With all Predator has going for it, it’s a damn shame our collective cultural memory (colloquially known as “the internet”) has reduced it to a series of memes. The Epic Handshake. “…goddamn sexual Tyrannosaurus.” “Get to da choppa!” “I ain’t got time to bleed.” “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
With the exception of “You’re one ugly motherfucker,” they aren’t even the memes I like…which is probably why I’m annoyed. Anytime I tell someone “anytime” or “I see you” I have to consciously try not to do it in Bill Duke’s voice. I don’t even bother hiding the Sonny Landham impression I lapse into when I tell people, “We’re all gonna die”…something I’ve had far more cause to do these last three years than I’d like. And for a good long while the Predator’s imitation of Billy’s laugh was my go-to Evil Laugh. It’s too perfect.
My parents were very cool, so I saw this movie when I was six, seven or eight. I can’t nail it down any more precisely since my childhood (apart from the movies I watched) has long-since turned to memory soup. But it’s safe to say this movie was a foundation stone of my personality, even though – or perhaps because – I saw it long before I could really understand what it was about. These days I see new things in it every time, so not only do I know it’s good, I know it deserves the title “classic.”
Unlike most classics, Predator remains horrendously misunderstood. The typical review (I even saw one from Colider just the other day) misses the point so hard it might as well have been aiming in the other direction. “Oh look,” it says, “here’s an Action Sci-Fi movie that doesn’t ask too much of its audience, and yeah, maybe that’s an implied insult, but I, the author of a typical Predator review, am banking on Action fans being too dumb to notice. It’s a movie about manly men doing manly things with their manly man muscles. What more do you want?”
I don’t need to want more, because Predator already has it. Predator is a movie about PTSD, Reagan-era US foreign policy, and how the military industrial complex destroys even the relationships it claims to hold sacrosanct: the blood brother bond between fellow soldiers who once shared a war. It’s a movie where Karmic justice for the Vietnam War gets delivered unto US from space. It’s a Slasher movie that casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Final Girl. It’s an Action Movie where the milt-million dollar soldier protagonist triumphs only after he resorts to the most basic weapons in the human arsenal: sharp sticks, big logs, rope made from vines, and pattern recognition skills. It’s a blockbuster success that can pass for a cult classic now because no one cares about history. It is my second favorite action movie of 1987, after RoboCop. And even that was an open question before I realized RoboCop is a documentary. But I’m not Tolkein, so being a fictional allegory is no slight in my book. Sometimes it can make things even better.
For example: an army of grad students could labor on a library’s worth of theses for a thousand years and still not come close to deconstructing late-20th century USian cis het masculinity as well as this film does in ninety minutes. It is brutally well made, eye-gougingly beautiful on several occasions, and all anchored by a antagonist so fascinating that we’re still talking about Predator movies almost forty years later. So lets talk about Predator.
1. “My Men are not expendable.”
In 1985, Rocky IV came out and a joke began circulating around Hollywood: having faced two black guys and a Russian super soldier, the next logical step would be for Rocky to fight an alien. Screenwriters John and Jim Thomas took this joke seriously enough to go, “Wait…it’d make more sense if Rambo fought the alien, wouldn’t it?” And then answered their own rhetorical question with a script good enough to attracted the attention of one Arnold Schwarzenegger, fresh off Commando‘s success.
This in turn attracted the attention of no less than three of the most powerful 20th Century Fox executive producers of the time. They hired (or let Arnold hire, to hear him tell it) a director whose only credit back then was a flop…but it was a flop Arnold liked, and the producers were smart enough to not get in his way, the better to pretend they’d believed in the project all along after it became the second-highest grossing movie of the year. By all accounts, the shoot was terrible, like living in a gym rat frat house where everyone caught the shits, but none of that shows on screen except when appropriate. And that’s all the “making of” shit I want to get into. Read the wiki. I’m here to go deeper.
There was a time when my milieu of movie lovers took the fact Predator ruled, and the assumption the general populace shared this knowledge, for granted. The opponents we used to shadow box against on the early internet, the mainstream movie critics of 1987 who called Predator “derivative,” “predictable,” or “tissue-thin,” all died or lost their jobs, and we fooled ourselves into think we’d won something. We forgot to evangelize. Even Roger Ebert only praised it as a commercial transaction, saying, “it supplies what it claims to supply: an effective action movie.” Because that was Roger to the core: Mr. Too Damn Damning with Faint Praise.
