Predator: a 25th birthday appreciation

Feature Ryan Lambie 13 Jun 2012 - 16:42

John McTiernan’s sweaty action classic Predator is 25 years old today. Here, we celebrate one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest films...

It’s 1986, and the set of Predator isn’t a happy one. The cast is getting ill from the jungle heat, buzzing insects and long hours. Scenes shot with Stan Winston’s monster haven’t passed muster with director John McTiernan, resulting in wasted hours and useless footage. “It’s hell” one actor described the situation, as cast and crew wilted under the pressure of shooting in the Mexican jungle.

As history proves, the suffering was worth it. Of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s long action movie back catalogue, Predator still shines as one of his very best, and for 20th Century Fox, the movie sits alongside Alien as another classic monster feature for the Hollywood studio.

If it bleeds, we can kill it

From the very simplest of premises, Predator wrung plenty of tension. An elite team of soldiers, headed up by Arnold’s Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer and his old army buddy George Dillon (Carl Weathers), are engaged in a secret mission in the jungles of Guatemala. There, they  encounter an invisible alien who’s intent on either killing them or skinning them alive.

Predator began life as a spec script by a pair of unknown writers, John and Jim Thomas, and through a series of chance occurrences, the story initially called Hunter became a $15 million production headed up by producer Joel Silver. With director John McTiernan at the helm, and keen to create “an old-fashioned popcorn movie”, an extraordinary cast of Hollywood’s most macho actors was assembled to stand alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of this eclectic cast, Richard Chaves and Jesse Ventura had previously fought in Vietnam, giving their characters a certain believability as they tromped through the jungle in their fatigues. Bill Duke, meanwhile, had appeared in a Schwarzenegger movie before, having been beaten to a pulp in 1986's Commando. Then there was Sonny Landham, a six-foot-eight Native American actor who, bizarrely, had to be accompanied by a security guard on set - the heavy was there, it’s said, to protect the rest of the cast from this potentially dangerous ex-porn star.

Set against this arcade of muscle was a young Shane Black. Then 26, he’d just made a name for himself as the hotshot writer of Lethal Weapon, also produced by Joel Silver. In one of only a handful of big-screen appearances, Black played Hawkins, a faintly nerdy merc whose dirty jokes are soon brought to a bloody end by a hunter from outer space. 

Stick around!

The frankly strange mixture of actors had a highly beneficial effect on the finished picture. As a recent movie like Prometheus reminds us, it’s all too easy to populate a movie with barely-there characters who’re little more than cannon fodder. While the characters in Predator aren’t what you’d call three-dimensional, they’re colourful, distinctive and generally amusing enough to spot at a glance.

Predator’s writers are smart enough to allow a few glimmers of humour to sparkle among the macho growls, meaning that, when the blood begins to fly and the body count starts to rise, the deaths of such characters as Jesse Ventura’s Blain (“I ain’t got time to bleed!”) actually have a vague emotional tug - something rare in action movies, and only bested in this regard by James Cameron’s Aliens.

Then, of course, there’s the deadly Predator himself. A creature originally conceived as an awful, spindly one-eyed thing with big claws for hands, McTiernan bravely (and wisely) shut the production down to give newly-appointed designer Stan Winston time to create a replacement.

The resulting monster was a hulking brute of an alien with mandibles, dreadlock-like hair and a suit of armour bristling with high-tech weapons. The chap sweating inside the suit was Kevin Peter Hall, who cut an imposing figure at seven-foot-two inches tall. Curiously, Jean Claude Van Damme was originally considered to play the Predator; the idea was that the relatively diminutive star would face off against Arnold Schwarzenegger with his superior martial arts skills.

The mind can only boggle at what a commandos versus kung fu jungle alien would have looked like, but as it turned out, the casting of Kevin Peter Hall was a masterful one; stature aside, his prowling, unearthly movements lent the creature a palpable sense of menace.

Get to the chopper!

John McTiernan directs with the same deceptively clever economy he’d bring directly after in Die Hard, ably assisted by Donald McAlpine’s cinematography. Together, they manage to make the film’s jungle setting seem truly alive, providing the impression that the Predator’s lurking somewhere not too far away - watching, waiting to strike.

Then there’s the outstanding work of its composer, Alan Silvestri. His primal music embodies the themes of survival in the face of the unknown, and an unusual, distinctive use of drums provides an immediate sense of claustrophobia.

