By the late 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger had risen to stardom with his roles as an action man in films such Conan the Barbarian and Commando. In comes a relatively new director in John McTiernan, with an average budget (for a studio film at the time), with the task of creating a suspenseful action thriller which not only reunites him with Schwarzenegger, but also the likes of Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers of all people. A steep hill to climb if you ask me.
Somewhere very deep in a South American jungle, a small military task force, led by Dutch (Schwarzenegger), is tasked with the mission of locating and rescuing important hostages from local guerrillas. The guerrilla hideout is eventually found and completely obliterated. No hostages are found, but rather sensitive military documents are discovered instead. Everything seems to point the film towards an entry into the action genre reminiscent of Commando, that is, until the mysterious alien from outer space makes its presence known by painfully picking off Dutch’s men one by one in some gruesome ways. They also discover the bodies of Green Berets in the surrounding area, but these corpses are hanging from trees trunks and have been skinned to the flesh. Suddenly, members of the commando team are not feeling so confident as they had been only a short while ago, pressed with the realization that there is indeed something out there in the woods, something which is far more dangerous and ferocious than any of them are...
This is a phenomenal little movie. I say ‘little’ because, for all intents and purposes, much of what happens is on a smaller scale than anything found in most blockbusters. In fact, the most elaborate and extensive action scene happens reasonably early in the film, when Dutch and his force assault the enemy camp in the jungle. It offers some good old fashioned explosions, with stunt men flying in the air and giant balls of fire in the background. Following this merciless attack however, much of the film’s running length is reserved for some very slow but aptly paced tension. There is something genuinely eerie about a group of confident, totally ripped and testosterone filled soldiers slowly but surely beginning to sense their doom approaching and not knowing exactly what to do about it. Much like what director McTiernan would do a year later with Die Hard, the danger and tension is constructed a relatively small and confined geographical space. Admittedly, a jungle is typically something expansive and vast, but with those overbearing trees above our protagonists’ heads and the thickness of the leaves and bushes surrounding them, suddenly the jungle adopts an atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread. After the early stages of the film when the heroes were acting brash and very macho, this sense of dread which comfortably sets itself into the picture is quite exquisite. I don’t know why McTiernan liked making movies about danger in confined spaces, but he definitely handled the element of space and setting in his early films very well.
It’s often been written and said about how in monster movies, it is wisest to keep the creature hidden from view as much as possible for the audience fears what it cannot discern much more than what it plainly sees with the naked eye. At the very least, if you’re going to completely reveal the nature and physical aspects of the monster, than do so near the end, not at the beginning. This is yet another aspect with which the movie hits the bull’s eye. For the better part of the story, the viewer is only privy to the Predator in the shape of some odd, camouflage image. A silhouette is occasionally hinted at, but everything within the borders of said silhouette appears as ‘see through’; nothing but the leaves and trees behind it. The creature’s savvy and methodical hunting skills, as well as the particularly violent executions it performs provide some insight into the character and increase the level of danger and fear, both in the protagonists and in the viewer, but the film never chooses to offer any elaborate or concrete explanation as to why the Predator is in this jungle and hunting these specific men. Again, it comes back to the notion of keeping some things secret in order to provide the best effect on the audience.
Unless you have absolutely no experience with this kind of movie, it goes without saying that Arnold is the last man standing to face off against this horrific hunter from only god knows where. The final 20 minutes or so are almost as compelling as everything that came before, but things do take somewhat of a different turn. Rather than choosing to run away as fast as he can, Arnold does what Arnold does best: get down and dirty with a bloody and violent hunting game against his foe. As the saying goes, you sometimes have to fight fire with fire. I didn’t think this final section provided quite the same thrills as the earlier chapters, but it was fun to see The Terminator choose to be as ruthless and cunning as the monster itself, complete with one of those scenes in which the warrior paints his body (in this case the hero covers himself with mud in order to escape the Predator’s heat seeking vision) with that stoic and determined stare into the fire. Once Arnold and the Predator engage in their dance to the death, things are amped up just enough in order to provide a climax which feels both intimate, which keeps in touch with the overall sense of the movie, and large enough to be worthy of a final battle.
I should also mention that I love how violent and graphic the film is. I tend to have rather eclectic taste in film as some of you might judge by scrolling the movies I’ve reviewed over the past couple of years, and the action genre is one I’ve always had an affinity for, and sometimes it is simply proper for the blood and guts to start spewing. Now, perhaps Predator is not overflowing with graphic violence, but there is enough shown that warrants its R rating. I’ve heard arguments about how graphic violence is not a necessity for an action or horror film to be successful on an artistic level, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I disagree with that notion (my favourite franchise is the Bond series, in which we rarely see any gory violence), but the brutality of the killings in Predator really adds to the atmosphere of horror. It also leads to a Predator ritual which fans of the franchise are probably familiar with: the ripping of the skull and spinal cord from the recently deceased prey. Bloody good stuff in my opinion, no pun intended.
I really, really like Predator. It balances action and horror surprisingly well and doesn’t let up until the end credits start to roll. It is deemed a classic of the genre by many and I wholeheartedly agree. Just like the monster from the movie gathers trophies in the shape of skulls, I proudly own my copy of Predator.*
* No innocent people were slaughtered in the acquisition of my Predator Blu-ray.