Prey Preview

What to watch before the new Predator

The new Predator movie releases this Friday, August 5th, and it’s called Prey. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most logical next step in our increasingly illogical series of titles. Perhaps 20th Century Fox, or whatever it may be, imagines that nobody thinks about any Predator movie except the last one – well, not this guy, Jack. I’d readily describe myself as a Predator fan, but it’s also true I haven’t seen the original two in almost 20 years. Since, I’ve felt that there is no truly great Predator film, with Predator 2 coming the closest because when you don’t have something traditionally “good,” you settle with “balls-out crazy.” Given a retrospective, have things changed? And what else can we look at to help us prepare for Amber Midthunder’s date with the yautja?

Predator (1987)

Predator is a funny victim of its context, as John McTiernan’s warm-up to Die Hard, as a better-than-average entry in Arnold’s catalogue, and even my own context, bristling as I do against broad claims that every new sequel doesn’t match up to the original. My contrarian brain can’t abide that, yielding great satisfaction in dismissing Predator as a holy grail. Understandably, this is where it all started, and that does factor into the calculus. The influence of those soldiers in that helicopter on the “men on a mission” pantheon is only eclipsed by Aliens. Over the years, the scrapyard of my mind broke the movie down to its constituent parts: expendable soldiers, Predator, and “sexism,” with the final item overriding everything else. What was lost was the film itself, the story structure and the character details.

One of my questions going in, with the strongest memory of Predators being the exhaustion at its jungle setting — never developing, never changing — is when will this original jungle get boring, too? As a baseline, think of how Isla Sorna had distinct biomes, that we explored its verticality as much as its open plains, and it was all beautiful. Predator may be more of “an ugly motherfucker,” with some shots out of focus and grainy blacks, but there are flashes of awe, like the deep frame of the general looking out at the helicopter’s arrival or our first sight of the wrist-blades as they close in on Dillon.

Part of what makes Predator special is how it pulls off a genre switch without being postmodern. God, even Commando has some meta-humor. What begins as an action movie ends as horror, and the intervening bridge of plot points is perfectly logical. The soldiers find the skinned corpses of Green Berets — the Predator’s doing — and blame the rebels, giving them added motivation for the big firefight. They decimate the bad guys and are in turn decimated by the Predator. Clean, simple — but for the one one-liner that escaped this script: “Nothing’s ever that simple.”

The pyrotechnics display in that firefight have taken on additional meaning over the years, as it’s basically shock and awe. The Americans come in with fiery overkill, and we’re already in South America, a hotspot for when American business interests determine a regime change. Carl Weathers’s character Dillon is CIA, and Dutch’s suspicions about him and the mission prove valid. There’s something untoward happening here, and as a result, something critical. Some may go so far as to call Predator subversive, even a satire. But this key sequence of American soldiers tearing up the bad guys is difficult to get a read on. Action expert Rossatron argues that it’s directed second-unit, which might explain its thematic muddiness, how the “shock and awe” comes packaged with Arnold’s improvised one-liners: “Stick around.” Critical or heroic? Because that shit’s great.

In fact, I have a hard time accepting the “Predator is satire” argument as a whole, if only because it sounds so good on paper. We start with “slasher from space” or “ultimate hunter,” and its quarry is a team of black ops soldiers — so black they don’t even realize how black. Then we look at the cultural context and the cast, and note that this is late-’80s, after Commando and when Rambo turned dumb, with some of the biggest biceps in Hollywood carrying the biggest guns. This super-macho team massacres a camp of supposed rebels with ease and one-liners. What follows is better described by an IGN article with a pointed title, “Predator Is the Most Subversive Action Movie of the 1980s:”

Seemingly invincible masculine demigods like Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham are reduced to piles of gore by the end of the movie, and in some cases reduced to quivering puddles of fear beforehand. The typical action movie icons are no longer at the top of the food chain, and once their confidence is shattered, they’re practically impotent.

