An Impassioned Case for Why Predator is One of the Greatest Films Ever Made (essay)
Beware, dear reader: spoilers ahead.
In October 1929, on a Black Tuesday that marked the depth of what economist Irving Fisher described as the “great plateau,” foreshadowing some pretty heinous irony, (or in other words, embedding what Welles would have described as an excellent plot catalyst) Orson Welles was probably examining the ideal life, trying to understand not only what he was supposed to do with his own, but also how he was supposed to interpret the sort of aimless circumstances he routinely had to contend with. And what he found, clawing through the depths of what he would come to know as loss and abandonment, could have been the origins of something that would one day be meaningful and honest, that the rest of us would be able to look at from the outside in, and see what he never could – an ideal life. A sense of home. Our own cherished Rosebud. Burying both of his parents before the age of 15, at a time when our nation was crumbling to pieces, just before deciding to pack it all up and head across the ocean, I can imagine young Orson coming to the conclusion that an ideal story, and the best kind of performance, comes from a deep yearning for validation.
Citizen Kane wasn’t relevant when it was first released – it was in fact a box office flop, received with such distaste that some circles would actually throw things at the screen whenever it was shown. Citizen Kane would eventually receive the ultimate vindication in the ensuing decades, but at the time it was considered nothing. Lower than nothing. Vilified. Booed on several occasions. People were so angry with the film that Orson was even denounced as a communist by those hoping to get him lynched. If there’s anything we can learn about the production and ultimate success of Citizen Kane (besides the litany of other stuff) it is the fact that tastes change. Relevance is routinely shifted with the times, and we along with it. Welles himself once said,
“In the old days the greatest thing to be was a movie star. Today, the greatest thing in the world to be is a pop-singer. There will never be a great star unless the greatest thing in the world to be is that kind of star. At the end of the last century and before the first World War, the greatest thing in the world to be was an opera singer. People used to faint in the streets when they saw an opera singer. And then there came the movie stars. You see, I think any form of entertainment only exists because it corresponds to a moment in time.”
I couldn’t appreciate Welles until I was much older. I had no precedent for him. Rather, what precedent I did have was from films that had already taken his techniques and made them common – that had mined his methods and refined them so extensively over the years as to make them part of the landscape of contemporary film. It wasn’t until film-studies in college that I discovered why Citizen Kane was even relevant in the first place. I didn’t get it – I had seen the layered dialogue, the tricks of lighting, the editing, the long shots, the extended takes, the usage of cranes, the realistic sets and similar character development done a thousand times before, and done better – it wasn’t anything special. I hadn’t realized that what I would come to understand as contemporary film wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Welles barging into Hollywood the way that he had, pissing everybody off. I remember a few years back how everyone was impressed with the frenetic editing of the Bourne Ultimatum, and how revolutionary it was. Orson was doing similar cuts forty years earlier in his film Chimes At Midnight.
One of my first experiences with film was pretty definitive. My mom had some business or other to attend and plopped me with the nearest willing neighbor, who could think of nothing better to do but plunk me in front of the old CRT and VCR, stick in the first cassette she could find and hit the play button. I watched, rapt, helplessly ensnared by what unfolded until the film was over and the credits finished rolling. When the cassette clicked the end of its tape, the VCR would automatically rewind back to the beginning, instantly replaying the film, starting the whole process over again. And so I sat for at least six hours, perhaps longer. I watched the film, click, rewind, play and watched again. I didn’t have to do anything but sit there – the VCR did the rest. Five years after Orson’s death, at six years of age, in an apartment belonging to a person I had never seen before, I fell hopelessly in love with the medium he helped pioneer. That film was Predator.
It would be a ridiculously stupid mistake comparing the two men, John Mctiernan and Orson Welles, considering Mctiernan’s recent prison entanglements and Orson’s unquestionable genius. There’s no comparison, and I don’t want to give the impression that this was my intention. But screw it, let’s do it anyway.
It is interesting to note the contrary arc of each director’s career. Aside from being assigned writer Shane Black as a chaperon, Mctiernan was given absolute confidence of the Hollywood machine. Welles was countlessly written-off by it. Mctiernan was essentially enabled by his producers while Welles was continuously stifled by them. Mctiernan’s career came to a crashing halt while Orson’s accelerated into the annals of filmmaking legend forever. Both men were essentially directors who ended up specializing in hammed up B-pictures. Both Citizen Kane and Predator were equally hated by critics upon release, only to earn more respect over time.
