Predator was directed by John McTiernan (Basic, Last Action Hero), written by Jim and John Thomas (Executive Decision, The Rescue), and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (Sabotage, Commando), Carl Weathers (Force 10 from Navarone, The Mandalorian), Elpidia Carrillo (Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone, Let’s Get Harry), Bill Duke (Mandy, No Sudden Move), Sonny Landham (Guns and Lipstick, Best of the Best II), Jesse Ventura (The Running Man, Ricochet), Richard Chaves (War of the Worlds TV series, Dark House), Shane Black (Any Day, Swing State), and Kevin Peter Hall (Without Warning, Highway to Hell). It follows a team of commandos as their mission becomes compromised by an extraterrestrial hunter.
The Plot: Bringing what can basically be boiled down to a slasher’s setup to a military context should really just beget the same results in a new setting, however, Predator has enough straightforward intrigue and subtextual allegory to make the most out of a pulpy pretense, along with world building to boot; something almost all movies that use the same method of progression has neither of.
Shortly after a foreign cabinet minister’s transport goes down in the jungles of Mexico, Vietnam War veteran Dutch (Schwarzenegger) is contacted by the CIA to extract any survivors, who are suspected to be captured by guerilla forces. With a shot of an alien spaceship being the first glimpse of the movie, McTiernan creates curiosity; it’s difficult to tell if the agency knows about this, or if it’s merely a coincidence, but something is there all the same. Dutch isn’t the only one on the mission though; he’s accompanied by team members Mac (Duke), Billy (Landham), Blain (Ventura), Poncho (Chaves), and Hawkins (Black), and to his chagrin, a CIA handler in Dillon (Weathers).
On paper, the mission is a simple one, and for a while it is as it sounded, although some of the details aren’t an exact match with what Dutch had been told when he agreed to take on the assignment and the crash site is unusually brutal. In a raid on the surrounding enemy encampment, the team finds that the whole setup was a ruse to get intel on an incoming Soviet invasion.
Dillon finds Anna (Carrillo) among the debris and opts to bring her back for further questioning. This is all well and good but making it back will prove to be an issue, as an otherworldly force – revealed to be the Predator (Hall) – is on their trail and looking for prey. With their numbers beginning to dwindle, Dutch and company have to fight their way to extraction.
McTiernan moves this along quickly while still detailing crucial motives and, despite the story becoming more about survival as it progresses, even finds time to answer some extraneous questions and do some world-building with visuals amidst a shifting method of narrative delivery. It’s a strong story on its own and perfect within genre trappings.
The Characters: Jim Thomas and John Thomas at first seemed to be content without offering much in the way of character, but when the men are en route to the jungle, this soon changes for the better as the writers give some details to the leads and personality to the support.
Dutch has been leading his team since at least 1972, with references to time in Hue City at the end of the Vietnam War and extraction missions in Cambodia, Austria, and Afghanistan, it’s clear that his position as a leader has been earned, not given. Ranking as a Major, he’s experienced in the work of an officer and can plan immensely well, as seen in the way he directs his squad and the unconventional way that he fights back against the Predator.
Dutch lies somewhere between man and machine as he’s shown to be personable and able to find the humor in his situation but can toggle his personality when necessary; even breaking his façade at times to express frustration after the lies about his job have piled up too high. Schwarzenegger’s performance was surprisingly adept here.
Dillon was a part of Dutch’s team for a while, but “woke up” after spending enough time on the field. Presumably, he realized that the battles he’d fought were losing ones, as America’s involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan had proved. In the time between then and now, he’d joined the CIA and stuck to intelligence work, but he still longs for combat. Both the military and CIA have shaped him, and he’s stuck between allegiances as he’s faced with the reality of the secrets he’d been keeping.
The rest of the cast fill in the roles as needed, with Billy being the tracker, Blain being the heavy weapons operator, Poncho dealing in explosives, and Mac and Hawkins providing support. While they don’t bring much in terms of character, they work well as a team and have differing personalities (some are more abrasive while others keep to themselves) and reactions to the proceeding events.
Competing for screentime isn’t an issue here, as Predator’s cast aren’t tasked with outdoing each other – instead, only completing the mission, which fills in the gaps instead of clunky exposition. Dutch and Dillon are strong on their own and the squad members are pure bonus.
The Horror: While billed and remembered as an action movie, Predator found its footing as a sci-fi horror outing that emphasized the terror of its characters and situation far more frequently – and effectively – than its moments of bombast. It’s a much scarier movie than it gets credit for.
From the first few minutes, the audience is trained to be suspicious of the task at hand. During his briefing about the mission, Dutch notes some unusual details such as the transport for the foreign minister straying from a normal course and their presence amongst the surroundings in the first place. The writers build on this unease by showing the victims of the crash as nothing more than meat stripped of skin, taken out by single shots. Predator retains plausible deniability regarding the alien threat for its first act, continuing to sew distrust while suggesting that not even the CIA truly knew what they were up against.
Setting up the Predator with abilities like enhanced speed, serious strength, thermal vision, and an eclectic arsenal all contributes not only to the character and context of the beast but also to the mounting number of potential workarounds the thing has at its disposal. Through the occasional shot from treetops, it’s shown to watch and wait as long as it needs in order to take out members of the team.
Each ensuing death is brutal, yet surprisingly emotionless. Approaching the alien this way creates a sense of inevitability, but unlike so many horror movies, it’s not from the perspective of quota-meeting kills or runtime extensions; but from traditions the titular character abides by. A far more unnerving prospect than some madman with a machete.
Playing into the power of the Predator is the feedback from the human characters. They aren’t sexy teens and twentysomethings having a party, they’re the most well-trained, muscular, battle-hardened men the military has to offer, being played by some of the literal biggest men of the time. Putting all of these elements together makes the final showdown that much more tense and makes Predator one of the scariest, subversive horror movies ever conceived.
The Technics: Though the odds were in its favor, making Predator without the necessary finesse and talent could’ve resulted in an unclear muddle of greenery sometimes broken up by splashes of thermal vision and blood. With the smart choices in cast and crew, Predator shows more technical prowess than it needed to, delivering an all-timer in construction.
Making one ugly and intimidating creature, Stan Winston (Terminator Salvation, End of Days) delivered one of the most recognizable aliens ever, with clawed hands, mesh attire, metal equipment, and beady eyes, the thing is quite the sight. Practical effects by the same man and his team are equally impressive, with an exploding chest, skinned humans, and plenty of blood on hand, the events are gross but functional in making a reprieve from the greens and browns of the jungle.
Optical effects and sound design are equally impressive, as the movie used new techniques to achieve the thermal vision and active cloaking visuals, and each was paired with punchy sound design to make each use of alien tech and every transition noticeable without being overbearing. With a distinctive slant to the shooting location and transitory cinematography from Donald McAlpine (Black Site, Romeo + Juliet), the movie has its own feeling which sets it apart from any contemporaries.
It’s often imitated, but no one has replicated the near perfection of Predator. A supreme sense of terror, fun characters, an identifiable creature, and some of the best one-liners all make for one of McTiernan’s inimitable classics.