Monday, June 28, 2010


Predator (5/5)

With the impending resurrection of the true Predator series, I have decided to revisit the franchise from the beginning. I do not promise to make it all the way to the Alien v. Predator films (Predators in Antarctica? Did they not see the first two movies?), but I figured that with the soon to be released third film in the series, Predators, I should make the effort to re-familiarize myself with one of film’s great monsters. Besides, how will I know what’s going on in Predators if I don’t see the first two movies?

The director, John McTiernan, made Predator shortly before his creative and economic peak. He would soon go on to direct Die Hard, a film that would not only create an entirely new sub-genre of action films (the trapped on a boat/train/bus/space station movie) but also enter into the pop-culture consciousness as the essence of what an action film can and should do. But at this point in his career he was just some guy that made a movie where Pierce Brosnan wore an intimidating beard.

The plot of Predator is relatively straight forward. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leads an elite team of mercenaries who are called on by an old friend at the CIA, Dillon (Carl Weathers), to rescue two CIA field operatives who have gone missing in South America. Despite Dutch’s policy that his team works alone (he also stipulates that the team only works rescue missions), Dillon forces himself onto the operation as a liaison between the mercenaries and the government. Naturally, tensions mount since just about everyone on the team considers Dillon an out of practice pencil pusher. Whenever a film like this creates a dichotomy between those who are shot at and those who sit behind desks, you can guarantee that the desk jockeys are not on the level. Sure enough, when Dutch and his team discover the hidden encampment of the rebel guerillas and destroy it with the usual 1980s level of orgiastic violence, they realize that the actual mission was to destroy the guerillas and not to rescue the CIA officers. This goes against Dutch’s mercenary ethics (oxymoron?) and he is furious with Dillon.

You’ll notice that I have yet to mention the predator, and that’s because up until this point in the film he has made little more than small cameo appearances. We see his ship drop into the Earth’s atmosphere in the beginning of the film and during the team’s trek to find the enemy camp, snippets of the film are shown in Pred-o-vision as the alien studies his prey and records some of their conversations. In fact, the screenplay has a bit of a dual personality. It acts like a modern day man on a mission movie with a little bit government backstabbing thrown in for good measure, but all of a sudden aliens show up and it becomes an entirely different story. In lesser hands this would have torn the film in two, but the man on the mission movie serves to heighten the tension. Like the films Jaws and Alien, McTiernan is smart enough to leave the big reveal until about halfway through the film (and even then the predator is still wearing a mask so we don’t get to see his face until the final moments of the movie). The entire time the audience is left wondering what exactly this alien looks like and when it will strike.

Once the team heads back to the rendezvous point, they soon discover that they are being hunted by something that is near invisible and interested in picking them off one at a time. By the end of the film Dutch is the only man left. Through complete luck he discovers that covering himself with mud prevents the creature, who sees through heat, from seeing him. Dutch uses this tactical knowledge in order to even the odds for the final confrontation. In a common film motif, Dutch must discard all of his modern weaponry and face the predator with only weapons he can fashion out of the forest. Scenes like this, when the hero must rely on only the most primitive tools, evoke a realization that living on this planet is not too far from the living on that island those British school children landed on in Lord of the Flies. Tellingly, Dutch lets out a primordial scream in order to call the predator to battle.

When so many modern blockbusters are trying to be novels, stretching their running time long beyond the 120 minute mark, there is something refreshing when a film like Predator aims to be the perfect short story. The structure of the film is as streamlined as a fighter plan, giving the audience all the information it really needs shortly after the opening credits. We see the alien ship drop to Earth and are informed by Dillon that they need to rescue some prisoners. Then we’re off. That’s not to say the film doesn’t make use of some great tension before the predator is introduced, but that the simplicity of the film becomes a strength and not a detriment. A consequence of this terse plotting is that several subplots are never really resolved. We never know what happens when Dutch returns to civilization after realizing he had been duped, and the real world cynic versus mercenary with a heart of gold standoff between Dutch and Dillon is never truly resolved. But McTiernan realizes that these conflicts are more important for the tension they create rather than their resolution. We all know the CIA is corrupt, but the last thing this movie needs is a denouement where Dutch stands before a congressional hearing.

The condensed nature of the film extends to the cast of characters as well. The filmmakers use the Huey copter ride to give us all the information we need on who these mercenaries are, and, with the precision and grace of a silent kill, they do so with nothing more than a few lines of dialogue. We get Blain (Jesse Ventura) chewing on tobacco and offering some to his fellow soldiers. When they refuse he claims the tobacco would make each one into a “sexual tyrannosaurus rex” like him, naturally (I’m obviously editing out some of this dialogue). He’s the kind of guy who would get on your nerves just because he could. Hawkins (Shane Black) is first seen reading a comic book and apparently is the gang’s source of scatological humor. Throughout the film he attempts to make Billy (Sonny Landham as the unfortunately stereotypically stoic American Indian) to laugh by telling him absurdly misogynistic jokes. While this gag relies on easy stereotypes (yes, Billy is also an excellent tracker), it also creates a sense of camaraderie between the soldiers. Mac (Bill Duke) is first seen sharpening a knife, and throughout the film he plays his character as on the edge. He first threatens to murder Dillon in the middle of the jungle if he gives away their position (“I’ll bleed you. Real quiet like”), and later he goes full PTSD when his best friend Blain dies, at one point he giving a soliloquy to the moon about how the two of them were the only men to survive out of their entire platoon. Of course, given Mac’s mental state, he is an unreliable narrator of his own history. Like most of the relations in this film, and in the best short stories, whole histories are implied but not fully illuminated. (Note to McTiernan: please never make a prequel to this film. I don’t need to know that Blain became a mercenary because his father was decapitated by a Jedi).

But the heart of the film is really the predator. A lot of credit must go to the over seven foot tall actor, Kevin Peter Hall. Hall manages to infuse the predator with a lot of personality, a difficult task when you are hidden underneath a heavy suit. His movements are simultaneously graceful and unearthly, avoiding the usual clumsiness that accompanies a performance underneath a monster suit. Certain stretches of the film focus solely on the predator’s ritualistic trophy making, using the skulls of his dispatched enemies, and without a capable actor these moments would be, at best, un-engaging and, at worst, laughable. However, Hall plays the creature as someone who is deliberate and smart. He plans and he also has a code of ethics (he won’t kill those who are incapable of defending themselves).

Of course the predator wouldn’t be such an iconic creature if he didn’t also have a great design. Like the performance by Hall, Stan Winston’s design manages to be both otherworldly and grounded in terrestrial cultures. The most striking aspects to the predator are his dreadlocked hair and reptilian skin. Not only is this an unusual combination, but it makes a kind of dream sense. After all, what else would you utilize in order to represent an alien creature that apparently lives in the most extreme tropical climates?

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Predator is that its premise seems so flimsy and yet the film succeeds despite itself. Just try to explain the premise of the film to someone who hasn’t seen it: “A band of mercenaries are hunted down by an extraterrestrial from beyond the stars.” A description of the film makes it sound like direct to video material. But the filmmakers took the premise seriously. Even Schwarzenegger limits himself to one bad pun. What’s more, the movie is endlessly quotable (“If it bleeds, we can kill it;” “I ain’t got time to bleed”), which usually means the film was in careful hands from the screenplay stage. The ability of the filmmakers to turn what could have been the plot to an Ed Wood film and turn it into a minor classic not only speaks to the quality of work for those involved, but also to the power of film. There is a reason many of the earliest filmmakers, like Melies, were also magicians, because given enough film magic, a movie can make the audience believe anything.

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