10 March 2015

The Eternal Glory of Predator, with respect to JAWS and Masculinity

The other week I managed to catch Predator (1987) on Esquire, which I need to start planning to watch about once a month. And no, I have never watched anything else before or since on Esquire. I don't even know what that channel typically plays. But all they really need is Predator, which reminded me that I ought to write something up about this fantastic movie and the extremely crappy legacy it has left since.
This time with facial scruff!

The amazing thing about Predator is how it's a subtle mix of a few disparate genres that bends its way into being a real solid action film, despite its complete lack of car chases, minimal explosions, and fast, incoherent editing. Okay, so that opening assault on the Guerrilla camp has enough explosions to make up for the rest of the film, but once it gets going it trades these action tropes for the kind of psychological paranoia more befitting of a slasher film. In fact, that's the best way I could describe Predator - it's a military slasher film. Luckily for us, the viewers, when your film is full of big, scary men, you need a bigger, scarier monster to fuck them up.

See, the movie begins like another Arnold vehicle, Commando (1985) (they actually take place in the same fictional Latin American country), but more a "men on a mission" war film that descends about halfway through into a science fiction thriller in the jungle. There's never been anything quite like it. It should have been a good candidate for my article on Movies that are Two Movies. By the time it's traded its military shoot 'em up for a science-fiction slasher movie it's just as ready to become Home Alone (1990) in the jungle. Keep in mind that the first Predator kill isn't until about 42 minutes in. The fact that it keeps up a remarkably efficient plot and a consistent tone and theme through these genre swaps is amazing.

This is especially true as the film narrows down to just Arnold and the Predator. Dialogue ends and all we see is an extremely focused preparation and battle between these two giants. The film does a great job of visually establishing the Predator's abilities, particularly the heat vision and cloaking powers, which the audience has been able to deduce through "Predator-Vision" but has been unclear to the protagonists. Watching this in 2015 makes me appreciate how much mileage a film gets out of having its heroes lost in trying to figure out their alien enemy and how it skirts any exposition explaining what's going on. Here is the best clip I could find of a film that fails hard in this regard. Yes, for some reason, YouTube isn't filled with sexy exposition scenes.

It's reminiscent of other films that dramatically change their construction when events happen that would naturally limit dialogue, from JAWS (1975) to Cast Away (2000). Let's go back to JAWS, though, because it's a film that actually has plenty in common with  Predator. Like I said, there is a shift in the kind of film it is trying to be - JAWS morphs from this small-town drama with many intersecting characters to a confined monster hunt with only three. Predator boasts this expansive, macho military-driven cast that's again whittled down to one man and his monster. There's a lot more to it, though.

Both films are an examination of masculinity. Chief Brody is an ineffectual child who can't really do anything right or impose his will on anything until he's able to become a man with that one final rifle shot. And all of the gang's giant guns and chest-cutting testosterone is completely ineffective when faced with the Predator. Just take Apollo Creed's death scene, with the glistening abs, giant guns, and manly bellowing. It doesn't mean shit when an invisible alien runs up and stabs you in the chest with giant serrated Wolverine claws.

Come at me, bro!

For most of the movie, the Predator is unseen, but his presence is always felt by the characters, whether they realise it or not. Killing the earlier platoon led by Jim Hopper that was sent in is the reason why Dutch's guys are there in the first place. The one girl (in the entire movie), Anna, comments that the Predator is "the jungle itself" and when the men realise that it's been using the trees this fear grows that no where is safe and this thing is around them all the time, hunting them. If your mind is turning, yes, that's exactly like the Shark and its ocean in JAWS. Too bad the Shark never ripped anyone's spine out.

Finally, by the end of the film we finally get to see the monster's big ugly mug, in JAWS as it tries to munch on Brody's chum-chucking hands, and in Predator as the alien realises that Arnold Schwarzenegger may be a worthy opponent to fight without battle armour. I really love that final fight. Dutch has such strong situational awareness that he's able to win by turning the Predator's advantages into his own. Throughout the whole movie the Predator is killing these elite military guys because it's invisible while it can detect them in the infrared spectrum. Arnold turns this around by first disabling his cloaking and then rendering himself invisible through mud. It's a sublime switcheroo.

After Predator came Predator 2 (1990), which completely traded settings, Val Verde for Los Angeles, to a lesser effectiveness and a whole new can of worms thanks to that damn Xenomorph head in their spaceship. It's worth noting that nothing about Predator (or "Yautja") society has ever really been fleshed out, and the canon is mostly limited to the tactics and weaponry established in Predator, which is kind of astounding. I actually enjoy Alien vs. Predator (2004) for that scene where the chick and Predator almost kiss. I'd consider Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) to be pretty dumb, not for including the Predalien or whatever, but just because it's a fantastically dumb movie. Predators (2010) actually seemed like it was a valiant attempt to get back to what made the original so special, and it's probably the second-best Predator film, but you just can't trade Arnold for Adrian Brody, even if the cat beefed up ridic for that flick.

Stray observations while re-watching Predator:

  • Shane Black looks just like Harold Ramis from Stripes (1981)
  • 1987 featured two movies starring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, the other one being The Running Man. Both these men would become State Governors. I love America.
  • Jesse Ventura wears an MTV shirt. This happens, unironically, because his character is supposed to be edgy.
  • Are Mac and Blaine gay?
  • The Predator's laugh at the end is so well articulated and un-monstery. It's so unsettling to me every time.

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