Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Thirty Years Ago: Predator (1987)
Back in the summer of 1987 -- thirty years ago -- the conventional wisdom about John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) was that it started out like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and ended up like Alien (1979) or, perhaps, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). At least, that's how critic Roger Ebert described the film.
By framing the film in this simplistic fashion, Predator could be viewed as a simple or derivative swipe at two separate genre inspirations.
It was part action movie and part sci-fi/horror movie.
And that, as Ebert declared, passed for originality in Hollywood.
That’s a left-handed compliment if I ever read one!
The truth about Predator, contrarily, is that it is all of a piece, and thematically consistent throughout.
Indeed, the intense film forges a debate about warriors or soldiers, and asks, specifically, what the best soldiers are made of.
Do soldiers succeed because of their technology?
Or do the best soldiers succeed because of some combination of instinct, experience, and a tactical understanding of their enemy?
McTiernan’s film sets up this debate in the film's visualizations.
Specifically, a squad of American soldiers, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch, rain down death and destruction on Third World, Central American soldiers, literally coming down to a village from a point on high to do so.
This action occurs in the first act, and establishes, per the dialogue, that Schwarzenegger’s team is “the best.” We see that adjective vividly demonstrated in a siege set-piece of extreme violence and bloodshed. The soldiers show no mercy, and give no quarter to their enemy.
The next act of the film, however, deliberately reverses that equation. It positions Schwarzenegger’s team on the ground, and puts an alien hunter at an even higher position -- in the tree-tops -- to rain down death on his “primitive” Earthbound counter-parts.
The soldiers who were the predators are now the prey. And they have no reason to expect mercy.
In both cases, the technologically-superior force wins, and the perceived primitive or lesser opponent is knocked down and defeated.
In both cases, McTiernan vividly and explicitly associates that sense of superiority with a sense of geographical height; a high physical vantage point, captured by the camera's position.
The winner can, literally, reach heights that the loser can’t, and this is one important reason for his victory.
However, in the third and final act of Predator, Arnold and the alien hunter go head to head -- on equal footing -- and it is only on that terrain, one not involving technology, but rather instincts and know-how, that the best soldier is identified, and a victor is crowned.
So where many 1987 critics chose to see a film that is half Rambo and half Alien, I see a film that develops logically and consistently, act to act. You can’t get to that final, almost primordial reckoning in the jungle between the Predator and Dutch unless you frame the debate in precisely the way the screenplay does, and in the way McTiernan does.
In short, the film depicts the best soldiers in the world demonstrating their ability to defeat all comers, only to be defeated by an enemy better than them; one not of this world.
The first and second act are two sides of the same coin, the idea -- with apologies to Star Wars Episode I (1999) -- that there is always a bigger fish out there waiting to demonstrate superior technology.
Predator’s third act -- a glorious back-to-basics conflict that looks like it was authentically staged in a prehistoric setting -- makes the point that the greatest hunter or soldier is actually the one who understands his enemy, and trusts his instincts.
Why make a movie in this fashion?
Well, in a sense, Predator might be read as a subversive response to the militarization of action films in the mid-1980's, and the kind of shallow, rah-rah patriotism that gave rise to efforts like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which celebrated an American military victory over…Grenada.
Was Grenada really a challenge to American domination, given our military budget and might?
Contrarily, Predator takes a group of tough-talking “ultimate warriors” and puts them in a situation where they aren’t merely shooting fish in a barrel.
They are the fish in the barrel.
In reckoning with this sudden and total change in fortunes, we begin to glean a true idea of courage and heroism.
All of the Earthly politics in the movie -- illegal border crossings, a false cover story, documentation about a possible invasion, and so forth -- add up to precisely nothing here, and there's a reason why. Those details are immaterial to the real story of soldiers who reckon with an enemy that goes beyond the limits of Earthly knowledge.
Ironically, to be the best soldier in a situation like that, it isn’t the big Gatling gun that matters. It’s the ability to adapt to and understand the kind of menace encountered.
Predator features a lot of macho talk and clichés about war (“I ain’t got time to bleed,”) but it succeeds because it cuts right through this surface, hackneyed vision of military might typical of its time period and suggests a different truth underneath.
There’s always a bigger fish.
“You got us here to do your dirty work!”
An elite squad of American soldiers, led by Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), is dropped into a Central American jungle to rescue a cabinet minister being held by enemy rebels.
Going along with Dutch’s team is the mission commander, the not-entirely trustworthy Dillon (Carl Weathers).
Once in the jungle, Dutch and his men launch an attack on a rebel village, and find that Dillon has manipulated his team so as to acquire military intelligence about a possible Russian invasion. The group soon takes a captive, Anna, (Elipidia Carillo).
But before the soldiers can be air-lifted out of the jungle, an extra-terrestrial hunter -- a Predator – sets his sights on the group, killing Dutch’s team one man at a time.
Anna reports a local legend: about a demon who makes trophies of humans and is often reported in the hottest summers.
And this year, it grows very, very hot…
Losing his men rapidly, Dutch must come to understand his enemy’s weaknesses and strengths, and makes a final stand in the jungle, using every resource available…
John McTiernan’s camera in Predator rarely stops moving. It tracks, it pans, and it tilts, but is seldom quiescent.
The constantly-on-the-move camera conveys a few important qualities about the film. The first idea it transmits is that the soldiers inhabit a changing and changeable world, one that only instinct and experience can help them navigate.
The always-in-motion camera reveals the soldiers -- sometimes violently -- intruding into new space, new frames, and new aspects of their world. The camera’s movement -- a kind of visual aggression -- suggests the force that the soldiers carry with them.