Arnold and Carl Weathers play panic very well. After Hawkins is killed, their eyes go wide and the yelling starts. We don’t usually see Arnold this vulnerable, either, where he’s just as often playing the monster as the Terminator or Quaid. However, between the quivering puddles of fear and piles of gore are significant moments of bravery. The turning point is Blaine’s funeral, an instance of dramatic sincerity that would seem to challenge any claim of subversion. Dillon redeems himself by going after Mac rather than the chopper, getting tossed an extra gun from Dutch as a show of manly approval. And while his fate has been immortalized in Arrested Development, he gives maybe the manliest death scream in cinema. Then we have Billy’s last stand, where he takes the world’s largest knife and slices it across his chest, and it’s so manly it almost brought a tear to my eye. Seriously.

The thematic arc that emerges for me is more like a reevaluation of American military might than a proper skewering. If anything, Predator dramatizes the common narrative about graveyards of empires, of why America lost the Vietnam War and company. Despite their inferior weaponry, the home team makes use of guerrilla tactics because they know the land (this is also how Wang Cong’er became the legend of Mulan, so it’s been wisdom as old as China). Dutch becomes literally one with the jungle, losing the guns and gaining mud, to the point where his own weaponized environment is a threat to the Predator. After his triumph, he stands in a smoking crater with a lone trumpet playing.

The film concludes with Dutch, alone, fighting the Predator without the typical action hero accouterments. No guns, no jokes. He uses his brains and out-thinks the enemy using their own tactics. The Predator was invisible in the foliage. Dutch covers himself in mud to be invisible to the Predator’s infrared vision. It doesn’t end in a punch-out – the last person who tried that died off-camera, that’s how little cinematic respect that approach got him – it ends in a duel of wits.

Five minutes into the mission, Billy is in survivalist mode, drinking what appears to be sap out of a tree branch. Later, Dillon criticizes Dutch’s “Boy Scout bullshit,” pulling sticks and leaves together into traps. By the end, Dutch is reduced to a bow and arrow. Yes, the movement from cutting-edge American hardware to sticks and stones is a clear line, but the result is the same: the cowboys always win. In my mind, this final confrontation was simply another kind of hyper-masculinity, and I think that various reads on the satire might diverge over a confusion of terms. What’s being criticized here? The American military, especially in covert, illegal operations, or masculinity? If it’s the latter, I’d want to say that Dutch is fighting the Predator in an egalitarian way that any action heroine could follow. Predator makes that messy by featuring a single female character, and more importantly, kicking the crap out of her.

As a kid, I could not divine the purpose of Anna. “Maybe you always have to have a girl?” This was long before I saw The Thing, and long, long before I had the wherewithal to admit she bothered me. In terms of character, if not gender, I think she serves to provide tension between the big action sequence and the arrival of the Predator. She’s a wild card, and there’s suspense with her escape attempts. I can appreciate that sort of screenwriting tradecraft, despite that we already have Predator vision and the refrain of Billy seeing things in the jungle. However, these are the scenes that bothered me the most. Poncho stands over her with a gun aimed close enough that her eyes go cross, and he says to Dillon, “Maybe you better put her on a leash, agent man.” Yeah, that’s what I need to be thinking about right now.

I eventually came to reason that there are some movies and TV shows where “add a woman” to a woman-less world wouldn’t help me out; the video game Gears of War, for example. Taking plenty of cues from Predator, this is an ultra-macho military sci-fi shooter whose maximalist aesthetic is a leftover from a more satirical starting point. It’s funny, how one guy hangs satire on the wall and the project lead comes up and says, “Badass, dude.” Gears is also ultraviolent, with the default finishing move being a “curb stomp.” I was fine with there being no real female presence in Gears of War because I never wanted to see a woman get curb-stomped. (In later installments, they added women, so I have seen it). It’s about the context more than the action. I’m mostly okay with a woman taking so long as she gives as good, but I never trusted any filmmaker or game designer to provide that. Instead, sometimes going all-out men stuff is fine. Fuck it, be crazy violent to each other. It’s fun.