I think both men would agree that the success or failure of a film isn’t entirely a credit to its direction. You must have the right producer, for the right actors, for the right author, for the right script, for the right production crew – the stars have to align just right and, with a little bit of luck, you may end up with something special. It’s a collaboration which partly has to do with the director, but primarily has to do with the whole, unless, as Welles liked to put it, there were those rare occasions when an exceptional director came along – one who was comfortable handling everything. For Citizen Kane, Orson had Gregg Toland and his Mercury troop; Mcteirnan had Donald McAlpine and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Even still, at the onset of Predator’s production, I can just as easily imagine a younger Mctiernien burning in the same need for validation in which Welles burned when he decided to forego stage acting, and conquer Hollywood. In fact, I don’t really have to imagine it – it’s in plain sight, immortalized forever in B-movie one-liners, hyper-masculine machismo, brutal death-scenes and spectacular firefights. I don’t believe Mcteirnan had any delusions about what kind of picture he was expected to make when he was handed the unfinished script, but I believe he wanted to make it special. If it was going to be a B-horror/creature-feature, he was determined to make it the best B-horror/creature-feature ever made. What the actors, writers, and producers pulled off was nothing short of a masterpiece, considering the source material. A flawed masterpiece, perhaps, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
Again, there’s no comparing Mctiernan and Welles. Hell, there isn’t even a justifiable comparison between the films. It would be pointless to even begin to try. That’s not really what this is about. Since I wanted to talk about masterpieces of film, I couldn’t get away with not mentioning the greatest masterpiece of all. Predator was a great film, maybe even the greatest, but what made Citizen Kane and Predator great movies are completely different circumstances: Citizen Kane was great because Orson Welles was great. Predator was great because it corresponded to the most appropriate moment in time.
Orson liked the occasional B-picture – he wrote many, directed few – and I’d like to believe that he would have enjoyed this one. The biggest trick Predator pulled off was masking its very deep philosophical questions with an actionfest exterior. The way things are in Hollywood, I gather that artists can’t get away with affecting us on an emotional level anymore without violently snatching our attention. The money wouldn’t be there otherwise. Art typically sells a couple hundred grand at the box office, maybe a few million if it’s lucky. Unfortunately, the mass market doesn’t go to the movies to see art. We go to be dazzled. We pay billions to have our belief suspended, to see unbelievable and impossible things. That’s another lesson from Citizen Kane. Sure, you could go out and make the greatest film in history, but you will never pull as much revenue as spectacle. The trick is, if you’re an artist with something to say, to get the financial backing you need in order to have a voice, you have to convince people that you’re planning to give them all spectacle, while sneaking the rest through the back door – Orson knew this, and actually resorted to lying about making Treasure Island at one point so that he could get the money to make Macbeth.
The goal for the artist is to sell the spectacle, so that you can then make the art. Predator is like that. From the opening shot of the alien aircraft descending into the dark jungle, to the closing shot of the human aircraft rising out of it, the structure of Predator is a closed loop, shedding more light on the brutal nature of survival than any other film.
The idea for Predator was initially meant as a joke: someone remarked after the release of Rocky IV that the only people left for Rocky to beat up were aliens. Screenwriters Jim and John Thomas heard the idea, and immediately began brainstorming different ways to tell such a story. It’s very similar to a short story called The Most Dangerous Game, in which a man is hunted on an island by a wealthy big-game enthusiast, only Jim and John tell it from a perspective of a man being hunted in a jungle by an extraterrestrial intelligence.
The movie opens with a group of commandos being choppered into a jungle that looks very similar to Vietnam or Southeast Asia. Out steps the cadre of badasses, ready to help dish out your typical AHnold fanfare. The chopper’s landing-zone is mired with humanity – Iron I-beam tetrahedrons spreading across the beach, soldiers bedecked in contrast military regalia everywhere accompanied by stark military vehicles whipping along the jungle’s border. The rainforest looms overhead like a dark cloud of uncertainty, stretching off into the inky blackness therein.
Schwarzenegger’s character Dutch is immediately isolated as the lead – the biggest, most quintessential schematic of masculinity in the entire film. He’s briefed by an old war buddy turned CIA liaison named Dillon, played by Carl Weathers. He explains to Dutch that a group of South American cabinet ministers have crash landed somewhere in the jungles of Guatemala. Their mission is to go in, find ‘em, and get ‘em out safely. There are obviously plot twists, but they’re merely a call-to-action, a way to get the story into the deep dark jungle where all the fun can happen.
This brief exchange at the beginning is relevant, however, and segues nicely into my first point: In those first few minutes, we’re shown that one, Dutch is a passionately loyal leader. Two, he has a very strong code of ethics (his unit is solely an operational rescue detachment, not a strike force). Three, that he is driven, competitive (arm-wrestling match with Dillon), shrewd, intelligent and rational (he’s skeptical about the cabinet minister story, and as soon as Dillon informs Dutch that he’ll be tagging along, friendship-mode is immediately deactivated). Four, he’s a perfect image of the human male – the perfect balance of intelligence, honor and strength.
