At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Predator “87”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action-Horror/ Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jessie Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Shane Black, R.G. Armstrong, Kevin Peter Hall/ Runtime: 107 minutes

In 1979, Ridley Scott introduced us to a creature in space that quickly and horrifically wrecked havoc on the crew of a ship known as the Nostromo. Indeed while that movie and its sequel are both true classics of the sci-fi genre, I do feel that audiences were also left wanting an extraterrestrial movie in this vein, but on the planet we all live on aka Earth. Fortunately, following the release of Aliens in 1986, 20th Century Fox gave us a movie that took that challenge to heart and has since evolved and become just as iconic of a franchise as the Alien one. Yet despite the sequels simply being “good”, I will always hold the first Predator from 1987 in the highest regard. This is because, thanks to a genius story, wonderful work from the crew with particular regard to the special effects department headed by legend Stan Winston, and a truly wonderful cast lead by a top-of-his-game Arnold Schwarzenegger, what could have been seen as a simple B sci-fi movie with muscle is now rightfully heralded as not only one of the defining movies of the late 80’s, but also a terrific entry in the long history of aliens in cinema as well.

The plot is as follows: Predator takes us into the jungles of South America where a team of mercenary commandos led by Major Dutch Schaefer has just landed. Upon arrival, Dutch finds himself reuniting with an old friend named Dillon who is now working for the CIA and who approaches him with a mission. A mission that involves heading into a rebel camp, rescuing some important people to the CIA’s operations in the area, and then getting the heck out of there. Of course, upon arriving in the hot spot, it quickly becomes apparent that Dillon wasn’t exactly giving them the whole story, but even that pales in comparison to the horror that soon befalls the group. A horror that takes the form of something otherworldly stalking the group that then proceeds to begin taking them out one by one….now the hunter has become the hunted and if this elite squad is to win this most dangerous game they will have to rely upon all their skill and training and hope against hope that it is enough to help them survive against an enemy that they simply cannot begin to comprehend……

Now I feel it must be gotten right out of the way: yes this is a movie which, on more than one occasion, does get quite embarrassingly heavy on the testosterone. Yet in response to that argument I would just like to point out that the filmmaking skill that is put to use towards the goal of putting this film together manages to by leaps and bounds manage to throw significant shade on all the testosterone-fueled goofiness on display. For example I like how this film starts out as a film in the vein of The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven only to then in the 2nd half of the film segue into an extraterrestrial version of “Most Dangerous Game” and yet both halves still feel like they fit together quite well. Also take into account the skill and seeming ease with which this film also manages to make the switch from showing the squad in the midst of hunting first their initial target and then later on the otherworldly being only to then slowly, but surely start coming to the very grave realization that they are not hunting this creature; rather he is the one that is hunting them. Yet the brilliant thing about all this is that not all of them come to this realization verbally. Indeed there are some instances where this manages to occur with both a single camera shot and virtually no movement in said shot at all except perhaps a slight yet subtle change in one of the team’s expressions. Indeed this movie really is at its heart and core a story about a group of some of the best warriors on Earth coming into a conflict with a warrior that, in addition to being not of this world, might just be better than all of them put together. Yet this is a fight which we in the audiences can relate to because despite their possessing more muscle than 90% of the population on Earth they are still human just like each and every one of us, and so we empathize with them and understand who they are and why they do what they do in this movie no matter how over the top things may tend to get. Indeed this was never meant to be Oscar material, but this is still a great movie nonetheless. Also of note is the fact that this film’s death scenes are actually pretty classy and well done given what kind of movie this is. Indeed while they are gory, they are not over the top; instead they manage to showcase both just how violent and vicious the titular creature is and just what he is capable of as well also leave a few questions open on just why this creature is doing this.

