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REVIEW: Predator (1987)

In a nutshell: A crack team of commandos are dispatched to the Latin American jungle to rescue a US cabinet being held hostage. Soon they discover that the mission is a cover up and they are actually being hunted by an unseen hunter from another world.

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If you’ve been on the blog before, you should know by now that at Retro Ramble, we love a high concept idea for our blockbusters. So it’s quite amusing to hear that when the original Predator script ( then known as – Hunter) was doing the rounds in Hollywood, it was pitched as “Alien in the Jungle”. Whilst the franchise would go on to take on the Alien in a more literal sense, it’s a simple pitch but not an entirely fair one. This film is quite a different beast.

Part of what makes the film so unique, is unlike Ripley and the Nostromo crew who were ill-equipped to fight their Alien in a claustrophobic ship, Arnie’s “best of the best” team of commandos are in a vast jungle playground with a ton of firepower and yet, they are still out of their depth.

I’ve seen this film so many times but I imagine going in cold, you could easily assume on that you’re watching some Commando spin off – John Matrix and Friends – so to speak. Yet the film switches from genre to genre seamlessly, blending action, adventure, stalker horror and science fiction. It’s the reason the film endures repeat viewings, like fellow 80’s genre mash-up stablemates, The Terminator and Aliens.

The film briskly sets up all the characters and the team dynamic, so you take an interest when they start being picked off. Whilst some of the men can be boiled down to one or two character traits (big gun, pussy jokes, speaks Spanish etc) – it’s director John McTiernan’s canny eye for casting and direction that makes it work. Like the Colonial Marines in Aliens, all the actors spent a week training with real military in preparation. As such, it noticeably adds credibility to see them operate on screen.

Kudos must also go to Schwarzenegger, who surrounds himself with big personalities throughout the film – even when all his team have exited stage left, he has to share the screen with the big event, Mr Predator, who towers over the “Austrian Oak”.

The immortal “air-wrestle” of machismo at its best

Like all good movie monsters, we don’t get a proper look at the Predator until he goes toe to toe with Arnie and it’s worth the wait. Whether it’s down to storytelling or budget, it’s a smart move. It’s fairly well known the original Predator design was scrapped during filming, and they even postponed filming until extra budget could be secured and a new creature created. McTiernan admits this hold up actually benefited the film, as it allowed him to edit the first two thirds and work out what was missing. The last third is the film’s trump card and why the film works –  Arnie can’t physically beat the beast or outgun him. He must outsmart him, play him at his own game.

It’s quite clear that a key part of the franchise’s success is it’s title character. The Predator design we know and love was designed by the late, great Stan Winston. Winston was responsible for creating many movies monsters of the 80s and 90’s – Terminator, The Alien Queen and Jurassic Park’s (non CG) dinosaurs. The look was inspired by a painting of a Rastafarian warrior on producer Joel Silver’s wall, with some mandibles thrown in (suggested by friend James Cameron) and a voice courtesy of Optimus Prime himself, Peter Cullen. All in all, a unique and memorable villain (anti-hero?) was born, a creature that’s terrifying and completely bad-ass at the same time.

Effects still don’t look too shabby 30 years on.

Like fellow competitor Alien, the film offers scant mythology around the Predator. We briefly glimpse his spaceship at the opening, and walking-exposition Anna tells us the beast only hunts when it’s hot and…. that’s about it. This backstory gets explored in greater detail in the sequels – Predator 2 showed us more gadgets, more Predators and teases that they have been hunting for centuries. I can’t speak for the stories explored in other mediums – comics, games etc. however it seems a shame that the films haven’t really delved into this historical aspect for story potential. (I refuse to acknowledge the AvP series)

Whilst it’s a classic action film, it does have some weaknesses. It’s levels of testosterone are in danger of making any female watching pregnant. Watching it with an audience at the cinema a few years back, it was almost like watching a comedy. There are so many moments to laugh at – the infamous arm wrestle, the macho one liners “ain’t got time to bleed” and the scene where the team lay their trap for the Predator, and get all shirtless and sweaty in the process. (In true horror movie convention, our hero loses more clothes as the film goes on)

What about the women? I mean, woman – Anna the rebellious… rebel who only really serves to provide the Predator some background. She’s also a plot contrivance to show the Predator to be a good sport – he doesn’t kill the defenseless. Elpidia Carrillo makes the best of the role with what she has to work with (which even McTiernan offers, wasn’t much). It’s one thing the sequel improves on, by including a James Cameron-esque tough female cop, Leona (Maria Conchita Alonso). However yet again, she’s used to show the Predator’s mercy, due to her being unknowingly pregnant (who knows, maybe she just watched Predator…).

predator - rumble in the jungle -

“There’s nothing in the trees billy!”

The jungle is a character itself, growing up in North East England, it was a real touch-point of what I thought a tropical jungle could look like. The setting adds to the team’s struggle, offering a sense of the unknown whilst mixing in a dash of Boy’s Own adventure once Arnie and co are required to be resourceful with their traps (Five Get Hunted by A Rasta Alien, if you will) You could argue that it’s a key ingredient.  

Predator 2 made the smart move of taking it to the urban jungle, though some may argue the film suffers due this setting – as it lacks the vulnerability of the real jungle.  Dutch and his team are stranded in hostile territory (they need to “Get to da choppa!”) – they face the beast because they have no choice.

In Predator 2, Harrigan (Danny Glover) must go it alone because he’s a maverick renegade of a cop and the cliche demands it. If the heat got too much for Harrigan, he could just bugger off, get on a plane or bus and let someone else deal with it…  Predators took the reboot/remake approach and returned to a jungle – this time an alien jungle – so again a sense of the unknown which adds to the tension. 

There’s a real sense of verisimilitude throughout, brought together by tight direction and orchestral soundtrack. Whilst Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack veers awfully close to his Back to The Future soundtrack, it adds a real sense of tension and bombast. There are some cheesy lines but they’re delivered with such gusto, it’s hard not to get swept away with it – many of the lines are still part of the public lexicon.

There are many reasons that make this film endure repeat viewings – casting, direction, design  and soundtrack.  I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of the 80’s best action films and one of Arnie’s best offerings. Unlike the Terminator franchise, Predator doesn’t need to rely on Arnie, though with each new installment, Major Alan (Alan?!) “Dutch” Schaefer is always rumoured to return. No matter how many sequels or spin-offs (shudders) will be churned out, I will always be up for getting back in Da Choppa with Dutch and the team – “Anytime!”

MVP: John McTiernan.

Alternate Title: Alien in Dah Jahngle

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Jean Claude Van Damme was set to play the alien for it’s original design, before it was scrapped to make way for the 7ft Rasta alien we all know and love.

Fun Fact: The Predator was played by Kevin Peter Hall, who had previous monster experience playing Harry the Bigfoot from Bigfoot & The Hendersons (1987).

If you haven’t already be sure to check out Episode 3 of our podcast where Predator in even more detail.


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