All missed the beating heart of Predator…a film with multiple beating hearts, like a Klingon. For one thing, this is the most innovative Slasher movie of its day. By 1987, the Slasher movie was just entering its post-modern phase, meaning it cracked the occasional joke about itself (see Friday the 13th Part VI) or figured, “why not have our super villain main characters face off against actual super heroes?” (see Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). But the sub-genre had mostly given up any pretensions to formal innovation. Take a bunch of teenagers, put ’em in an isolated location with a killer, and let fly. Even my favorite Slasher of the time, 1988’s Friday the13th Part VII can, has, and will be dismissed for following this formula.
But in Predator we have a Slasher movie made of Action Movie protagonists who would otherwise all be off having their own Commando-style adventures. In this it is more technically innovative than New Nightmare and all the Screams combined. I can’t not love it for that alone. It immediately paints a picture of where its then-new franchise might go. After all, the post-Rambo American Action Movie is but one star in the vast American Action Movie constellation…
As a post-Rambo American Action movie, it’s naturally haunted by the ghost of the Vietnam War, and how American masculinity spectacularly failed to deal with that war, its loss, and its losses. In the United States, in general, men are taught to be schizophrenic psychos. To prey upon each other because we will be preyed upon in turn by a vicious, uncaring world of betrayal, tragedy and disappointment. A green hell, where everything is out to kill us…especially the booby traps and the people we once called “friends.” As such, we must become the hardest of hard motherfuckers, capable of casually murdering whole villages on the flimsiest of pretenses, while always keeping a paranoid eye out for other, more successful Predators.
Not that it’s all awful. Men are allowed to express sincere feelings for each other, absent the rhetorical squid ink of smug contempt and casual homophobia we throw around so many of our conversations… but only after one of us is dead. Because once that crack’s allowed in the facade, it’ll all crumble, faster than an earthwork damn in a torrential flood. All that’s been repressed will return, like a tsunami wave full of sunken ships, and you’ll wind up scream-singing you and your boy’s favorite Little Richard song into the jungle that killed him. Cuz goddamnit, that was your song!
Speaking of which, I think Alan Silvestri’s really trying to go Full John Williams on this score. It does so much work to set the tone and maintain the mood that this film could become a Silent film with minimal collateral damage, the way George Lucas talked about Star Wars before he wrote three of them in a row. The bombastic military brass is made purposefully tense by the percussion’s steady menace. All contrasted with dialogue that’s often purely functional and sometimes too quiet by half, so you strain to listen to it and get jump-scared by the music itself.
Anyway…American masculinity is as brittle as stale pasta, is my point. Mac’s set up as the coldest motherfucker of group, casually threatening Dillon with murder not ten minutes in. Billy’s the most quiet and reserved, only really moved to excess vocalizations by finding a tree full of skinned corpses. But the Predator’s presence makes them both lose their cools first, and fastest. Billy’s Suicide by Predator is the death of someone who would’ve been the protagonist if this were a true Slasher film, where the Final Girl is almost always the first to notice something’s wrong. Mac’s death is similar – he “sees” the Predator first, and the death of Blain makes it “personal.” But neither of them are the guy on the box who gets all the one-liners and the most love from the camera, even all the way back in the character introduction scenes. Mac’s the only one who gets real time to himself…but, again, only after his obviously-best friend is dead.
We USian dudes are taught to chop off pieces of our personalities, or let them atrophy before they even fully develop, as a survival tactic. Survival for what? Continued existence of course – in this, the self-proclaimed “greatest country” on a dog-eat-man-and-dog world, full of sometimes literally invisible enemies. Multiplying invisible enemies nowadays, when conspiracy theories are everywhere, and far more popular than any kind of “objective” truth…whatever that means.