What Predator did that no other film accomplished before it, was implement the literary concept of “tagging” to such success that it would serve as an example for how it was supposed to be done from then on. Every character in the film was relevant, memorable, and distinguishable from each other. They weren’t contrived. They weren’t corny. They were detailed in such a way that utilized the least amount of exposition and narrative as possible – which left more room for spectacle. Predator pulled this off perfectly.
We saw that each character was given a defining moment through some dialog, and also a physical tether that not only attached them to the story, but differentiated them from every other character. It was seamless, clever, and perfect. This method of characterization wasn’t anything new – movies and television serials have been doing it for… well, since Orson’s day – but none before Predator had anyone pulled off that kind of characterization with as much economy. Jesse Ventura had maybe six lines of dialog, yet we knew and could identify with his character Blain, and thus care when he was taken out of the picture. Everything about Blain told a backstory – the tobacco he was chewing, the resentment he had for Dillon, his snakeskin boots, his safari hat, his MTV t-shirt, his close friendship with Mac, even his dialog – which still consists of one of the most famous lines in modern cinema,
“I ain’t got time to bleed…”
It’s sheer badassery – he’s somebody we can look up to, somebody we could definitely turn to if shit hits the fan. But it doesn’t stop with Blain. You have Sonny Landham’s character, Billy – expert tracker, realist, brave and fatalistic. Interesting sidenote: when Billy was having his Sergeant Rock moments, peering into the trees as if he had some sort of psychic perception – there wasn’t anything supernatural about how he was sensing the predator. He was such an extremely effective tracker that he saw the Predator while it was cloaked, and unconsciously recognized that something was wrong with the landscape – something that he couldn’t articulate in any meaningful way, simply because he had never seen anything like it before.
You had Blain’s friend, Sergeant Mac – played by Bill Duke – who was tagged in one of the film’s more memorable moments, when the razor broke on his cheek, drawing blood. Then there was Hawkins, played by Shane Black, who had the giant glasses and comic books. Poncho, who had the tiger-stripe facepaint and grenade launcher.
Not only were each of the actors brilliantly tagged with things we could recognize them by, they each had excellent, character defining lines, and character defining moments – Blain’s chaw spit and minigun; Aside from the razor, Mac killing the scorpion on Dillon’s shoulder, and his impassioned oath to the moon; Dillon’s redemption; Hawkins’ glasses and his jokes; Billy drinking from the severed vine, and later drawing his own blood in preparation for battle with the Predator. Anna telling the story about El cazador trofeo de los hombres, the Demon Who Makes Trophies of Men.
It was as if each actor were written as the same character, just expressed at different volumes, entirely capable of carrying the plot of their own film. This was probably an accident, mind you – the script was originally written with Schwarzenegger running around the jungle alone – he didn’t like that idea, and asked before committing to the project that it be rewritten to have a squad of commandos, instead of just one guy. In either case, it worked out splendidly, but here’s where it really gets fun.
As the men move deeper into the jungle, you begin to notice that there is more and more flora between the camera and the actors. It’s subtle, but look closely. It’s rare that you don’t see a shot in the film in which there isn’t some jungle obstructing at least a part of the actors from view. It gets more noticeable as the film progresses. The jungle slowly takes over each frame, becoming more flora and less actor, until finally Arnold sheds his clothing, covers himself head to toe with leaves and mud, and completely separates any boundary between he and the jungle. The thing is, as the soldiers get farther away from civilization, they gradually melt into their environment, essentially becoming a part of it.
You see, one of the recurring themes in the film is this notion that the jungle makes animals of us all. The bravado, all of the badass testosterone and machismo mean nothing in that dark milieu of teeth, where everything – from the largest animal to the smallest blade of grass – has been selected by millions of years of evolution to eat you, suck the nutrients out of your corpse, and decompose your empty husk back into the closed system of life. All of our psychological constructs – chivalry, honor, decency, face, justice, duty, friendship, pity, guilt and humor – mean nothing to the jungle. These concepts are luxuries of a big protein-dependent brain, which has over the course of its existence thought its way out of the darkness and into civilization.
You take a modern man and put him in the jungle on his own for an extended period of time, that man will not survive unless he knows how to strip himself of his ideals. He cannot expect to live unless he remembers what it’s like to be an animal again. As the film progresses, the commandos are systematically stripped of concepts such as macho and badass, and slowly succumb to the terror by which our ancestors have survived. Their pithy, wise-ass one liners completely disappear near the end of the film, giving way to cries of terror and exigency. Those who resist this transition die.