In the world of Predator, do I believe that Anna could also be that violent? Dutch doesn’t want her to hold a gun! I don’t think any of the filmmakers thought about this, or cared. I don’t care. But it’s all sparking in my mind whenever I see her, this back-and-forth that spans decades now, about Gears of War and the Star Wars prequels and Game of Thrones and Sicario. It’s distracting. I think the actress Elpidia Carrillo turns in a great performance, and I like the idea of the character, but I’m arriving at a point where her excision is the only solution. Or perhaps, just as put-in-her-place Kate in Sicario should’ve been played by Matt Damon, Anna should’ve been one of the Soviets. That would’ve only complicated her later delivery of exposition, suggesting that the Predator has visited Earth before – just enough for Dutch to survive on later.

As far as the satire goes, it may be enough to simply bring screen icon Arnold Schwarzenegger to that point where he’s fighting by other means. The claim that Predator is the most subversive action movie of the 1980s doesn’t require it be a treatise, and its competition is slim — excepting Robocop, which would make Predator not even the most subversive action movie of 1987. Ultimately, I think my frustration with any focus on the film as satire is that it requires putting weight on elements which serve better functions. The arc of American interventionalists reduced by a literally alien threat exists most immediately for the film’s tension and suspense. That’s the purpose, and it’s also why Predator remains a limited experience.

Predator is like a short film blown out to feature length. It effects real-time despite covering a couple of days, and its characters are functional within a framework which doesn’t require character. The usual pleasures of drama, then, are limited to what can be accomplished within fear and uncertainty; Dillon’s redemption, Mac’s battlefield clarity, and Dutch’s protection of Anna, all more compelling than Mac’s mourning of Blaine, which is separate enough from the action that it feels like a deleted scene. It’s a movie without the ambition of its cousin-by-retcon Alien, which dug deep into myth and psychology to posit a world of infinite, uknowable terror. Instead, Predator stays lean and mean, and almost by accident gifts us with iconography and themes better than the film itself. Now it’s up to the rest of the eventual franchise to follow up — and this is where the trouble really begins.

Predator 2 (1990)

Remember the New York scene from Godzilla: Final Wars? That’s what Predator 2 is. King Willie’s men pull up in a smoke-filled, tiger-print car, and Bill Paxton immediately draws down. How does that completely accurate sentence ever describe a scene in a movie? In every technical regard, Predator 2 is an inferior film to the original. The characters are even less defined, the directing less urgent. Writing, acting, all the way down the list. But so much of my coming-of-age as a media consumer was rejecting that checklist kind of critical approach. That meant rejecting the easy narratives often parading as consensus: “falls apart in the third act,” “remakes are never good,” “no such thing as homage,” “the original Predator is the best.” My feelings on Predator 2 track very closely with a movie like Escape from LA. Yes, it’s crazier, but that’s what makes it good. I bet you never saw that coming.

Predator 2 is a sequel by way of adaptation, taking the scenario of the original and transplanting it to a new setting, in this case near-future Los Angeles. The setup is the same, only in micro. The voodoo posse kills the Colombian gangster in a scary, ritualistic way – ooh, these dudes are hardcore – and the Predator subsequently dominates them. The reason why this only describes two scenes rather than the full story is because we have so many more players in the mix. In addition to the voodoo posse – you read that right – and the Colombian gangsters, we have the LAPD, and the OWLF, a super-secret federal agency which took charge of the 1987 Valverde incident. The Alan Silvestri score, designed for jungle warfare, now plays over police investigations. Even the heat is the same. I’ve never seen more sweat stains in a movie.

