****/**** Image C Sound A Extras B+
starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Bill Duke
screenplay by Jim Thomas & John Thomas
directed by John McTiernan
by Walter Chaw Appearing the same year as Stanley Kubrick's great, enigmatic, dangerous Full Metal Jacket, the brilliant neo-noir of Alan Parker's Angel Heart, John Hughes's devastating Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and what many feel is the quintessential film of the 1980s, Wall Street, John McTiernan's Predator is, in plain truth, one of the two real quintessential films of the decade, a distinction it shares with Back to the Future--pictures, both, that initially appear to toe the Reagan era's line of worship at the altar of Eisenhower's mythological Americana only to reveal that lost wars cannot, in fact, be re-fought and that the Good Old Days were always a little violent and randy. It's a film, this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle all of oiled musculature and technological fetishism, of unusual kinetic power and intelligence, one that sets out to sate the popular audience's hunger for such entertainments in the age of the modern blockbuster before leaving its hero battered, broken, frightened, alone. Its kinship is to movies from the period like Aliens and, yes, Rambo: First Blood Part II--films that understand that when Shane rode away at the end, he was probably just looking for a place to die.
Arnie is "Dutch," an archetype of idealized American bellicosity winging his way into a jungle at the head of an elite Special Forces crew essayed by the likes of fellow governor-to-be Jesse "The Body" Ventura. For one picture to feature two future progressive Republican leaders is a phenomenon that shouldn't go unremarked, as it lends Predator, in hindsight, a kind of extraordinary, mysterious prescience about its own seminal importance in defining the mad conservatism of the Me Generation. The team is sent to bush someone remarks makes "Cambodia look like Kansas" on an ill-defined mission to save American military hostages, but it arrives too late to affect a rescue in the first of several intimations that the promise of a new Morning in America is alive with misdirection and cupidity. It's the same response genre pictures of the 1950s sent, eventually, to that period's rage for conformity: the problems caused by technology (read: militarization) could not also be solved by the same technology. Dutch's rescue mission, it turns out, has a less definite--less noble, perhaps--genesis represented (as it was in Aliens) by an ex-grunt-turned-spook, Dillon (Carl Weathers), who accompanies the crew into the jungle to discover, not unlike 2001's human astronauts, that there's nothing out there for them but the uncanny.
It's a neat trick that the film's bogey is at once invisible and appears to be the jungle itself--a metaphor if there ever was one for America's legacy of intervention in undeveloped backwaters, from the Philippines to Korea to Vietnam to, eventually, Afghanistan and beyond. The escalating cost of maintaining the high self-esteem of the civilian population is the progressive demolition of the self-esteem of the civilian population through meaningless gains and losses in unpronounceable places. Dutch and company (fascinatingly, Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black plays another of the soldiers), upon levelling an enemy encampment in high-blockbuster boom-boom style, find themselves in the crosshairs of an alien sportsman, on Earth for some weekend R&R after correctly identifying it as the universe's Deep South. Predator begins at the end, as it were, then reveals itself to be a slasher flick wherein the heroes are picked off, one by one, until the Final Girl, Arnie, flies away home with a bellyful of experience about the mortal danger of transgression. Read Predator like a horror movie to locate Dutch as Red Riding Hood and the alien hunter as the Wolf; Dutch is victorious at the end, but everyone's dead and there's no saving the fact that the prohibition to stay on the trail has been violated and all innocence and hope for innocence is lost. It's no accident that the explosion in Predator meant to disabuse our notions of might making right is a nuclear one, though the lesson doesn't take in American film--at least not completely--until 9/11, fifteen years or so down the road.