And survival of what? Not too terribly much, it turns out. Sledgehammer a foundation long enough and the walls will eventually come tumbling down. The men of Dutch’s rescue team seem to have no lives outside of war zones – both because their lives aren’t too terribly important to this story, and because PTSD isn’t just about flashbacks, or getting overwhelmed at all the choices in the cereal isle. For some, PTSD really sinks its fangs in when it fools them into thinking the war zone is their true home. Isn’t the war zone where all your friends are? And considering all you’ve been through, those friends are probably far closer to you than whatever bio-family you fled from to join up in the first place. If nothing else, you can share drinks with them and try to make them laugh with your cringe-inducing dirty jokes. What, that doesn’t sound good to you? Well, then you must be some kind of Communist.
2 – “And I don’t do this kind of work.”
Of course, all the deaths of our main casts are supposed to be “personal” for the survivors. “My men are not expendable,” Dutch tells Dillon early on, and with that attitude it’s no wonder he’s pushing forty and still a Major. Then again, they’re supposed to be soldiers of fortune (re: mercenaries) and he seems to like his job…but if he doesn’t have the acute PTSD described above in the beginning of the movie, he certainly has it by the end. Dutch likes this shit because he lies to himself that he’s in it for pro-social reasons (“We’re a rescue team; not assassins.”) as if that makes any difference to the people on the other side of his grenade launcher. As if warfare can be pro-social when waged on behalf of an empire. Almost like that’s the creation myth my country tells about itself, or something.
The US empire’s various late-twentieth century adventures up and down Central America are well and truly forgotten by now. Aided and abetted by pop culture artifacts like Predator, which criticize them only in as backhanded and obtuse a way as possible. People think “Vietnam Syndrome” refers to a national unwillingness to get into wars, but five minutes of reading about the last hundred years of Latin American history is enough to disprove that. Back here, on the ground, Vietnam Syndrome manifested as an unwillingness to care about any war the US might be involved in, either directly or by proxy. You know how the cops treat John Rambo in First Blood? Those cops are Vietnam Syndrome personified.
What country are Dutch and Co. even illegally invading? The real answer – both at the time and since – is “Who cares?” Might as well call it “GuateraguaRicadorma” for all the difference it makes by the end. The novelization says they’re in Guatemala, and that makes more since than any of the other options…though I find the idea of “Russian military advisers” working with the landless peasants and indigenous Mayans of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor hilarious. Now, MR-13? Maybe. At least they were founded by army officers who lost their coup. And at least the Rebel Armed Forces got a US ambassador on their trophy belt…all the way back in 1968.
But in the beginning, we have a story about a rescue team tricked into becoming a CIA hit squad by the team leader’s former friend. “What happened to you, Dillon?” Dutch asks. Dillon says he “woke up,” but all he really did was get promoted. Dutch could trust him when they were both grunts in the shit together, but then the world moved on, Dillon got a tie and Dutch got to go do…whatever they were doing in Berlin, “like the good old days.” The Vietnam War ended, is what happened, and US military industrial complex (and the complex of masculinity it rests upon) refused to take the “L” gracefully and spent the next ten years taking its frustrations out on the countries of South and Central America, along with a lot of other places.
Idiots on the internet like to throw around the notion that “you can’t make a movie like this anymore” when they usually mean “you can’t make a movie full of slurs and sexism.” As if Adam Sandler’s entire corpus magically ceased to exist. But when I say, “you can’t make a movie like this anymore,” I’m talking about “a movie where the CIA is at least a secondary antagonist.” These days we get Agent Bilbo Baggins helping Black Panther take back his throne, or we get Jason Bourne again. (Fuck, they should’ve called that last one Bourne Again.) Even the movies that revel in all the evil shit the CIA’s gotten up to these past twenty years, like Zero Dark Thirty, go out of their way to show us agents feeling real bad about it, so it’s okay. Dillon never feels bad about his decisions until maybe the very end, when he’s down at least five of his own men, two of Dutch’s, six Green Berets out of Ft. Brag, and one arm.
Dutch calls “bullshit” on Dillon’s acceptance of their situation (“It comes with the job”) but Carl Weathers is so good an actor, I’m not even sure. Is his going after Mac at the end an attempt at redemption? It appears so. But if so, does Dutch throw him that extra gun because he thinks it’ll help, or because by then Dutch has figured shit out and expects karma to do what he still cannot, even after Dillon’s betrayal has landed them in this shit? I don’t know, and the ambiguity refreshing after years of reviewing corporate franchise products where the line between “good guy” and “bad guy” is mind-bogglingly unambiguous. Including other Predator films.
