Most people don’t think ‘art’ when discussing Predator. The 1987 science fiction classic is fondly remembered for spectacular action, quotable dialogue, and a monster who has joined the ranks of Frankenstein and Dracula as a cultural icon. However, many overlook some of the film’s more subtle underpinnings. Though at a glance the film is just another entry into the 80s cycle of action films, it actually serves as the ultimate rebuke to the genre’s most popular conventions.
For those who haven’t seen it, Predator tells the story of a seven man rescue squad who, after landing in the jungles of Central America, are stalked by an alien big-game hunter. Posters showed action star Arnold Schwarzenegger in an unusual position, in the killer’s crosshairs. Even from the marketing itself, this film promised to be different from other action films, something that almost seems by design.
One must look at the context in which Predator was made. Previous action heroes like Indiana Jones, James Bond and Harry Callahan were portrayed as flawed and human, but in the 1980s, a new kind of action movie was emerging. Films like Commando, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, and Missing In Action turned their heroes into unstoppable titans who were rarely, if ever, challenged. In retrospect, these films seem more like laughable camp than action. Then towards the end of this cycle, a new director emerged named John McTiernan.
While not the writer of such films, McTiernan’s filmography of classics like Die Hard, Hunt for Red October, and Last Action Hero, speak of someone interested in dismantling then popular action tropes. Die Hard didn’t have an indestructible muscular mountain as its lead, instead leaving a regular blue collar cop with no special training and a host of personal problems to save the day. Unlike Commando‘s John Matrix, when McClane is injured, the movie makes a point to show it hurts. Similarly, the underrated Last Action Hero lampooned the entire genre as cartoons for adults. Predator marked the start of McTiernan’s anti-action trend, and may well be the most genre-defying entry in his filmography.
Predator‘s first step was to build the viewer’s confidence. It does this by surrounding them with heroes. It isn’t enough just to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, the biggest action star of the decade. Other heavyweights like Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura round out an impressive ensemble with enough machismo for ten movies. Each of these heroes on their own seems capable enough to carry their own action hit. They’ve got big guns, ‘big guns,’ and together form a seven-man walking apocalypse.
Predator begins the same way most action films end, by unleashing these heavily armed heroes on a camp of bad guys. The ensuing sequence alone is worth the price of admission. The heroes cut a path of destruction through a camp of faceless enemies who don’t know how to shoot straight, taking down trucks, helicopters, snipers in the treetops, all while spewing one-liners to give the audience a healthy chuckle. After watching this scene, we’re confident the heroes can handle anything they face.
But Predator is a more devious film than it first appears. After building the audience’s confidence, the rest of the movie maliciously tears it down. One of the best examples is the character of Blaine, played by Jesse Ventura. One of Predator‘s biggest stars, Ventura is not only one of the most physically imposing members of the cast, but he also has the most impressive weapon in the film, his trusty minigun nicknamed ‘Old Painless.’ This in mind, one would expect Blaine to be one of the longest lasting characters. Instead, he’s among the first to die. It is the first step in the film’s merciless assault on the audience.
FEAR IN THE JUNGLE
Blaine’s death is followed by perhaps the film’s most famous sequence. After his death, other members of the squad rush to the scene and fire blindly into the jungle for a full minute. For all their trouble, the squad clears away some vegetation and the Predator suffers only a leg wound. Old Painless is emptied, leaving it useless and rendering the cast impotent. To say the first fight with the Predator goes poorly would be an understatement.
The significance of this sequence can’t be overstated. Arsenals of weapons were among the most significant traits of any hero of the decade. What’s an action hero without their guns? In this film, however, the moment the heroes run into a capable villain, their weapons are essentially useless. While the viewer was once assured that the heroes would succeed, this sequence introduced uncertainty.
That Blaine is killed so quickly is another important element. That one of the biggest stars in the movie is so unceremoniously slaughtered catches the audience off guard, a move used similarly by Hitchcock in Psycho. It leaves the audience wondering ‘if he can go so quickly, what chance to the others have?’ The answer is not much, as the Predator is a perfect counterforce to any action hero.
THE TABLES TURN
Predator toys with its audience, seemingly setting up crowd-pleasing set pieces while instead leading the cast to the slaughter. Two characters team up to corner the monster, only to be picked off before the fight even begins. Another hero challenges the creature to a knife duel, which ends quickly with a bloodcurdling scream. How could one villain be so powerful? The answer is in the Predator’s design.
