Written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas
Directed by John McTiernan
After the release of Rocky IV, a joke went around Hollywood that he’d run out of people to fight. His next opponent should be an alien. Brothers Jim & John Thomas decided to bang out a script inspired by this joke. The original script, titled Hunter, featured a band of alien hunters from various species hunting down targets. This was revised and refocused to one alien hunting down a group of human soldiers. It was initially envisioned as a pulpy low budget science fiction picture, but producer Joel Silver saw it as a perfect follow-up to his recent Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger. John McTiernan was hired to direct, having only made one previous film. Predator would be his studio debut and would lead to one of the career-defining action films of the era.
In Central America, a military operation is underway to rescue a foreign cabinet minister whose helicopter was shot down over the rainforest. Dutch (Arnold) is the leader of a group of mercenaries called in by Dillion (Carl Weathers). Dillion is Dutch’s former comrade in arms who is now working for the CIA. The group is dropped into the jungle and begins tracking the minister and his people. They become aware of insurgents camped in the village and discover the team members sent in before them. Those soldiers are flayed and skinned, hanging from their feet in the trees. It doesn’t match the M.O. of the insurgents, and soon it becomes clear something else is stalking them from the canopy. A vicious alien hunter begins targeting and isolating members of the team on a hunt to collect trophies.
Predator is a very tightly written film, one without any fat. The film opens by throwing us right into the start of the mission and concludes without any over-extended denouement. There’s never a discovery of the Predator’s ship or attempt to explain what this is and why they are doing this. As the audience, we can infer certain things from the alien’s behavior and actions, but the film doesn’t feel a need to explicitly spell anything out for us. Everything necessary is communicated through what we see on screen and done expertly well.
The film does some interesting things with its initial premise. It’s eventually revealed that Dutch and his team have been lied to about the mission’s intent. Dillion, the CIA spook, turns out to have lied to them this whole time. In a way, this is a subtle critique of the United States’ catastrophic involvement in reshaping and ultimately destroying democracy in Central America. I’m not going to say the film really leans hard into this subplot, but it definitely reshapes the story’s tone. Now Dutch is furious with Dillion, and the resulting deaths are because of his team being put in a place they should have never been. In his introduction, Dutch emphasizes that his group wants to do rescue only, and they aren’t interested in being assassins.
The film is full of character actors like the previously mentioned Carl Weather and Jesse Ventura, Shane Black, R.G. Armstrong, with my favorite being Bill Duke. Bill Duke is one of the instantly recognizable faces appearing in films since the 1970s. He plays Mac, a soldier who is close with Blain (Ventura). So when Blain is murdered, Mac makes it his goal to kill the creature stalking them. Duke does an excellent job fleshing out this supporting role to something with a lot of emotional weight behind it. I’d argue he is more compelling than Arnold, who plays a relatively stock character. Mac’s rage over Blain’s death is potent, and his ultimate demise is all the more tragic as a result.
The part of the film that remains the most compelling is the third act, where Arnold is pitted against the Predator in a sequence that is devoid of dialogue. I can imagine if this movie were made now, they would have him talking aloud to himself, thoroughly undercutting the tension that builds as he tries to remain unseen but effectively strike out against the being hunting him. The picture is shot very well and moves at a nice brisk pace, so you never feel bogged down or killing time before the next set piece. I don’t think this movie can match John Carpenter’s The Thing, a similar though dramatically different take on an alien hunter and a group of humans picked off one by one. Predator stands as a great example of the kind of science fiction appealing to mass audiences in the 1980s.