless primal bull ape roar into the jungle, that the Predator has to accept his challenge and fight. Even if it wanted to turn this fight down, you know somewhere inside that it can’t without loss of honor.
This code of honor the Predator seems to have explained or at least justified some of its actions. When round one of the climax goes badly for Dutch the Predator doesn’t kill him immediately. He first examines Arnold’s skull with his thermal-optics and then instead of finishing him off, (which as it turns out would have been a good idea), the Predator discards its advanced weapons and takes off its helmet, which appears to significantly diminish its eyesight. But the sense of ritual is strong enough that you buy that it would discard its best advantages before roaring its own challenge to Dutch and fighting him barehanded.
The ending you know. Dutch finds one of the deadfalls from earlier and mortally wounds the alien with that. He then refrains from killing it with a rock when he sees it’s too injured to remain a threat to him.
The critter then blows itself up real good. Credit’s roll The End.
So, the first question that should be answered is does it hold up? Is it still worth a watch today thirty-four (groan) years later?
The CGI effects are easily its weakest aspect at this point. CGI was in diapers in 1987 and it showed. When I was rewatching it, that was one thing that tried (and failed) to tug me out of the story. Not so much the Predator’s thermo-optic camouflage that still works just fine. But when a plasma shot would impact there would be a CGI blood burst that is blatantly obvious by today’s standards.
The second and weakest aspect was the Battle of the Rebel Base. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad and it’s one of the best scenes of its type for that period. The problem is modern film school grammar for shoot’em up action scenes have moved forward. And that sequence was clearly pretty old school. Especially with the explosions followed by the stuntmen jumping into a somersault with their feet waggling in the air.
And I know I’m going to get push back from you on this but that gun…
Was just silly. There is a reason those mini-guns were vehicle-mounted weapons. They burned through a hundred rounds a second, it wasn’t physically possible for a human to aim it. It weighed eighty-five pounds unloaded, which brings us to the subject of ammo. This weapon’s primary purpose was to turn ammunition into noise Not to mention the fact that six thousand rounds would weigh about 300 pounds.
Apparently, Arnold was upset that while Jesse and Bill Duke got to fire it, he the star, did not. This was corrected in Terminator 2 and then everyone was using this dumbass thing for years.
It was just silly.
On to the good.
The music is a very strong aspect of this film. Alan Silvestri did a great job painting in background tensions and evoking the emotions the audience was meant to feel. Those things are critical to the success of a suspense and horror film.
The cinematography and direction were first-rate. While the action scenes are dated the suspense scenes should be (and probably are) used in modern film schools. And while the CGI is dated the practical effects work just fine.
The Austrian elephant in the room is Arnold’s performance. This was still pretty early in his career but McTiernan worked around his star’s limitations very effectively. The drama of his conflict with Combat Carl was weak but that didn’t matter since the fight with the Predator was what mattered in the climax. In that scene, Arnold came across as a primal male doing battle as primitively as he can. That was what was most required of him and boy, he delivered.
The answer is yes, Predator holds up.
* During OIF, someone said, “hey, you’re bleeding.”
I grumbled, “yeah I know.” A minute later, I kicked myself.
UPDATE: This started as a reply to a comment but grew too big.
I remember when I first saw the trailer for Last Action Hero, I thought to myself that time was passing him by. Reagan’s America was over and the Boomers had just elected one of their own to the presidency.
He bounced back with True Lies. That was the last of the Schwarzenegger mega-hits. Things were on a downhill slide after that. He was marketable in the 1990s but mostly to early Millennial boys. Eraser and Terminator 3, were not really hits, they just made double their budget, which is broke even money in Hollywood.
He was transitioning into comedy and doing all right with Junior and Jingle All the Way, but Batman and Robin killed that career path. He went back to action and failed epically with Sixth Day. And there is no doubt in my mind that that movie would have been a huge hit in 1989. It was good Arnold Eighties blast-flick and nobody wanted to see it. That was the end. He had one more outing in Terminator 3 in his second signature role but that one only made double its money as well. It was over.
Although the idea of an old man Conan movie has once again come up over coffee cups in Hollywood. Old man send off movies have done all right and Arnold is more than interested.