Point being, don’t trust the Deep State folks. It’s not your friend…but it will wear your friend’s face like a mask. Unfortunately, we live in a world where right wingers have successfully stolen the left wing boomer critique of the Deep State and are currently using it to fuel their own preexisting prejudices and phobias. All you QAnon fuckers have ruined any chance of wresting even a modicum of control of US foreign policy for at least a generation, so pat yourselves on the back. Not that they ever really cared about that, or about anything other than explaining why their Great Orange Hope turned out to be just another boring Republican, whining about how mean the people on TV were being to him for three wasted years, and then letting a million people die in a plague. May you be at least as miserable as the rest of us. The good news is, all you really need to do to make them miserable is cast a girl in the lead role of their favorite movie franchise…but we’ll get there eventually.
Here, though, now, we have a pretty good illustration of at least half of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy: after he declared his “War on Terror” (re: a war on everyone outside the US’s sphere of influence) the Reagan administration unleashed terror upon the world via the CIA. It got away with this, in large part, by privatizing US proxy wars, so “the American people” (via Congress) would have even less control over them, or knowledge about them. The most fictional thing about this is that the CIA catspaw is unwilling to become an assassin; that he needs some sob story about a kidnapped cabinet minister to justify his participation in what would be an act of war if anyone did it on US soil. He needs this because Dutch is supposed to be a stand-in for the audience, and the naive assumption of the time was that the American people needed some kind of sob story to justify interventionist violence.
Reagan’s ideological heirs would carry this through to its logical conclusion in the 21st century War on Terror, but even back in 1987, all you had to do was say, “we did it to kill communists” and a good fifty-to-seventy-five percent of American voters would shrug and go, “Oh, okay then.” When Oliver North took the fall for Iran-Contra, decades before the invention of the word “selfie,” the capitol police officers charged with guarding the Congressional chamber where he testified lined up to take selfies with him beforehand.
By the way, Reagan’s childhood nickname, given by his own alcoholic father, was “Dutch,” either because of a haircut his mom gave him at one point, or because Reagan was a fat little kid and the “fat little dutchboy” was a more popular ethnic stereotype back then, not yet reduced to a single background character on The Simpsons. In Arnold, Reaganism found its residual self-image: the mental projection of its idealized self, manifest in a beauty pageant winner from Austria who actually believed all the supply side economics and Horatio Alger, boostraps bullshit because, hey, it worked for him. What’s your excuse, pussy? Far better than the one-time fat kid who spent childhood in his own head. The actor, who like John Wayne before him, escaped the gravitational pull of generational Midwestern American poverty by fleeing to Hollywood, becoming a fake cowboy, and then a real reactionary asshole once all the best job offers dried up.
And like Reaganism, Dutch only wins by dumb luck, his clever ploys and seemingly well thought-out traps defeated in seconds by an enemy whose methods and motives he can only guess at. For me, the biggest laugh-out-loud moment in the film comes, not from Dutch’s one-liners or Hawkins’ dirty jokes or Billy’s perfect no-sell reactions to Hawkins’ dirty jokes, but from the final confrontation, when the Predator full-body backhands Dutch across a pond with all the casual air of a drunken animal abuser. The Predator keeps his pimp hand strong, and the problem with the Social Darwinism underlying conservative ideology is that there’s always a bigger fish out there. There’s always someone keeping their pimp hand a little bit stronger. Or a lot stronger, as the case may be.
3. “What. The hell. Are you…?”
The internet seems to regard this film as a “cult classic” now, because no one knows what words mean. As if this isn’t the first Schwarzenegger movie released after Commando…unless you count Raw Deal. But nobody counts Raw Deal since almost nobody saw it in its the time, and people only remember it now in order to make the same joke about it: “Raw Deal? Isn’t that just what you call any deal with Dino De Laurentiis? Lol” Good joke, everybody laugh, etc. Ask Thomas Harris why Hannibal Rising exists if you would like to know more.
