Predator 1987 – A Film Review

Predator Movie

Predator 1987 is a great film. It’s better than it has any right to be. One might even call it improbably good. After all, it came hot on the heels of the preposterous Commando (1985) and the pedestrian Raw Deal (1986). It came out the same year as the pulsating The Running Man (all the worse because the novel is so much better). And the puerile Twins (1988) was soon to follow.

But Predator 1987 was different from all these. For one thing, it was the only one of these films to spawn a franchise. For another, it was the only one in which Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed happy to share the screen with some other larger-than-life characters. But most importantly, Predator 1987 was Arnold’s only film since Terminator (1984) that had the weight to say something beyond all the one-liners and cool violence it contained.

Predator 1987 successfully combines multiple film genres

The opening scene of Predator 1987 is of an alien spacecraft deploying a shuttle to Earth. We don’t know when, where, what or why. The story itself will answer many of these questions. All we know is that whatever we’re about to see has a larger, sci-fi perspective.

But for the first half of the film, we’re beguiled into almost forgetting about this opening scene. Instead, we’re presented with a fun action movie, complete with all those typical Schwarzenegger traits – bulging muscles, sky-high testosterone levels, super soldier bullet-dodging, and physics-defying grenade expositions. And don’t forget those one-liners!

  • “Stick around!” (as Arnie strings a bad guy up against a will with a thrown machete)
  • “Knock-knock!” (as Arnie kicks in a door)
  • “I ain’t got time to bleed!” (my personal favourite)

And yet, and yet…even here, there’s other stuff going on. That background tribal drum beat. Those hideously skinned corpses. Billy’s ‘nose’ alerting him to some unseen danger. The Predator’s point of view, which we don’t know yet how to interpret. This meshing of genre’s was on purpose.

“I liked the idea of starting out with an action-adventure, but then coming in with some horror and science fiction.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger 

There are few films out there about which it could be said that it “begins like Rambo and ends like Alien.” (Robert Ebert)

Predator 1987 successfully moves from the silly to the serious

That musclebound handshake near the start of the film between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers has become the stuff of meme legend! Those sexual jokes. The retro-cool music (Long Tall Sally by Little Richard). You get the feeling from the start (apart from that opening space scene) that you’re not supposed to take this film too seriously. It’s basically Commandos instead of Commando.

Then a number of events happen that incrementally ratchet up the seriousness level. Slowly, by degrees and different techniques, we end up with a very different sort of film than the one we started watching. How?

  • The good guys start to die in greater numbers and with greater speed – Good guys aren’t supposed to die, right? Well, someone forgot to tell the makes of Predator 1987 about this rule. First Hawkins gets it and his body is mutilated. Then Blain, Mac, Dillon, Billy and Poncho. Only Arnie’s character and Anna are left. By this time, we feel that anyone could get killed, that the creature could win.
  • The creature’s physical appearance is revealed in stages – At first, we see the jungle through the infra-red vision of…something. Then, we see a vague, humanoid outline of…something. We see glowing eyes. For the first time, we see it without its high-tech camouflage as it administers first-aid on itself. We hear its scream, along with the team. Finally, and only at the end, we see it unmasked, and hear it speak.
  • Their situation, and its terrible nature, hits the team through a process of questioning and investigation – Who skinned those corpses and why? What did Billy sense was out there? What sort of creature has glowing blood? It’s Arnie’s character that first sees what’s happening. It’s a hunt, and they are the game. But it’s also Arnie’s character that sees a way out, expressed in the immortal line, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

The film starts with an ultra-confident, cigar smoking Arnie, and ends as a traumatised version of the same character is flown away, injured in body and mind, with eyes staring out into the distance, and his worldview lying shattered at his feet.

Predator 1987 successfully balances action with dialogue and character development

One of the biggest flaws in many films today, especially (although not exclusively) of the superhero variety, is excessive explaining. The most basic principle of storytelling is: show, don’t tell. But many films see the need to lazily bypass this principle by having a character or narrator fill in all the blanks, rather than reveal this information by natural conversation, events or story plot.

Predator 1987 is an action film, and puts action first and foremost. But it does a superb job of using its lean dialogue to sum up or express what both characters and audience are suspecting at that point. Here are a few examples.

  • Mac, after the team have shot the jungle to pieces: “Nothing on earth could have lived.”
  • Billy, after admitting he’s scared: “Something out there is waiting for us and it ain’t no man. We’re all going to die.”
  • Finally, there’s the excellent short monologue by Anna about what happened to her village during hot summers. “We begin finding our men. We found them sometimes without their skin… and sometimes much, much worst. ‘El que hace trofeos de los hombres’ means ‘the demon who makes trophies of man’.”

I have to say too that Predator 1987 does a superb job of outlining each team member without giving entire profiles. Blain’s chewing tobacco (and nicknamed minigun). Mac’s razor. Billy’s tribal pouch. Hawkins’ jokes. Blain and Mac’s friendship. Dillon’s cynicism. All these quirks and traits outline necessary character distinctives with just a few shots and a few lines.

Predator 1987 creates a creature both terrifying and fascinating

The Predator itself isn’t just some mindless killing machine or evil monster. By the end, we’ve joined the dots with the opening scene, and we know we’re dealing with an alien being here, not a human super soldier or a supernatural demon. As such, the alien is a complex being, a mixture of seeming contradictions that arouse our curiosity as much as our fear.

  • The creature has both strengths and weaknesses when compared to us – It is bigger, stronger, more agile, more cunning. Yet it can get wounded and outwitted. It cannot easily see (or breathe?) in our environment.
  • The creature is both sophisticated and primitive – It is capable of space travel, cloaking devices, energy weapons, and thermal imaging technology. Yet it skins corpses and takes skulls as trophies.
  • The creature is a killer with a code – It kills human beings as we would kill an animal we hunted for sport. But it only kills humans who are armed. And it fights Arnie’s character hand-to-hand in the end, after having removed its own armour and weaponry.
  • The creature is both like and unlike us – It is humanoid, with two arms, two legs and one head. But it has a totally different sensory input (and probably breathing system too). It as mandibles (like insects and arachnids), and quills (aka ‘dreadlocks’). As Arnie says to it in wonder at the end, “What the hell are you?”

Predator 1987 gives us shocking new perspective on our possible place in the universe

In much of previous sci-fi, the place of humanity in the universe was one of importance. This didn’t change whether the aliens that interacted with use were ‘goodies’ (Close Encounters, ET) or ‘baddies’ (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Predator 1987 presents another option. We aren’t important. We’re a pastime, a plaything – a prey.

The alien in Predator 1987 – and, we must assume, its entire race – doesn’t want to begin communications with is, establish relations with us, share technologies and experiences with us, or lead us on some cosmic higher path. It doesn’t even want to conquer us. It wants to use us as unwilling participants in its hunting culture. This culture may have a religious rather than a merely recreational basis, but if it does, we don’t know and they won’t tell us.

Like the Great Old Ones of HP Lovecraft, the Predators use humanity as pawns in their own amoral game. The 2004 film Alien vs Predator gives us a little more insight into the millennia old contact between Humanity and the Predators. HP Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931) served as an inspiration for this film, as did Erich von Däniken and his ancient astronauts hypothesis.

Highly recommended: 10/10

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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