Feeling the heat with John McTiernan’s jungle-bound classic
In his action heyday, filmmaker John McTiernan was something of an artiste. For many, he is probably best remembered for action high point Die Hard, a movie that helped revolutionise the genre by putting personality above muscular presence. Protagonist John McClane was a distinctly mortal everyman who audiences could relate to on a human level, but a year earlier McTiernan gave us another revolutionary action vehicle with a crowd-pleasing twist, one very much in the hypermasculine mode. Still, this was no ordinary smash-mouth outing. A genre crossover which lured us into the safety of Hollywood’s most dependable biceps, Predator would plunge us into a jungle of stifling uncertainty, adopting the form of a stalk-and-slash horror and keeping us very much in the dark as the usual musclebound mayhem simmered to a sweltering halt.
The movie would star mainstream man mountain Arnold Schwarzenegger, once again portraying the kind of indestructible super soldier who ‘eats green berets for breakfast’, but the otherworldly incarnation he would face in this movie’s titular menace would make it a battle against the odds by proxy. Even on a good day, the likes of long-time screenwriter Steven E. de Souza would struggle to make a quivering mass of muscles like Schwarzenegger mortal, and who would want that anyway? But with Predator screenwriters Jim and John Thomas did just that, increasing the odds to levels beyond the boundaries of any earthly creature. Ironically, the movie’s marquee attraction was initially considered for the role of John McClane, and though we can thank the stars they gave us a vulnerable Bruce Willis instead, Schwarzenegger was the industry’s biggest name at the time of Predator’s release, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else more befitting of the role.
By 1987, Arnie had evolved from a useless musclehead into one of the most charismatic stars in Hollywood. James Cameron’s sci-fi sleeper hit The Terminator had kicked things off — a movie which accentuated the actor’s naturally robotic mannerisms to devastating effect — but Predator was the movie that solidified his sci-fi status as the ‘Austrian Oak’ became the money-spinning mouthpiece for a whole plethora of one-liners. I mean, who else could take a perfunctory line like ‘Get to the chopper!’ and transform it into one of the most iconic moments in genre history? The de Souza penned Commando had shown us the way in that regard, and the brothers Thomas would exploit Arnie’s newly discovered gift to a macho tee.
Poncho: You’re bleeding, man. You’re hit.
Blain: I ain’t got time to bleed.
Despite its second act curveball, the opening of Predator is action through and through. McTiernan directs events like a man who has swapped his camera for a rocket launcher, delivering the kind of blistering, hi-tech action that put most of his peers to shame. Initially, the movie received mixed reviews based on a supposedly paper-thin plot and weak characterization, but Dutch and his two-dimensional platoon are essential to the movie’s effectiveness, their all-too-familiar roles accentuating the mystery surrounding the movie’s true star — and I’m not talking about Schwarzenegger.
On the subject of mainstream muscle, Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast in the role of the Predator, the idea being that the creature would possess the kind of ninja agility befitting of a stealth assassin, but due to a musclebound cast strength was decided upon as the alien’s biggest attribute, and when you look at the movie’s main players it’s easy to see why. Still, one can’t help but imagine just what it would have been like to see JCVD’s high-kicking antics take the form of a jungle-bound, alien warrior. Arnie may have dwarfed him in stature, and in all likelihood such an approach would have come across as rather hokey, but as a fan of 80s action it’s hard not to fantasise about such a notion.
Predator gives us a cast of All-American badassery reminiscent of the GI Joe action figure range. We have a tobacco-chewing ex-wrestler (Jesse Ventura); a soldier of unnerving calm who shaves the sweat from his brow with a razor while whispering sweet nothings to the moon (Bill Duke); a colossal Native American in touch with the savagery of nature (Sonny Landham), and who can forget Rocky’s Carl Weathers as surreptitious CIA agent Dillon, whose glistening biceps result in one of the most homoerotic handshakes in all of cinema. Interestingly enough, the movie was first pitched as “Rocky meets Alien“after a discussion between Jim and John Thomas, who joked that Rocky would have to face an alien if a fifth movie were ever to materialise due to a lack of Earthly opponents ― the fact that this moment is reminiscent of Rocky III‘s ‘bromance’ ending is not as coincidental as perhaps presumed.
Asides from Shane Black’s Hawkins — the screenwriter was cast solely to make uncredited script changes on the fly — America’s chosen few are a group of seemingly impermeable types of cartoonish indestructibility. Led by the dependable brawn of Schwarzenegger’s Dutch, they are battle-hardened and fearless, so schooled in the art of war that the threat of mere mortals offers no real consequence. So well-oiled is their first act siege that we are awed by their ability to overcome the most impossible of odds. The mystery surrounding the Predator may establish the movie’s knife-edge tension, but it is the dissolution of the platoon’s once implacable resolve that sustains it. To see the seemingly indomitable shrink to a playpen of scared infants was something that audiences were distinctly unprepared for, particularly where Arnie was involved.
The manner in which our platoon is dispatched is both breathtaking and gruesome, but in spite of its balls-to-the-wall action and excessive violence, Predator lives and dies by its sense of mystery and slow reveals, the very reason why a series of inevitable sequels and reboots have always failed to live up to their antecedent. Back in the computer effects infancy of the late ‘80s, our visual introduction to the character who would spawn an entire franchise was positively breathtaking. Stripped of his visual embellishments, the Predator is little more than a POV killer with the ominous brooding of a slasher antagonist, but in a pre-CGI climate the effects were a remarkable distraction from an already established formula. Even the movie’s quasi-pixelated poster, severely dated by today’s standards, screamed high-tech back in 1987.