It bears noting that the picture offers no explanation for either the alien--tagged as the predator of the title in the same way that Frankenstein's monster is now synonymous with its creator--or his presence in this context, nor does it dwell overmuch on notions of justice, poetic or otherwise. Predator makes no value judgment about Dutch or the men like him; ultimately valorizes "suit" Dillon in a sequence that suggests a complicated class/racial bonhomie between he and badass Mac (Bill Duke); and has its Native American character Billy (Sonny Landham) kill himself upon appearing to succumb to not so much fear as resignation. The sense of fatalism in Predator is the key to its enduring topicality--a sober recognition that the playing field has levelled and that the age of the American empire is drawing inexorably to a violent close. Revisiting Predator in 2010, one encounters a picture that has deepened with age, gaining in the intervening twenty-three years a post-modern braininess its streamlined muscularity has always obscured. The film fares better than other acknowledged classics of the genre--Aliens, Terminator 2, even the still-pretty-fresh RoboCop--because it contextualizes the weight of all this awful experience and locates depth in our strange comfort that no matter the battles we win, we no longer understand what wars are, much less win them. It's great for all the old reasons and a few new ones besides.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
For years fans have bitched about the grain prevalent in video transfers of Aliens and Predator (in fairness, James Cameron himself hates the grain in Aliens--though he's always taken pains to explain that for good or ill that's the nature of the film stock he chose), and in the latter's case, Fox has finally responded with a Blu-ray reissue sporting "an all-new digital restoration." Translation? They slathered on the DVNR with a trowel. That shroud of grain was an important piece of deception, keeping the Hollywood slickness beneath the guerrilla surface at bay. Now it's gone; the film looks Barbie smooth--emasculated, dare I say. The virtues of this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer are minor as a result, but here goes nothing: the digital scrubbing has at least done away with a lot of excess dirt; the character interactions that unfold in the darkroom-red interior of the helicopter are more legible than ever before; the jungle is nicely verdant; and the increased detail of extreme close-ups can be gratifying, like when the Predator takes off his mask to reveal one of the more nuanced movie-monsters on record. Still, this is revisionism, and should be disdained as such.
The accompanying D-BOX-enhanced 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is considerably less controversial; gaining warmth and heft, Alan Silvestri's iconic score arguably benefits most from the upgrade to lossless audio, although the whole thing sounds pindrop-clear. Bass is thunderous--Predator's mix, which hasn't particularly dated, was unusually meaty and sophisticated for its time. Few jungle-set movies since have surpassed it in terms of conjuring an immersive, transporting ambience.
Except where noted, extras are ported over in standard-definition from the 2004 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD, starting with a serviceable feature-length commentary from McTiernan that covers the shoot in depth while revealing that Ventura had everyone fooled in terms of his intelligence. A subtitle-based trivia track by action-film historian Eric Lichtenfield (it sounds funny to say it, but I like his stuff a lot) includes transcriptions of recent Q&As conducted with the principals, from Predator's sibling screenwriters to various F/X techies. Turning the subtitles on underneath McTiernan's yakker actually offers a nice, comprehensive-feeling informational experience.
"If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It: The Making of Predator" (28 mins.) and "Inside the Predator," composed of seven featurettes (running about 33 mins. total), together constitute a fairly satisfying account of the production. In "new" (captured 2002-ish) and vintage interviews, McTiernan speaks about the absolute importance of knowledge of "space" in terms of "physical proximity and physical relationships" to the success of an action film. It doesn't seem like much of a statement as observations go from the guy behind two of the best American action films of all-time, but given the dearth of well- conceived and shot action movies in general, well, easier said than done. Rare footage of what the monster was supposed to look like before the intervention (via Arnie) of Stan Winston amuses, as does McTiernan's recollection of how his incredulous footage of a "guy in a red suit and stilts" convinced the muckety-mucks to pony up for Winston. Gratifyingly, in lieu of Arnie worship we get archival moments like Ventura boasting that he was very proud indeed to learn his bicep is one inch greater in circumference than that of the former Mr. Universe. There's a punchline to the story--one echoed by Carl Weathers as he recalls the macho brinkmanship of the picture. It's interesting to learn of James Cameron's role in Winston's creature design and I did like, too, the revelation that Landham could only be bonded if he had a full-time bodyguard--not for his protection, but for the protection of everyone else around him. You can't make this stuff up. Extensive camouflage and F/X tests start a roundup of odds and sods, followed by a brief deleted scene ("Arnold Schwarzenegger Fleeing the Predator"), then three outtakes that are generally clips of a superstar at the peak of his comfort and power, laughing it up and smoking stogies that Weathers reveals elsewhere Arnie got him addicted to. Four "Short Takes" (10 mins.) provide additional face time with McTiernan, Ventura, and Winston via clips that would've felt out of context in the retrospectives, while "A Predator Profile" is a text-based production notes sort of thing that goes hand-in-hand with an extensive stills gallery.
Exclusive to this platter are HiDef trailers for Predator and Predator 2 as well as a one-minute HD teaser for the upcoming Predators and a curiously laconic 11-minute promotional featurette for same (ponderously titled "Predator: Evolution of a Species - Hunters of Extreme Perfection" and also HD) dominated by producer/screenwriter Robert Rodriguez, who explains the origins of this second proper sequel and tells the requisite meeting-Schwarzenegger anecdote. I dig Rodriguez here, maybe because he's not peddling his kids' refrigerator art. Originally published: July 6, 2010.