In terms of drama, Predator’s diminshed somewhat by the elemental presence of one Arnold Schwarzenegger. His name at the top of the poster makes his survival almost a foregone conclusion, stripping the movie of the kind of unpredictable tension enjoyed by Alien at the time of its release in 1979.

Nevertheless, Predator’s build-up of tension is masterful, even if true surprises are few in number. Rather than wade into the alien versus commando battle we’re expecting, McTiernan takes his time, establishing his characters in a memorable red-filter helicopter sequence, before sending them off into the steamy environs of the jungle.

The Predator himself is introduced gradually and subtly. His handiwork’s shown off first: a row of skinned bodies hung out to dry from a branch. While Dutch’s team of mercs engage in their A-Team-style rescue mission, the Predator watches from afar with his trademark thermal imaging. Like the alien, McTiernan waits, biding his time and building up the anticipation.

Eventually, the bloodletting begins in earnest. The Predator offs his prey one at a time, clearly relishing what is essentially his hobby - taking out worthy opponents with a mixture of lasers and Wolverine-style blades. Spattering the screen with the kind of gore we don’t see much in mainstream films anymore, McTiernan’s deaths rival the best of 80s slasher movies for their splashy imaginativeness. 

Eventually, only Dutch and a monosyllabic rescued hostage (Elpidia Carrillo) remain, and our hero does what any sane man-mountain would: he strips to the waist, covers himself in mud, and with a primal roar, engages the monster in hand-to-hand combat.

As that final encounter reveals, there’s much that is 80s about Predator – its machismo is one example, while some of its visual effects don’t look quite so special anymore (believe it or not, that invisibility effect looked remarkable when the film came out). Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how well Predator still stands up - it’s just as it was when it first appeared back in June 1987: a tense, exciting and hugely entertaining sci-fi action flick.

Aside from providing another hit for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie launched the career of a remarkably enduring creature. The Predator has appeared in his own comics, videogames, the spin-off movies Alien Vs Predator and AVP: Requiem, as well as two direct sequels, Predator 2 and 2010’s Predators.

It’s in John McTiernan’s film, though, where the Predator seems most at home. Through a mixture of decent filmmaking, great design choices and left-field casting, the director created a concoction of science fiction, action adventure and slasher movie which is still capable of raising the hair on the back of one’s neck. 

Even 25 years later, all we need to hear is the rumble of Alan Silvestri’s jungle drums, and we’re back in the steaming jungle, where an alien lurks in the trees and muscle-bound hunters become the hunted. Predator, we humbly salute you.

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Theres a great bit on the DVD extras where Jesse Ventura brags about how his muscles were bigger that Ahnulds when they got measured then it cuts to the man himself trying to convince us that he played a trick and had the tape measure lengthened.
Love this film its a real shame Ahnuld never came on for the sequel the other films were pretty poor Predators was entertaining enough but no where near the quality of the first.

It's also an important movie in that it has two future governors in it, and almost a third.  Sonny Landham almost ran for governor:  three governors in a single movie!

@Ryan Lambie:Ryan,thanks mate.Articles like this are what makes me absolutely love this site and  get involved in the comments.

In my opinion Predator is Arnolds' best picture(just pipping the first two Terminator films).Its lean,muscular and just fires on all cylinders.I could wax lyrical about it but this article has said it better than I ever could.And it has aged magnificently.25 years old.Unbelievable...looking good Dutch.

I remember this was the first laserdisk I ever bought (remember those?), its a film that I saw again last year and still loved it immensely. My friends and I often start quoting from this movie when circumstances allow and boy are there a lot of quoteables. Its a real shame where the franchise was taken, following  the theme of the many comic plots may have saved the franchise and also remember the comic book series explained all about where the Xenomorph aliens came from and who the Space Jockey was many years before Promethius failed to...

One of my favourite movie !!! =)

Wierdly watched this earlier today after buying the Blu-ray. Still a great film. Saw it in the cinema when it was first released (snook in as a cheeky 15 year old!) The film cracks me up - especially the gung ho scene where they spend about an hour just shooting into the forest - then reloading and shooting again. Brilliant.

I'm not a massive Arnie fan but Predator is a pretty much perfect film from beginning to end.  You get a real sense of the jungle location too.  Lots of films squander the potential of a great location (Indy IV being a recent example.)  It's a pity McTiernan hasn't done anything particularly good in the last decade - and I'm saying that as one of the three people on Earth that loves The 13th Warrior.