Billy: I’m scared Poncho.
Poncho: Bullshit. You ain’t afraid of no man.
Billy: There’s something out there waiting for us, and it ain’t no man.
Of course, a simple twist doesn’t necessarily equate to a simple process. Effects maestros R/Greenberg Associates went to great lengths to establish the hunter’s various alien abilities. The creature’s capacity for invisibility was achieved by having an extra wear a bright red suit that was removed using chroma key techniques. This process would leave an invisible space that was later animated after the take was repeated without actors using a 30% wider lens, the two combining to create a vague outline that brought the jungle to life. Less complex but equally creative effects saw the use of an inframetrics video scanner to achieve thermal vision after a failed experiment with infrared film, while the neon effect of the alien’s blood was accomplished by extracting the green liquid from glow sticks and mixing it with personal lubricant. Rotoscoped animation was also used to create the spark effects that saw the alien transition from invisible to visible as its stealth mechanism began to falter, and who could ever forget that particular image?
All of this combined to turn a multi-formulaic movie into fresh and innovative spectacle, but it is the effectiveness of those formulas that would ultimately stand the test of time. Science fiction had skyrocketed in popularity during the late 70s and early 80s, and thanks to the likes of Predator, mainstream sci-fi movies were no longer confined to the celestial canvas of outer space. Predator smashed convention by being multi-conventional. If the first two acts gave us all-out-action and suped-up slasher tension, then the movie’s final act was the cowboys-at-dawn showdown we were all begging to see. Nobody had ever tested Arnie’s resolve to such a degree, and as a consequence we rooted for his character like never before.
Two years earlier, Mark L. Lester gave us the indestructible John Matrix, a retired special-ops demigod who took on an entire army with a ludicrous lack of tactical expertise. With Dutch, McTiernan gives us a more industrious version of the same indestructible archetype, but his character is made human by an unknown entity of vastly superior strength and technology. The movie’s final battle is a gruelling one, Dutch adopting the kind of primordial savagery that recalls such dehumanising works as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, that sees our hero go beyond the modern tactical training adopted by a technologically advanced civilisation. By the movie’s end, it feels like you’ve been dragged through the trenches backwards, and that was certainly the case for Schwarzenegger and company.
Filmed in the unpredictable jungles of Mexico, the shoot was notoriously difficult. Most of the cast and crew suffered from diarrhea due to a lack of water purification, but worse problems came as a result of their unforgiving terrain. Unbearably low temperatures made filming of that final battle incredibly uncomfortable for all involved, as did the foul-smelling water and a plethora of parasitic bugs and leeches lining up to take a chunk out of our multimillionaire superstar. But Arnie’s biggest challenge came in the form of the Predator’s costume, which made it impossible for actor Kevin Peter Hall to see. Not only did this result in painstaking retakes that required Hall to memorize his space, it led to a particularly arduous physical battle scarred with authenticity. What you see onscreen is far more real than you may have imagined.
Dutch: He came to get the body. He’s killing us one at a time.
Billy: Like a hunter.
Dutch: [looks up in awareness] He’s using the trees.
Quite the emotional journey, but one that translates to the audience in a way that makes it all worthwhile. Simply put, Predator is one of the defining movies of the 1980s; perhaps second only to The Terminator as the career high of the decade’s most celebrated action star. But for once the movie’s true star is not the name on the marquee. That accolade belongs to one of cinema’s most memorable cosmetic creations.
It’s hard to recall a character as effectively presented as the original Predator. McTiernan exhibits the care and patience that goes into delivering the very best horror antagonists. Much like Ridley Scott’s Alien, we are given glimpses of an omnipotent presence, a chameleon as elusive in the light of the jungle as others are in the shadows of night. McTiernan teases with vague forms and impressions, but at some point you must deliver on a purely aesthetic level if you are to avoid unravelling all the good work that came before.
The Predator’s design did not happen overnight, and the original conception was scrapped midway through production for not being scary enough. Images of the design show a lanky, bug-eyed creature with the lithe structure of a feline ― a seemingly perfect costume for Van Damme. Arnie would then turn to effects maestro Stan Winston, the man responsible for The Terminator‘s iconic exoskeleton, Winston himself conferring with director James Cameron, who had always imagined creating a monster with mandibles.
The resulting design is iconic, but there are other aspects that make Predator such a winning attraction. The creature’s armour still looks fantastic today, a belt of trophy skulls only adding to its fearsome aura, while its high-pitched, guttural sounds are an alien upgrade on the heavily breathing stalk-and-slash killer that the movie borrows from so effectively. The original Predator is a truly fearsome creation, with the dexterity and strength of a simian and the kind of short-tempered scowl that would reduce even the toughest Earthly specimen to a quivering pile of hopelessness. It is also a creature of vast skill and intelligence, one who is able to adapt to its alien surroundings with unnerving aplomb. For me, the Predator’s design is second only to H.R. Giger’s xenomorph.
Another element that sets the movie’s monster apart is its sense of honour — something that is invariably absent from extraterrestrial villains in most other movies. It is mean and monstrous yet vaguely human ― both in its physical appearance and its adoption of a moral code. Monsters like the xenomorph are primal creatures with a remorseless appetite for destruction, but the Predator is a soldier at heart, a species who sees anyone with a weapon as fair game, while those who are unarmed remain untouched. In the end, the Predator finds an opponent who is worthy of his abilities, and as a final show of respect opts for a battle of wits fuelled by honour and propriety. It is only after this that we see the Predator for what it really is: a true warrior, and a creature as deserving of our fear as it is our admiration.