This movement, this force, is then balanced by McTiernan against the utter stillness of the Predator’s vision or perspective. A contrast is quickly developed and then sustained.
Throughout the film, we see through the Predator’s eyes, or in what might be termed Predator-vision. These shots, from high above the landscape (in the tree-tops), tend to be still, un-moving. They thereby capture a sense of the whole world unfolding before the Predator, a complete panorama or landscape.
This is an important conceit. The soldiers are always moving through a changing, shifting world that they, through their actions, impact.
But they don’t get the whole picture, so-to-speak.
By contrast, the Predator vision gives us long-shots, and shows the entire jungle terrain around the soldiers. This viewpoint suggests omnipotence and power.
The Predator, quite simply, is able to see more of the world, and see it better. He is able to strike from the tree tops with his shoulder-mounted laser cannon, and target with laser-light his distant foes.
His sight is superior, until -- importantly -- Dutch manages to “see” through it; recognizing the flaw in the Predator’s infrared vision.
Again, this is an argument against relying too heavily on technology. Dutch’s soldiers rely on big guns, and get decimated.
The Predator relies on his mask’s vision system (infrared), and Dutch -- smearing himself in mud -- negates the advantage it provides.
But again, what’s important is the way that all this material is visualized.
The soldiers, on ground level, cut through and move through the frame, violently interacting with the world on a tactile, aggressive level.
The Predator, like some great vulture, sits still in the trees (until he strikes), silently hanging back and taking in the lay of the land. He has the luxury to operate from a distance, from up on high, unobserved.
The film sets up a battle between these two perspectives, and one might even argue that the Predator ultimately loses because he abandons his best perspective -- the tree tops -- in order to get down to (and enjoy combat on…) Dutch’s level.
Over and over again, however, McTiernan’s gorgeous, moving compositions suggest that the soldiers don’t have the full picture. Not only is the Predator cloaked, but he has access to the world above the soldiers, the world that they can’t see. A brilliantly-orchestrated shot mid-way through the film sees Dutch hunting for Hawkin’s missing body. He can’t find it. After capturing imagery of Dutch trudging through the brush, McTiernan’s camera suddenly moves upwards, and keeps doing so.
It goes up and up, past a bloody fern frond, and then continues its ascent, until we see Hawkins’ naked, bloodied corpse dangling from the tree top. The Predator is operating in, metaphorically a more fully three dimensional environment, this shot reveals.
Dwight and the other soldiers can’t compete on that level. They literally can't even see to that level.
Those who don’t appreciate Predator tend to watch the film, listen to the macho tough talk, and consider the film a kind of stupid, macho action/horror movie. It's just Rambo with an alien!
Yet in its own way, Predator glides right past such clichéd dialogue and situations. In doing so, it actually comments on them; it comments on two-dimensional thinking. These cliches are not points of strength, the movie informs us, but points of weakness. When the Predator uses his duck call device, for example, he apes the men at their most verbally simplistic. “Any time…” Or “Over here.”
Then he is able to trick them using their own words. Their macho mode of expression becomes a tool to use against them.
As a whole, Predator tricks the audience with its appearance or visual trapping too -- as a macho war movie -- and then treads deeper to examine our conceits about the military, and military might.
When Arnold finally defeats the Predator, he does so not as a twentieth century soldier with high-tech weapons, but as a mud-camouflaged cave-man, relying on his instinct, his knowledge of the land, and hard-gleaned information about his enemy.
Even then, Arnold barely wins.
The Predator sacrifices his superior technology, comes to the ground, and takes off his mask because he wants to fight like Arnie; he wants to experience battle like a human would. That desire proves to be the alien's undoing, a sense of vanity about himself, and an unearned sense of superiority to his nemesis.
And again, this quality reflects dynamically on the first act of the film. Everyone keeps calling Dutch's team "the best,: and the team itself wipes out the Central American rebels while hardly breaking a sweat.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?
Dutch, by contrast, demonstrates qualities that our culture doesn’t always value, especially in terms of our military men. He shows compassion and decency with Anna, a prisoner. He trusts her when the situation changes, instead of continuing to treat her like a foe.
He also rejects Dillon’s approach to war (that the ends justify the means), and does his best to get his men out of a situation in which they are not really fighting for their country, but acting as pawns in someone’s illegal agenda.
Finally, Dutch is curious -- intensely curious -- and flexible enough to understand that he is being hunted by something inhuman. He doesn’t reject the possibility that this could be true, and instead contends with the facts.
“If it bleeds, we can kill it” Dutch concludes, and that is a perfectly logical and sensible argument in the face of what seems an irrational conflict: a battle with an invisible alien.
Dutch is lucky, of course, too. He discovers the secret of defeating Predator-vision by accident, by ending up in the mud. But he also makes the most of his opportunities by demonstrating flexibility rather than rigidity. He changes his very identity to win. He goes from 20th century high-tech soldier to primitive cave man, to carry the day.
Thirty years later, Predator still dazzles, in part because of McTiernan’s often-moving camera and approach to visuals, but also because of that incredible final sequence in the jungle.
Arnold and the colossal, frightening alien duke it out on a little parcel of land, surrounded by water. The setting is picturesque, but more than that, it seems to evoke some kind of genetic memory, a feeling for the day when humans didn’t understand the world and were prey to saber tooth tigers or bears, or anything else that might find us when we ventured out of our caves.
The film’s final battle -- shorn of high-tech military hardware -- gets down to the bloody basics and is incredibly satisfying on a human level.
Today, we have military drones, smart-bombs, and other incredible technology to help us win the day when we wage war, but Predator is a remarkable reminder from another movie age that the biggest, best guns don’t necessarily make great soldiers.
If they did, the Predator would have won his battle with Arnie, right?