John McTiernan’s Predator is a real bait-and-switch: a colonialist venture where the bottom falls out and seven masculine archetypes are stranded in a territory they know much less about than they assumed. As a critique of American chauvinism and pretensions of access and visual mastery, it’s a frankly startling inversion of American blockbuster cinema, action tightening into suspense before curdling into something approaching horror in the ‘80s slasher movie mold. A post-Vietnam parable not fundamentally different from Walter Hill’s 1981 film Southern Comfort seven years before, it’s a too-tight tourniquet of a film, sopping up the bloodlust of an audience too excited to notice they’re losing circulation in their limbs.
The first third of Predator is a devious machine, a no-nonsense replication of action movie tropes. But McTiernan already seeds disquiet, and not only in the otherwise decontextualized opening shot of a floating spacecraft hurtling toward Earth. The camera cunningly cuts from that shot to American choppers entering a fictional Central American country, figuring our protagonists as alien interlopers. From there, we meet “Dutch” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his crew of six mercenaries for hire, arriving on a search-and-rescue mission with the accompaniment of his old Vietnam buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers), now a pencil pusher. Entering the jungle, they first find out that the “rescue” is much less important to the U.S. Government than the “search,” and that their targets are really guerillas they’ve been sent to kill.
So far, so decent, albeit exceptionally well-crafted. After the expected early shootout, and the men find out they were lied to, they discover that something else is in the jungle hunting them. Which, obviously, you all know, because Predator is one of the longest-lasting cultural artifacts of the 1980s, so it’s no surprise to you that the titular extraterrestrial big game hunter is tracking them and, in the process, making them pawns in a metaphor for American imperialism. The quintessentially post-Vietnam texture of Predator repudiates its characters’ jingoistic postures and blinkered masculinist assumptions about conquering the jungle (“I’m a sexual tyrannosaurus”, remarks heavy-weapons expert Blaine, played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, obviously showing off to no one except himself). The film proposes that American technology and hubris are more or less useless in guerilla warfare if taken as an unquestioned presumption of American might, prompting soldiers to trek through the jungle landscape without actually considering it, as in the phenomenal sequence of all the men using up all their ammo shooting at nothing in the jungle, reduced to husks of humanity.
That’s a relatively limited critique – I don’t suspect that the writers read Edward Said – but the shudder of mournful nihilism that comes over the film in its final moments, so aware of how unable to conceive of the world outside them the Americans are, except as something to master, is rather bracing for what would otherwise be a quintessentially Reagan-esque imperialist fantasy. All these years later, I still love the poetic irony of the Predator shooting off Dillon’s arm after it had been so ironically memorialized by the film in the famous handshake-cum-arm-wrestle-cum-circle-jerk between Arnold and Carl Weathers. And other details ring out, like Mac (a wonderfully solemn Bill Duke, giving the role approximately 500% of what is required) almost ritualistically shaving himself until his razor breaks on his own neck, before violently gutting a boar he mistakes for the predator, hopelessly flailing without any real knowledge of what he’s up against. Or the repeated punctuations of what we eventually learn to be the Predator’s vision, avant-garde insertions of pure color that nominally represent heat but ultimately imply a visual breakdown of the guiding impulses structuring representational space. Or the way that one character laughing at a misogynist joke is mutated, in the Predator’s hearing, into a truly unholy demonic warble. Predator’s theme seems to stalk the film, lurking around the background of its conscious, only to creep up when the film can’t defend itself.
Like the more pointed and provocative Hollywood genre films of its era, albeit gifted with a budget of a much higher caliber, Predator’s strengths and weaknesses are inextricably tethered together. Its attempts to explore, without quite making manifest, questions of imperialism, masculinity, and race always risk lapsing into mere repetition of social inequity rather than creative critique of them. The screenplay by brothers Jim and John Thomas is a suggestive, efficient thing, but it leadenly retreads stodgy characterizations and stereotypes more than once. Casting the Native American soldier Billy (Sonny Landham) as the nature-sensitive tracker is certainly a way to go, and the ending, in theory, exacerbates the problem by having Arnold go more or less native to defeat the titular antagonist, replaying decades-old ideas about manly men acquainting with nature to commune with it and thus overcome it (a conception that, for all its critique of civilizational materialism, is also expressly racialized, coded as a romantic racialism celebrating purported primitivism). That, and the ultimate reveal of the titular creature’s form, dread-locked and able to move between the trees like a monkey, is certainly troubling, doubly so in light of Dutch hiding himself by covering himself in mud.
The execution of the finale though, is another thing entirely, benefitting considerably from its reduction of Dutch to a husk of a man, all lizard brain and survival instinct, and from Schwarzenegger’s bugged-out energy, ever-suggesting potential energy. (For all his flaws, Schwarzenegger remains a skilled performer who is, if not precisely a good actor, exceptionally aware of his own talents and very capable and willing to use them accordingly, even to the point of critique.) And the final shot really does suffocate any sense that any human who appears on screen in this film has accomplished anything at all. That certainly counts for something.