Predator: a 25th birthday appreciation

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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