A great one, but pales in comparison to 2. It's a shame this classic race has had more misses than hits. But they are still the single most bad ass tribe of alien motha fuggers around! Thank you Stan Winston and Kevin Peter Hall!

After I watched this as a little kid in the cinema I thought I was hearing "Over here" and "Turn around" everywhere. I love this film and @hoopla I'm the second of the three people on Earth that loves The 13th Warrior.

Great article and I agree with pretty much every word of it. True genius is making the ludicrous entertaining, even believable and so damned quotable. It manages to make a virtue of machismo and you don't really question it. Best example is in opening sequence when Dutch and co take a jeep through the breakers from the chopper to the CP - yet it's only a 50 yard walk. But it seems absolutely the right thing to do!

My only gripe is that the studio cut back on the cost of a full widescreen production, releasing the film (in a slightly grainy) 1:85 ration rather than a full 2:35 aspect. Given I've watched this film over 20 times, I can't help wondering what it would have been like with that extra screen real-estate. The jungle might have come that much more alive.

"Stick around" for another 25 years please.

What a classic -- I got goosebumps just reading this article. I'll definitely be watching this movie again today (it would be rude not to.) Now if I can just convince the wife to watch it with me...

What! '..pales in comparison to 2'?!Your kidding right?Predator is an aboration that started the trend of 'misses'.Just my view.

I remember being absolutely blown away by this movie back in 87, and yes, the invisibility effect was like nothing ever seen before.  Glad this article took time to mention Alan Silvestri - his score is a fundamental part of what makes this movie work.  

Kevin Peter Hall's performance has never been bettered by any of the subsequent pretenders to the suit - the way he toys with Arnie at the end really made that character come to life and is the reason the Predator didn't end up just being another dumb movie monster.  

This is also the only movie I can recite word-for-word - I really wore out my VHS copy back in the 90s!

Predator is pretty much my favourite action/sci fi movie of all time. This, along with Die Hard and Terminator 2, spawned my love of sci fi action when my Dad showed me them when I was probably a bit too young to be watching them - God Bless my fathers lack of judgement on (or care for) BBFC labels!
It also introduced me to the importance of film score, something that I have loved ever since.
Thanks for sharing this!

"There's something out there waiting for us... and it ain't no man."

Classic movie. It's got all of the 80s bravado, all of the machismo, all of the kickass one-liners, a great cast, etc. Arnie in his prime, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Carl Weathers, etc., and even Shane Black, tons of quotable lines, legit jungle settings and practical effects, and tons of adrenaline.

This is honestly a legitimately good film. Instead of just dropping the monster on us, it masterfully builds up to it, and for awhile the audience's perceptions are deflected AWAY from it, aside from a few hints here and there. I remember the first time I watched this having no idea what it was about and you really appreciate the way the writers and director build it up.

The Predator himself is also damn cool. I still think the xenomorph is the greatest film creature ever, but the Pred is awesome in its humanness. He's cold, calculating and apparently a huge sore loser. Great settings, great effects, and Thomas' writing and McTiernan's masterful directing ratchet up the tension gradually rather than just dropping us into it.

Other than, great action, great one-liners, etc. Action classic.

I love Predator, I think it's up there with Terminator as my all time favourite Arnie film, just above T2 and Commando :-)

Barely feels like its aged a day- sure its macho and the effects are occasionally ropy but its still an absolute masterclass in action, tension and making the most out of a good ensemble cast and a massive star like Arnie. It could actually be Arnie's best action performance as he pulls off a fantastic combination of fear (terror even?) and sheer determination to survive. 

This movie will make you a goddamn sexual Tyrannosaur, just like me...

Obviously I meant Predator 2 is an aboration..Sorry about typo.

I love Predator in all its forms.  Good article but after reading the title I was hoping it would pay tribute by telling us more little known details, trivia and history of the making of the movie, rather than an extended synopsis which is what we got but regardless it makes me want to watch the movie again!

Great article. Love Predator. Primal in the jungle stuff, makes me want to roar with the beasts. 

Get to the Chopperrrrrrrrrrrr! I see this countless times back in the day on sky movies (normally in the 10 o clock slot) and through vhs, dvd and blu ray it still stands up as a great dirty dozen/twilight zone episode. Arnie's best non Terminator role.


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