As a Schwarzenegger movie, though, we can see this as finally cementing his reputation as the Action Star he’d spent fifteen years trying to be. These days, I see it as the movie where he started getting bored with being “only” that and attempted to become a “real” actor, the way Pinochio longs to be a “real” boy even though he is already in all the ways that count. For all the shit people give Arnold’s acting chops, his reactions to the literally other-worldly things that befalls his team are perfect. There’s a face you make when you ask your boy if he’s found your other boy and he says “I can’t tell,” and Arnold pulls that face off admirably, along with many others. Which is good, because Arnold has to carry the last thirty minutes of this movie, in his arms, but with that face.
It’s safe to say this script won the lottery when it won Schwarzenegger’s interest. He’s such a perfect foil for the Predator that a sizable chunk of Predator fans will probably live out their lives deluded that none can possibly be his equal. The film itself adds to this delusion with the way it reverse Dutch and Predator’s positions throughout. Dutch begins as the technologically superior force, bringing overwhelming firepower to bear against unprepared opponents in the parody of a fair fight the US military’s preferred ever since it fought this continent’s native population to near extinction. And by the end the Predator’s the one firing randomly into the jungle at an opponent it can’t see, whose motives it may comprehend in the abstract (survival’s an easy thing to get), but abstract understanding will only carry you so far.
“What the hell are you?” Dutch asks the Predator at the end. And the Predator responds the only way it can: by throwing the question back in his face. “What. The hell. Are you…?” They’re both the same in ways that go light years beyond the usual “we’re not so different, you and I” speech antagonists like to give to protagonists in Action movies. They’ve both been sculpted by their societies into ruthless killing machines who seem to take active delight in destroying other sentient life forms. Both are framed and filmed as masculine ideals and both expose the weaknesses in those ideals just by existing: brittle arrogance, leading to hubris, attracting the attention of Nemesis, the last god in the world you want to fuck with. They become each other’s nemesis because American masculinity, and American conservatism, have always been their own worst enemies.
But all that could just be me projecting my human-ass values onto an alien. We can learn some things about the Predator from context: those teeth and claws pretty obviously evolved to hold wriggly things, and they seem real comfortable in trees. So we have a species of arboreal (reptiles? mammals?) beings who can only see in infrared, but clearly know about the rest of the light spectrum, since they have laser sights we can see too. They also have room enough in their big ol’ heads for big ol’ brains, and once you have that and opposable thumbs, the rest is just tedious lab work. Maybe the Predators, as a species, only have an extra hundred thousand years of evolution on us. Hell, maybe they only have a few hundred. Are there statues of Predator Zefram Cochrane outside Predator Federation Headquarters in Predator San Francisco? I don’t know and I don’t want to know, because that thought’s too fun to hold in my head.
Most of what we think we “know” is just us trusting Dutch and the gang’s speculations. We buy them because they come from the protagonists, and movies have trained us to trust what the protagonists say. But they could always be wrong. This could be one of the honorable warriors of a proud and noble culture, dedicated to proving itself against the most dangerous life forms in the galaxy. Or maybe they’ve just found a way to ship all their teenage male aggression off-world, where it can’t shoot up Predator malls or schools or churches. Or take chunks out of Predator cities with their wrist-mounted nuclear devices. Someone’s back home keeping the star ship assembly lines running, and it sure isn’t the assholes who parachute into our atmosphere. Are these the Predator equivalent of dentists who go to Africa to shoot elephants? Are these just Predator Republicans? This individual certainly seems to be the type of who guy whose into skulls…and we all know how those type of guys are, amIright, folks?
All we really know for sure is, the Predators are metaphors for the hypocrisies of sport hunting. A lesser movie might’ve left it at that, but this movie went further and made them a metaphor for what we’d now call “settler colonialism,” with a degree of subtle stealth that would make its own antagonist proud. And that’s enough to make, not just a good movie, but a movie that’s still a vibrant and alive topic for discussion almost forty years later. Boss, that’s gotta be tough enough. It’s certainly more than you can say for some Predator films. And we’ll have more to say about them…after we talk about the best one. Thank you all for watching.