Thursday, September 27, 2018

Predator Week, part I: The most dangerous game


PREDATOR

Quite possibly the 1980s' finest combination of brains and brawn, you'd think Predator would be rated even higher than it already is.

1987
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Jim Thomas, John Thomas, and David Peoples
With Arnold Schwarzenegger (Dutch), Carl Weathers (Dillon), Bill Duke (Mack), Richard Chaves (Poncho), Sonny Landham (Billy), Jesse Ventura (Cooper), Shane Black (Hawkins), Elpidia Carillo (Anna), and Kevin Peter Hall (the Predator)

Spoiler alert: we're all going to die


What strikes me more and more every time I sit down to watch 1987's Predator is just how efficient it is.  This isn't to say that it's lacking in mood, or even detail, and it would be downright stupid to say it lacks action or suspense or a refined visual language.  It's only to say that Predator has a discipline and self-knowledge of the rarest kind—that Predator knows how much would be too little, that it knows how much would be too much, and that it therefore knows exactly how much is just right.  And as much as Predator's gotten a bit of a bad rap, critically—moreso at the time, when it was received as merely one more creature-feature, if perhaps an unusually ritzy one—even its detractors have generally had to admit that it does everything it sets out to do.  It's just that what it sets out to do is seemingly simple.

I actually don't hold with Predator as a simple film at all, but it certainly appears that way, and if you step back, all you can see is what its producers wanted to make.  In fairness, it's what they did make: a more kinetic response to Alien that, by the time of its release, would've been even more readily mistaken for a direct rip-off of the previous year's Aliens, except set on Earth, and with a first act that could've been swapped out with the third act of any number of the Reagan Era's wave of revanchist, post-post-Vietnam movies about shooting evil foreigners in humid climates, a strain typified by the Rambo sequels and (in a more self-aware vein) by Commando—with which Predator just so happened to share a certain rising supergiant star.

This is not necessarily the only thing  that director John McTiernan and screenwriters Jim and John Thomas (supplemented by an uncredited polish by David Peoples) wanted to make out of Predator.  Yet it's easy enough to not notice they made anything else, precisely because of that aforementioned efficiency: because almost everything in Predator is there for a good reason, and practically nothing in it fails to serve the purpose laid out for it, and so it clicks along from beat to beat (it's an exceptionally brief 106 minutes, briefer still considering how long the film plays at hiding its monster) and doesn't often overtly suggest it's anything but an exceptionally fine-tuned example of what it looks like.  If it seems like I'm calling Predator flawless, or near-flawless, I'm happy to admit that I am: the only possible objection I see to the idea of Predator as a perfect engine is old Shane Black, who was brought on to help with the script, refused to do so because he'd been hired as an actor, appears to be attempting to sabotage the film with his performance, and, for his sins, had his role reduced to nothing but a delivery device for gross jokes about vaginas before becoming the first main character to die.  (And whose career, ironically enough, just came full circle a couple of weeks back with a long-awaited writer-directorial effort for the franchise which he could call his own.)  But once you start to notice the gender thing running through Predator—or maybe just an hour later, and the Predator takes off its mask to reveal the Stan Winston make-up design that could compete semiotically with Giger's xenomorph—even Black's goofball bits start to feel deliberate, or, at least, really easy to read into.

Plus, he's annoying, so he is the first to die, and what McTiernan and the screenwriters achieve in their efficiency is a film that travels across a wide range of genre territory without ever feeling like it's gone anywhere it wasn't supposed to—it's a strong if unstressed sci-fi allegory, crossed with straight-up 80s action, crossed with a survival thriller, crossed with stretches of genuinely scary supernatural horror—but if I were feeling clever, the genre I'd say Predator belongs to most of all is one that seemed to be dying by this point in the decade, but which had clearly made its mark.  And so Predator, underneath it all, is the best and most subversive slasher film ever made, utilizing a slasher film structure better than any other example of the form I can name, and without even modifying its particular rhythms all that much.  I expect it's only on account of its jungle setting and its alien monster and the actual care put into its production—and, crucially, its nearly-all-male cast—that Predator's obvious inner slasherness isn't picked up on more often.

But that's what it is, as we can discern from its opening scenes, which have one foot in "fun military romp with ethnic stereotype soldiers" and the other in "establishing several one-note characters so they can later die for our amusement," and it's here we meet our instantly-clear Final Girl, Dutch, as he arrives in a Mesoamerican nation never identified more specifically than "this charming little country."  There as the chief of a vaguely-sketched mercenary unit that specializes in rescue ops—and not assassinations, in the film's only really explicit ownership of its politics, but one that sets a definitive tone—this mission also turns out to be a reunion with Dillon, one of Dutch's former comrades.  Now a CIA goon, Dillon makes it clear that he'll be Dutch's handler on the mission his team's been asked to perform, a cross-border rescue into nebulously-described rebel territory to save a cabinet minister.  (Part of Predator's efficiency is its wise understanding that no viewer is likely to care about the specifics of its geopolitical backdrop, at least beyond "jungle, commies, commandos, booms.")