We start off with a literal bang, an explosion in the streets, where the police are engaged in a shootout with the voodoo posse – you read that right again. These are the new gangsters up from Jamaica, and they’re at war with the mainstay Colombian dealers. Enter new hero Mike Harrigan, played by Danny Glover, who matches the intensity of the scene by shouting over the gunfire and smashing up a car and he saves the day but gets yelled at by one of his superiors and then gets yelled at by another superior. It’s an obnoxious, run-on introduction, and already I’m sympathetic with the disappointment of audiences at the time and in perpetuity. The energy is so different, and we’re soon to indulge in a lot of what the original smartly skipped – world-building, character. It reminds me of the inefficiency of Godzilla (1998), for another less-than-flattering Godzilla comparison. King Willie, feared leader of the voodoo posse, is talking about how you can’t see the eyes of the demon until he come calling, and it’s like, “What is all this?”

It’s just as absurd as the original but not as clever. Predator was so subtle that it’s even a debate whether or not it’s smart. Less ambiguous is the discipline, and even the director Stephen Hopkins admits he was out of control. Guy was 29 at the time; I turn 29 this month, and if I made a Predator movie now, it would be 89 minutes of Amber Midthunder gruesomely killing people and everyone would be like “Where’s the Predator?” and I’d smirk and say, “Exactly.” Unlike the original, which moves from scene to scene, there’s little connective tissue in the narrative here. Characters end up places and that’s where they’re meant to be. The Predator strikes randomly, but in set pieces, not flashes of violence. There’s no forward momentum, and certainly nothing attaching us to the drama of the situation. Harrigan’s motivation isn’t survival but revenge, which requires so much more setup anyway lacking. He’s also constantly bumping up against human opposition, like the two superiors mentioned above. He isn’t in charge the way Dutch was. This isn’t the same kind of boys’ adventure.

Speaking of, we have an upgrade for our female character, singular though she remains, and also taken out of the film when we learn of her pregnancy, I guess like in real life. However, Leona gets to hold a gun this time, and she’s at the center of the action. As part of Paxton’s intro, his character Jerry Lambert says, “Goddamn, is that bitch on the rag, or what?” after she twists his nuts. This is a great example, where the movie actually likes her, so the sexism is contextualized. For a while. Unfortunately, Leona, Jerry, even King Willie, they’re just not enough. There are no memorable one-liners, and no compelling dynamics. Everyone’s always reacting to things, and the movie never slows down for anyone to develop. And it’s always at 11. Even Robocop 2 had downtime.

And yet, despite the intensity, what disappointed me the most about Predator 2 was how often it pulled its punches. This is supposed to be the crazy one! After the attack on the penthouse, we don’t really see any of the major kills. Lambert’s is off-screen, Keyes’s is obscured. King Willie’s is hidden by cut, but I like that edit, and the sequence as a whole, especially when the Predator stalks toward him in the puddle. One of the big setpieces is a massacre on the subway, which claims the lives of a ton of people, including Lambert’s. Unfortunately, it’s all flashing lights and Predator vision. We don’t see anything. This might be due to the MPAA, because Predator 2 was originally certified NC-17. It’s unfortunate, because we’re introduced to a lot of important innovations, like the combi stick, the net gun, and of course, the smart disc. Please don’t leach the fun out of these things.

Because I remembered Predator 2 more fondly than the original, I wasn’t cognizant of how much the passage of time had boiled it down to its bare essentials just the same. And the funny thing is, when you do that for both movies, Predator 2 comes out on top. When the script is cooked off, and the overacting, and anything else bad and unmemorable, what we’re left with is a more “feature-rich” product. It’s gorier, crazier, but upon closer inspection, lacking in the original’s direction and simplicity of design. Voodoo gangsters and Area 51 agents all converge on an indistinct American city, and it would be banal if not for the volume. And of course, maybe it isn’t gorier. I can think of no greater sin, which makes me reflect again. To start, perhaps my tastes are evolving past Escape from LA. But if gore is still my measuring stick, am I really evolving at all? Would I even like my Amber Midthunder kills everyone movie?

(continued)

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