Predator is very much a product of the '80s action movie machine. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, some big guns, and drop them all into a jungle with a killer alien and you have what could be a pretty formulaic movie. At times, it does feel formulaic. The movie's basic structure mirrors both Alien and Aliens. And yet, there are elements that make it worthwhile.
It was difficult watching a movie like this twenty-three years after its original release because I now already had a sense of what the movie was about; an invisible alien killer and some army guys. But even knowing that much, I found the film mostly engaging.
The weakest part of the movie for me is the initial set-up. Arnold plays Dutch, an elite search-and-rescue military man who is called in by his old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers) to help rescue a cabinet minister from some guerilla rebels in a Latin American jungle. Why is it that the lead is always "the best of the best" in these kinds of stories? So they take a team into the jungle by helicopter and attack the rebel compound. It is later revealed that there was no cabinet minister (the man was actually CIA) and the story was a ruse to get Dutch to help them destroy the compound. I have to say, this is my least favorite part of the movie. The deception and set-up are confusing at times, and the action scenes with the camp under siege are standard fare out of a Rambo movie. I was bored by them. Particularly, because at this point in the film we've already been teased with evidence of the Predator. This side story feels less like an excuse to get the men stuck in a jungle, and more like a total deviation. It pits Dutch against Dillon, but for no real reason. At least in Alien and Aliens when there was a secret coverup it was ABOUT the alien! Here none of the military men know about the Predator.
The sequence in the helicopter where we get to meet the members of the team is pretty good, if standard for this sort of story. I like the dorky guy who keeps trying to tell dirty jokes and failing. The scene is scored with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally", which I liked initially. But as the chopper ride went on, it got annoying. The song is only a couple minutes long, so to drag it out the editors kept repeating certain chunks of it, so after hearing the same few verses over and over, I was ready for it to stop. The song does lead to another small but good moment when a character goes to his doom later in the film singing it.
Our first evidence of the Predator in the jungle is the discovery of the hanging skinned corpses of some of Dillon's men. The effects there are very good, presumably from Stan Winston's makeup team. You believe these really are skinned bodies, and yet the movie doesn't grotesquely linger on them. There is gore in this film, sometimes in your face, but in a way is still tasteful, at least compared to some of today's films. My favorite moment is when Dillon is shot by the Predator and it blows his arm off while he's shooting. The severed arm on the ground keeps shooting due to the nervous contractions still in the hand. I thought that was a good realistic moment.
Let's talk about the Predator himself. The story is basically that he is an alien life form who comes to this jungle hunting humans for sport and taking trophies. What trophies? Well, he rips their spines and skulls out of them! The basic culture of the Predator from what we can gather was completely ripped off by Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager's Hirogen species are really just Predator-lite. They even have face masks similar to the ones in this film. We are told by Anna, a local girl rescued from the rebel compound, that during the "hot season" the Predator comes to the jungle. He is known in her village as a demon. The most interesting feature of him as a character is that he is invisible.
I loved the slow reveal of the Predator throughout the film. First, we only see the evidence left behind. Then, we see things from his point of view, which is a kind of thermal vision. When he finally attacks the heroes, he is invisible. Now, they could have just written the movie about an entirely invisible enemy, but they didn't. His suit has a kind of camouflage ability that can be seen when he attacks. So it looks like the jungle "comes to life" in a way. I thought the camouflage effect was very strong and well handled, especially for the late 1980s. The look really holds up still. Midway through the movie the Predator is wounded, leaving fluorescent blood behind. Later, he turns off his camouflage, revealing the full look of the creature. And then just when you think that's all, in his final fight with Arnold he removes a mask to reveal his alien face, with strange toothed mouth. The design of this make-up is really fantastic. One can question the logic of the Predator removing his mask, but it's a great look. The different flaps and features of the mouth move very convincingly when the creature laughs and speaks.
The story is pretty standard beyond these elements. The creature begins attacking and picking off men one by one for no other motivation than that "he's a hunter". There are some interesting themes here on display about the nature of man as hunter when he becomes the hunted. They try to trap the creature, but he escapes them. Finally, Arnold tells the survivors to "get to the choppa!" which has been called to rescue them, and fights the beast mano a mano. The other interesting dynamic is the contrast between primitive and modern technology. The Predator attacks those who are armed. He has fancy camouflage and a kind of plasma cannon mounted on his shoulder. It's only through low-tech guerilla tactics that Arnold is able to successfully fight him. He covers himself in mud to shield himself from the Predator's heat vision. He puts together traps and spears, shedding his guns and knives. When he finally captures the alien, it mocks him and activates a kind of self-destruct that Dutch narrowly escapes.
The jungle stuff was all shot on location and looks really good. I enjoyed that most of the film played out in broad daylight. This was a stark contrast to the dark claustrophobia of Alien, even though the story was similar. The sounds of jungle creatures added an ominous atmosphere, and I found the score to be passable in most places. I liked some of the tribal drum elements to the score that accompanied the Predator. In some ways, the movie reminded me of Jurassic Park, especially the elements of the humans becoming the hunted.
And yet part of the problem for me about the movie is there's no real sense of context. This alien just is here and is hunting because it does. The movie opens with a shot of an alien vessel in space, so we know that the creature is extra-terrestrial. I feel like in a way this may have been a major mistake. I might have been less bored in the first half of the movie if there were no indication of something being in the jungle. Why not let that slowly be revealed? The technology of the thing clearly indicates it as alien; we don't need to see a ship. In fact, the very presence of the ship leads to more questions. If this Predator has been in the jungle before, is he always here? Or does he just attack when it's hot? Is this the same Predator, or do they come and go? I wonder if maybe certain Predators are sent to earth periodically for training, then picked up later? This one didn't seem to have immediate access to a ship. Are they beamed down, or are do they take shuttles? If the latter, why has no evidence of an alien craft been found? At film's end, is the ship still in orbit or has it gone? Because I would think the Predator could have just beamed up instead of nuking himself. But then maybe he was just hoping to take out his prey and not run off as a coward. More than anything else, I think the opening ship shot was a mistake. Without it, we wouldn't get a sense of what the movie was really about until after the attack on the rebels. As the film stands now, we tolerate that sequence going "when are we going to get back to the real point of the movie?"
I also want to point out that I just think profanity sounds really funny coming out of Arnold's mouth. It's not convincing in any way. That worked in Terminator because he was mimicking others, but here it just isn't natural in any way.
I found Predator to be a better movie than I expected it to be. The cat and mouse game of Dutch vs. the Predator was engaging. Even though cliched elements populate the film, many are handled in a reasonably believable manner. There are certain lingering questions left over (which may be why it so easily spawned sequels), but a pretty good action picture that isn't just a dumb exercise in people shooting things. It doesn't have the depth of the first two Alien films, but it does have something to say buried somewhere in it about the nature of warfare and concept of hunting purely for sport.