If you have already guessed that Dillon has gotten shady in the years since he last saw Dutch, you are one step ahead of our hero.

This informs the character dynamics, but it doesn't matter to the plot as such, because while Dutch's team has been tricked into basically conducting the exact kind of murderous raid he says they don't do, on the long way back, the indications that something else has been going on—the skinned bodies of the special ops team they find hung from a tree, the heatmap images we keep seeing from some strange, unidentified point-of-view—explode into active violence, as they slowly grasp that they're not under attack, they're being hunted, and their hunter is like nothing they've ever fought before.

That's basically it: Hawkins (the crass, annoying, weaselly white guy), Cooper (the crass, annoying, bearish white guy), Mack (the noble one, black version), Billy (the noble one, Native American version, with enhanced senses, because he's the Native American version), and Poncho (the level-headed one—and my favorite, I think—Hispanic version, though this is only important in that he can translate Spanish), accompanied by their prisoner, Anna (a girl, tough version), are led by Dutch and an increasingly-useless Dillon on an anabasis that very, very few of them survive, one of whom is Anna, because Dutch prevents her from picking up a weapon, but also because (I suspect) this predator simply doesn't hunt does—only bucks.  There's a tiny bit more, mostly the small decompressing moments Mack's given to grieve his fallen friend.  In their tininess, and in Bill Duke's arguably best-in-show performance, these are probably more moving than they ought to be, especially considering Cooper only existed to heft a minigun, then die, and Mack only existed to come to a rapprochement with Dillon, before having his brains blasted out onto a pane of glass in front of the camera.  Yes, I have described Predator as flawless, but what I have not so far mentioned is that Predator is rad.

It absolutely has to be considered in the topmost echelon of 80s action, and offers virtually everything you could ever want out of such an 80s-style actioner (minus, perhaps, unmotivated female nudity—in this case, thank God).  Its first set-piece, barely necessary for the plot, and somehow the least-interesting action sequence in the film, is still hugely above par, and just about as good as its kind of fun-style jingoism gets: an absurdly high body count, muscular stunts, extras catching on fire, and at least one huge explosion every five shots, like the punctuation at the end of a sentence that's more interested in communicating feeling and imagery than it is really solid geography, or whether it's completely plausible that guys running around in a firefight without any adequate cover and exchanging quips wouldn't quickly get shot.  (Well, fatally shot, that is: one of my favorite small touches in the whole film is the dubious look that Richard Chaves' Poncho gives Jesse Ventura's Cooper when the latter says "I ain't got time to bleed.")  It's as over-the-top as anything possibly could be, but it's not out-of-nowhere.  Being the natural endpoint of the testosterone-soaked ethos that's driven us this far, it's really only its most pyrotechnic expression.


It's pretty inevitable that Predator's been subject to a number of feminist and queer "counter"-readings over the years.  (The tagline could be "fear the pussy-monster.")  The thing is, I don't think it's trying to hide this aspect of its construction, not between the enormously enjoyable (if sometimes-laughable) archness of its man's-man dialogue and the way Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Shane Black, etc. play their various registers of excessive machismo.  The film's most important relationship, after all, is introduced with the most homosocial-veering-into-homoerotic gesture possible short of a hello blowjob, namely an impromptu arm wrestling contest featuring an almost pornographic focus on Schwarzenegger's and Weathers' biceps; in other words, Predator verges on camp early, and it keeps peeking over the side, without ever quite tipping over completely into it.  I don't think it's doing this wholly as an end in itself (I think it has something in its head, if maybe only in its subconscious, about gender, but I know not what, except it is interesting to watch a fishnet-clad vagina dentata destroy these hypertrophic icons of masculinity).  More than anything, anyway, I think it's doing this as a form of parody: ratcheting up the badassery of its badassess until they become a mockery of the cock-first intrusion they represent, albeit a mockery that's still great fun to watch (and even be inspired by, though your mileage may vary on Black).

But it's very, very noticeable how Predator stops trying to be particularly funny once its titular creature enters the picture, beginning with one of Predator's less-sung scenes, as the triumphant mercenaries, so professional they could trade dry humor while grenading commies, are suddenly threatened by something beyond their training, and become hysterical to the point of atavism, dumping untold amounts of munitions into a jungle at an enemy they cannot see, in the end doing nothing but ruining some trees.  (My very favorite small touch in the movie is how Mack expends an entire belt for the minigun and keeps holding the trigger, its rotary engine just whirring away as he points it in shock at the annihilated treeline till finally rousing back to reality.  Predator has just terrific sound design.)