The Predator serves to counter every action hero trope you can think of. His cloaking device renders him almost undetectable until it’s too late. This allows the Predator to study and scrutinize his quarry. His highly specialized weapons outmatch the team’s arsenal at every corner. Even his size and strength dwarfs that of the heroes. Dutch may be big, but the Predator is bigger. The Predator’s skills don’t just level the playing field. Rather, he outmatches Dutch’s team in the same way they outmatched the terrorist camp.
The Predator is the first genuine threat the heroes have ever faced, and they’re not ready. Very few action films of the era stacked the odds so completely against their heroes, and even fewer would cast as iconic an actor as Schwarzenegger for the sole purpose of humiliating him.
DESTROYING THE ACTION HERO
Schwarzenegger’s casting is one of the film’s central components. He turned out numerous hits in the early to mid-80s, most notably The Terminator and Commando, which established him as the ultimate action star. Because of that, audiences would go into Predator with the same expectations. He hasn’t had any real trouble before, so why should he have any trouble here?
Predator spends a lot of time building up Dutch. From the first image of him in a chopper smoking a cigar, we know we’re getting the same Schwarzenegger we’ve seen before. The first battle has him impressively lifting up a truck with his bare hands and sending it plowing into the terrorist encampment. These scenes give audiences the Arnold they want, only for the rest of the film to destroy him.
Dutch loses everything to the Predator, from his squad to his weapons, even his physical strength which made him a star. As a proud holder of the Mr. Universe title, Schwarzenegger’s appeal was based in part on his physical build. Though the film establishes Dutch as a powerhouse, when he finally punches the Predator in the face, his enemy is more tickled than hurt. With his big guns as well as his ‘big guns’ useless, Dutch is forced to do something new, something revolutionary amongst heroes of his type. He has to out-think his enemy.
Little by little, Dutch is forced to shed his action hero title until he’s more akin to a horror survivor. Dutch slips into the new trope with ease. He’s the only one of the main cast left alive by the third act, leaving him to face his attacker alone. He’s depicted as helpless and vulnerable, spends most of his time running and hiding, but still shows a level of craftiness that saves him on more than one occasion.
Prior to this, the heroes attempted to fight using brawn and gunpowder. Here, Dutch instead uses smarts and stealth. Dutch shows a new level of preparedness and critical thinking, setting up traps around the jungle for his extraterrestrial foe. The results speak for themselves.
Dutch catches the Predator off guard, taking out his cloaking device. In a scene mirroring Blaine’s death, the exposed Predator turns his plasmacaster to the trees and fires wildly into the jungle, desperate to find a target. Dutch, however, stays hidden. Covered in mud, now he’s the one who’s invisible and the Predator is the one exposed. Like the action hero trope, the Predator is also capable of being subverted, not with brawn, but with brains.
THE LAST LAUGH
However, this satisfying sequence is yet another example of the film lulling its viewers into a false sense of security. When Dutch and the Predator finally come to blows, Dutch is utterly defenseless. Never once does he land an effective hit on his enemy, who proceeds to beat the beefy Austrian within an inch of his life. Dutch is quickly reduced to a bloody mess, crawling across the jungle floor to escape. Unbelievably, Dutch whimpers as he flees. At this moment, Dutch’s status as an action hero has been completely destroyed. Now he bears a far greater resemblance to Halloween‘s Laurie Strode. He’s a victim, wounded, and afraid.
Dutch does eventually defeat his enemy, but the audience is denied the crowd-pleasing conclusion they’d been craving. Instead, the Predator’s death may be the film’s most unsettling and subversive moment. Triggering a self-destruct device, the creature uses the voice of one of Dutch’s dead friends to mockingly laugh at him. In response, Dutch doesn’t smash the creature’s hand in a heroic act of defiance. He doesn’t deliver a catchy one-liner to send his enemy off to the afterlife.
Instead, Dutch does the only thing he can do. He runs. By battle’s end, the former action juggernaut is still a victim, sprinting as fast as he can with the Predator’s laughter chasing him through the jungle. Even in death, his enemy has sent the Terminator himself fleeing in terror. Though Dutch survives, it’s the Predator who gets both the figurative and literal last laugh.
Though Predator enjoys a warm reception from science fiction and horror fans, many don’t give it due credit for its tact and intelligence. What begins as an action film slowly morphs into one of the most effective and unsettling horror movies ever made. Predator meticulously picks apart genre expectations, destroying the ’80s action hero archetype and creating a villain that to this day outshines the film’s leading man.
If Predator refers to the creature, Dutch is the prey. It’s a title he never truly escapes. The final image of Dutch isn’t a triumphant one. The once proud super soldier is now but a shell of his former self, battered, bleeding, covered in dust, gazing off into the jungle with a thousand yard stare. Dutch may be alive, but when Predator ends, the action hero is dead.
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