Billy can’t let go of his sense of honor, and dies. Mac can’t let go of his sense of revenge, and dies. Hawkins can’t let go of his sense of chivalry, and dies. Dillon can’t let go of his need for redemption, and dies. Blain can’t let go of his arrogance, and dies (remember, a complacent Blain snickers at the porcupine just before lowering his guard). The reason Arnold survives is because he’s the exception, not the rule. He’s the ideal human, not the mean. He simultaneously deconstructs himself while holding onto the deadly strategic presence of thought that makes humanity in fact the most dangerous game in the universe. The reason our species has survived the brutal process of natural selection is not because we have the biggest muscles – it’s because we have the biggest brain. Instead of adapting our bodies to nature, we have figured out ways to adapt nature to us.
The Predator in this film represents the jungle, which is really quite alien when you think about it. It’s a place where strange, chitinous, crawly things with pincers, antennas, bristling arachnid appendages, and hollow venom-filled teeth can be found literally everywhere. Under every stone, inside every tree, and floating in every source of water are parasitic rubbery things capable of burrowing into your flesh. Viruses. Flesh eating bacteria. Neurotoxic plants. Venomous spiders as big as your face. The jungle is a closed recycling bin of caloric energy, and you’re simply a meal. Part of what the Predator represents in this film is nature in its rawest, most prehistoric form. Part of what Dutch represents is humanity’s endless war with nature. You have to understand that what makes us human is our ability to bend nature to our will – to understand how it works so that we can defy it, and thus create the meaning of our own existence. That’s Dutch: the ideal human who remembers what it’s like to be an animal, but doesn’t forget what brought us out of the jungle in the first place.
The Predator is also a dichotomy of two concepts. Part of what the alien represents is nature, and the other part is us. You have to also realize the most arresting, mind-melting part of the film is the complete annihilation of conventional action fare. Imagine for a moment if Arnold and the Predator reversed roles, and the Predator was a human on a foreign planet, taking out an army of alien combatants. There is one movie that describes this situation perfectly: In First Blood Part II, Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo escapes a POW camp and, after burying his beautiful, in-country attaché under a cairn of stones, he conducts almost a ritual of tying a strip of her red dress around his head like bandanna, and then goes on a murderous rampage, picking off Russians and Vietnamese one at a time with his bow and combat knife. At one point, Rambo is like an invisible wraith of the jungle – a Predator, even – bursting out of the landscape to bury his blade into the throat of an unsuspecting soldier, or snap another soldier’s neck.
What Mctiernan and company accomplished made every action flick that followed almost a parody of itself. In Predator, the humans play roles typical of what most villains are assigned in other action flicks. The Predator plays the role of your typical action-hero – an unstoppable force of violence, an army-of-one with his own unique code of honor, cleverly dispatching the enemy one at time through various methods. He even chooses to have a man-to-man battle of honor with Dutch at the end, dropping all of his weapons (he could have easily blasted Dutch’s face off, or chopped him in half with his wrist-blade, or snapped his neck against the tree whilst holding him a foot off the ground). The Predator, we realize, exhibits a courtesy not even the most heroic of our action heroes would give, thus single-handedly ending a genre – with very few exceptions (Aliens being one of them). Predator is a masterful destruction of the eighties action film.
I forgot this was god forsaken blog-post, not a thesis paper – I was planning to get into more detail. Look, there’s nothing special about Mctiernan. What’s special about Predator is how everything sort of accidentally fell together in a hodgepodge mess of perfection. Orson made the greatest motion picture in history because he’s a genius. Quentin Tarantino made one of the greatest motion pictures in history because he’s a flippin’ genius. Mctiernan made one of the greatest motion pictures in history because he was lucky as hell. He would later go on to ultimately seal the action-genre’s fate with Die Hard a few years later, but that’s another story.
How Predator turned out to be such a psyche job is nothing short of a movie miracle, which ended up inspiring a whole generation of filmmakers. Keep in mind that if Predator hadn’t happened, James Cameron wouldn’t have thought to make Aliens the way he did – which ended up being a far crisper, more exciting film simply because it expanded on the style of characterization, relentless storytelling and themes in Predator. The method of characterization combined with the phenomenal cinematography used to tell an action/slasher story was something nobody saw coming, not even the producers. Not only was the story gripping – something happened on every single page of that manuscript, which moved the plot in a way that was fluid and organic – there was nothing forced about it.
Maybe I’m biased. I mean, there’s no question I’m biased. Predator is my Rosebud, so I’m obviously going to try and champion it. But I truly believe that great films are rare, perhaps even unnoticeable at first. Similar to what happened with Citizen Kane, what’s great will ultimately be determined by the passage of time. Looking back from where I am now, there’s no denying that Predator was a great film. In my heart it’s the greatest.