Now in an 80’s action testosterone-fest you need a group of actors that are just as gonzo and over-the-top as the movie itself suggests it’s going to be. Thankfully this movie delivers in that regard as this cast all does amazing work for the kind of movie that this is. This of course starts with film lead Arnold Schwarzenegger as team leader Dutch and I feel that, besides his role in Terminator, this is a role that just fits Schwarzenegger perfectly. This is because, out of all the 80’s action stars, I feel that, with perhaps the exception of maybe Stallone, Schwarzenegger is the rare movie hero who’s actually on par with the titular monster both in terms of general physique, but also in regards to strategizing. Indeed trust me when I say that the final showdown Arnold has with the Predator in this film really is terrific stuff not just because of it’s physicality, but also because it actually keeps Arnold on his toes for awhile and forces him to improvise a plan of attack that the master strategist that is the Predator hasn’t already considered from his prey already. Now, action beats aside, I also feel that every action hero has to possess a moment or 2 when we see beyond the muscle and the movie is actually able to humanize the lead hero. Indeed while there are so many of these moments that are super cliche or very lazily done I definitely think Dutch’s are significantly more effective because they’re not forced in any way; they just come out when the character chooses to have them come out. A key example of this is when Dutch makes it abundantly clear that, despite his team’s high abundance both of muscle and firepower “they are a rescue team, not assassins”. Indeed I feel that this is a very underappreciated moment in the movie because, by using a simple bit of dialogue involving the ethics of both him and his team, Dutch manages to reveal that despite how tough he and his team look, they do better work, and their true purpose is to, more than anything else, save people’s lives rather than end them. Of course it goes without saying, but it is also this moment of humanity that really adds a whole new layer to the conflict that Dutch has with the Predator in the movie. Indeed it’s because that Dutch comes to realize that if he wants even a chance to survive this, he is going to have to give in to a part of himself that he has consistently rejected throughout the movie despite any reservations that he may have about that, and I feel that Schwarzenegger manages to sell all of this beautifully in what will always be one of his true standout performances.

Of course the supporting cast all rise to the challenge of meeting the standard set by Mr. Olympia and they do so magnificently. This of course starts with perennial 80’s favorite Carl Weathers who brings Carl Weathers who manages to turn in a terrific yet also serious and committed performance Dillon. Indeed I really did think that the scenes featuring both him and Schwarzenegger were extremely well-done and the side story of their long time friendship and how that starts to come unraveled is well done both in how it’s sprinkled throughout, but also in how it never feels forced into the film’s narrative in any way, shape, form, or fashion. I also felt that Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, and future Iron Man 3 director and Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black all do good work in rounding out the rest of the team yet I also enjoy how not only does the film take time to individualize these guys and make them distinguishable from one another, but also in how this movie legitimately makes me care about these guys and their struggle. Indeed in most movies of this ilk 98% of this cast would be plain and simple fodder for the monster to go through on its way to the final showdown. Yet that is not the case here; in fact when characters die in this movie you actually find yourself actually sad to see them die no matter how long or how little they were in the film, and that can all be chalked up to the wonderful work that this cast manages to pull off. With that being said however, I do feel that if I had to pick one character who I would most certainly have liked to have gotten more in the final film it would have to be Sonny Landham as Billy. Indeed it really just came across to me through multiple viewings of this movie that he really did seem to have a back story that I most definitely feel would have been interesting to explore just a little bit more. I mean I know Sonny Landham was known for being slightly off his rocker a little bit while making this movie, and that’s why Billy’s not as big of a focus, but this still feels like a missed opportunity to me. I also should bring up now that there really is only one female of key significance in this entire movie, and yet despite only being put in the movie most likely because they felt this movie had to have some kind of female presence within, I still feel that the actress who plays this character, a Miss Elpidia Carrillo actually doesn’t do a bad job. Indeed is her performance necessary to the film? Not really at times. Does she still make it work and give it all her however? Absolutely.

All of this of course finally brings us to the main reason that people go to see these movies: the monster. Trust me then when I say that the special effects department spearheaded by effects legend Stan Winston does not disappoint. Not one bit. Indeed the most brilliant thing that this movie does is that for about 3/4 of the movie you never actually see the monster. Sure you see it’s eyes, the shimmer it gives off, or even from the monster’s point-of-view as it hunts these clueless soldiers down, but you never actually see what it really looks like. This of course, in addition to increasing tension and suspense a’la Spielberg in Jaws, just makes it that much cooler when you finally see this entity in all its glory. Suffice it to say then that the genius special effects magician that was Mr. Stan Winston manages to deliver a creature for our viewing pleasure that is by equal measure grotesque yet intriguing and horrific yet phenomenally unique in its design, personality, and motivations as compared to other alien creatures that have both come before and after this one. Indeed trust me when I say that there really isn’t an alien creature quite like this one in regards to cinematic creations, but I feel that’ll help this one stay the icon that it has already become.

All in all despite the fact that this film’s plot can be compared to countless B-monster movies throughout the years, it is astonishing to see that what worked for Alien back in ’79 also managed to work spectacularly for Predator. Indeed although most of the stars in this movie are now somewhat dated, I feel that the special effects and the rest of the movie most definitely have not. A true product of the 80’s through and through Predator is just as much of a blast to watch now as it was when it was first released over 30+ years ago. On a scale of 1-5 I give Predator a solid 4 out of 5.