That's the moment this post-post-Vietnam film retrenches, in the tiny space of only a few frames, right back into a merely post-Vietnam film, reckoning with the American debacles in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) in the form of what Anna can only describe as the jungle come alive.  It's also where Predator really obtains a kind of subtle genius, as it keeps moving its metaphor just as fast as its protagonists' fortunes can shift: first, demonstrating Dutch and company's cartoonish hypercompetence against an enemy that they wouldn't have even fought if they'd known better; then throwing them back into the position of American soldiers (and some of them are explicitly Vietnam veterans) who've found themselves lost in a foreign land, set against an enemy who is everywhere and everything; next recasting them in the roles of their former enemies, outmatched in every way by an invader with no reason for even being there, except, it seems, to simply prove something about its superiority.


And finally, Predator places Dutch, its last man standing, into the position of a fighter going up against an incomprehensibly technologically-advanced foe with almost literally nothing to rely on but his native soil. It's astonishing enough that somebody wrote a script for an actioner that so elegantly mirrors its villain with its hero, and bears such rich political subtext; it's downright miraculous when you realize this was done with the structure of what amounts to a body count film, marching inexorably from kill to kill to kill.

But it is, of course, an incredibly good body count film, and one that's underrated as a work of horror qua horror, too, rather than action-horror alone: McTiernan juices the suspense and mystery of what Dutch is facing, alongside cinematographer Donald McAlpine building up an atmosphere of claustrophobia and immense haunted unease out of the natural elements of the Mexican rain forest it was filmed in, emphasizing crushing low-angle shots and close-ups and the occlusions of foliage and terrain.  (Predator was hell to shoot, it's said, though the exertions pay off, and even seem to inform the grinding physical exhaustion of its performances.)

And Predator also has things that most body count films don't have: besides the interesting setting, it simply had a lot of cash to burn on, well, burning down a large part of the jungle around it.  It boasts a pretty great Alan Silvestri score, too, perhaps overreliant on "jungle" motifs, but not less worthy or exciting on that account.  It has Schwarzenegger in the full flower of his stardom, and even finds him experienced enough by now to actually act with words, and not just with his physique (certainly, it is still his body doing most of the acting, though it's often only his bulging eyes doing the heaviest lifting in Predator's most important scenes).

Perhaps above all else, however, it has the Predator himself (or herself, as I still say we don't have any idea), an incredible villain that, cannily, we learn almost nothing about other than a modus operandi and a few disconnected, ambiguous details.  (It's canny indeed, considering that Predator really does not want you pondering how a species that's damn near functionally blind ever managed to build all their cool stuff.)  Played with difficulty under his prosthetics—a difficulty which, to his credit, you never see onscreen—by Kevin Peter Hall, the 7'2" giant dwarfs Schwarzenegger, and has a tendency to treat his prey like a plaything more than a threat; with him in the suit, the Predator becomes one of the most imposingly arrogant icons of the 80s monster movement, on top of being one of the best-conceived and designed of that whole legendary decade.  Originally something quite different (and originally played, in a few scenes that were actually shot, by none other than Jean Claude Van Damme, strange as it is to learn), I personally can't imagine the Predator being anything other than what it is.


But I keep thinking about that ruthless efficiency—the momentum that accrues to it.  Predator seems like it probably ought to have been visually boring: it's a movie with one, mostly-undifferentiated setting, about shooting at an often-invisible monster.  McTiernan's inventive thriller staging never lets that happen (he knows, long before our hero does, that his is a struggle waged in three dimensions, not two); McTiernan's invaluable editors, John Link and Mark Helfrich (the former of whom worked with McTiernan again on his next little project, Die Hard) keep it constantly moving at a perfect pace, and it's hard to think of any scene that drags, even the quietest.  I don't know if Predator will ever get its due as a deeper movie than it initially looks like, but it's persisted upon the basis of its other great achievement anyway, whether it attained that achievement sarcastically or not: being one of the baddest-ass pieces of cinema the 1980s produced.  Of course, if I'm going to say that, I might as well not bother limiting it to any decade, and just say what I actually mean—one of the baddest-ass movies ever produced.

Score: 10/10

2 comments:

  1. OK OK, that score IS great. And it pretty deftly launches itself across far too many genres for such a simple movie. I just don't think I can follow Schwartzenegger down as many cinematic rabbit holes as he wants me to, and this movie gives him a LOT of dialogue, which is by far the thing he's worst at.
    10/10 to the arm wrestling scene though, for sure.

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    1. Schwarzenegger is underrated as a star, I'd say, albeit likely overrated as a human. Either way, he's got a good track record with me as a performer, though it helps when really talented directors (Milius, Cameron, McTiernan) used him, as opposed to whoever directed The Running Man (which is still, you know, fun in its own way).

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