16 April 2009

PREDATOR (Dir. John McTiernan, 1987, US) - 'If it bleeds, we can kill it...'

Carl Weathers as Dillon and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch

Some films become imprisoned with our own cinematic memories, many of those from my childhood seem quite fuzzy today. It's easy to grow nostalgic about certain films regardless of how good or bad those films actually are. 'Predator', a 1980s sci fi action blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of those guilty cinematic pleasures that I must have seen at least five or six times on VHS before I suddenly hit upon Alex Cox on BBC2 with his brilliant 'Moviedrome' show in which he would regularly choose to screen cult classics like Leone's 'The Good, The bad and The Ugly'. The show was later revived under another brilliant film critic and writer, Mark Cousins, who screened equally powerful cinema; 'La Haine', 'Scarface' and 'Cyclo'. Before the advent of the Internet and DVD, you really had to seek out and track down VHS copies of classic films (or reserve one) but that was part of the pleasure of release dates particularly the ones advertised at the local VHS rental shop. I didn't actually watch 'Predator' in the cinema as it carried an 18 certificate but had to wait until it surfaced on VHS, which it did, with nearly thirty minutes of trailers! Today, 'Predator' is grouped together under the hard body cycle of action films like 'Commando', 'Raw Deal', 'Total Recall', 'First Blood' and 'The Terminator'.

A blu ray release of the film and the absence of Schwarzenegger from the genre made me want to revisit and examine what exactly made this film appeal so strongly to me. Produced by Joel Silver, released in 1987 and directed by John McTiernan (the first postmodern action genre auteur?), 'Predator' was commercially successful at the box office. It was also another star vehicle for Schwarzenegger who apparently (read the wikipedia entry for the film; full of trivia and production details) had the original script rewritten so it could accommodate his idea of a group of commandos ('The Magnificent Seven' is cited as a key influence) being dispatched to the jungle rather than just being a story about an alien and superhuman individual. Watching 'Predator' today, it's hard not to comment on the gratuitous level of violence, an aspect of the action film that has been toned today to meet the demands of the 12A generation of cinema goers. In the 1980s, the graphic representation of violence seemed to come most fervently from the most unlikely of genres; sci fi action hybrid, and 'The Terminator' and 'Robocop' illustrate this preoccupation with violence quite well. However, the graphic violence is necessary in establishing the equally ruthless nature of both man and alien.

Interestingly, in the final act, Dutch (Schwarzenegger) is forced to dispense with his fancy military hardware (Reaganite metaphors appear prolifically in the film's narrative) and utilise nature to overcome the guerrilla techniques of the alien predator. Though this maybe seem like an allegorical rejection of Reaganite militarism, it also seems to underline how masculinity back in the 1980s era was inextricably tied up with a primitiveness which placed emphasis on brute force rather than the technological adeptness of today's super cool action heroes, many of which seem unconcerned about their physical appearance. 'Predator' shares a fetish with the military along with another significant action film of the 80s, which of course is none other than 'Aliens', directed by James Cameron who had first rose to prominence in Hollywood with 'The Terminator'. The political angle the film takes is also in line with cold war action films like 'Rambo'. The character of Dutch later discovers he has been manipulated by his friend and war buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers) to prevent a communist backed guerrilla army from invading an unnamed third world country (somewhere in Latin America). This reflects the numerous wars by proxy that were secretly sanctioned by Reagan's hard line Republican administration of which Schwarzenegger was openly supportive. The fact that the Americans stop this invasion or pre-emptive strike reeks of interventionism but ultimately the politics imitates the bare faced fantasy wish fulfillment of films like 'Rambo II' which also used the symbolism of the military male body to act as a metaphor for undiminished American hegemony. As 'Predator' can be positioned as a science fiction film, the figure of the alien predator can be viewed as the traditional 'other', standing in for concerns and fears to do with communism, terrorism, the affects of the Vietnam war and perhaps even wider racial anxieties.

Crudely underwritten characters means that the men that form part of the specially assembled military unit are overly familiar archetypes. Bill Duke comes worse off in this case as Mac, the token black guy who gets the disparaging job of uttering many of the film's most unmemorable lines. The visceral and fast paced action sequences are well choreographed even by today's Bournesque standards and though it is painfully obvious to spot the Arnie stunt double, the cat and mouse dynamics help sustain dramatic tension throughout what is a taut narrative. Alongside 'The Terminator' and 'Total Recall', the film features one of Schwarzenegger's best performances. For all his limitations as an actor, in the role of Dutch, he is effectively able to convey a mixture of anger at being betrayed and a fearlessness to the threat posed by the time traveling alien predator.

John McTiernan has had an uneven mainstream film career and he arguably produced his best work in the 80s and 90s, directing what are considered some of the strongest examples of the action genre to date with films like 'Die Hard' and 'The Last Action Hero'. Unfortunately, McTiernan's personal life has had somewhat of an impact on his career which is a real shame considering he has a brilliant capacity to tell a convincing story in the trappings of what is regarded as a genre simply subservient to an idea or series of expensive set pieces. I hope he can one day get his career back on track but at the moment films like 'Predator' seem to underline his talents as a more than competent mainstream genre film maker. I think it's also wise to simplify 'Predator' down to what is really is; a good old fashioned chase movie. It's not as good as I remembered it to be but it does have one thing going for it which many films don't have today; classic one liners delivered by the man himself: 'Stick around!'

The following documentary provides a detailed insight into the making of the film:

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