John McTiernan’s Predator – 30th Anniversary

This week was the 30th anniversary of John McTiernan’s iconic science-fiction action film Predator.  For their next discussion, Ben and Kyle talk about their love for the film why it remains an important part of American action cinema.

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KYLE: Ben, can you give us the background?

BEN:  In the fall of 1985, there was a joke running around Hollywood that Rocky Balboa had defeated all of his earthly opponents in Rocky IV and he would have to fight an alien if a fifth Rocky film were to be made.  Based on that idea, the unknown brother-writer team of Jim and John Thomas would morph the joke into what became John McTiernan’s second directorial turn, Predator.

20th Century Fox optioned the Thomas’ script, then entitled Hunter and gave it to producer Joel Silver, who was also developing Lethal Weapon for Warners.  Silver brought on Lawrence Gordon and John Davis as his producing partners and they brought on Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom Silver had worked with on Commando, also for Fox.

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KYLE:  I had no idea that the idea sprung from a Rocky joke!  Let’s dig into it.

BEN: Part Aliens, part The Thing, part Commando and full of machismo, McTiernan delivers a pulse-pounding action thriller that understands its purpose as both a sci-fi actioner and a military thriller.  It successfully blended both aspects together, dwelling on neither for too long.  From a story that reeks of the global socio-political situations in the mid-1980’s to an alien creature that is as well-hidden as its Xenomorph brethren from Alien and Aliens, they delivered something very unique.

KYLE: I love that it’s a merging three separate genres that unfolds over three unique acts.  It begins as a military thriller (love your term!) and then transitions into an And Then There Were None scenario during the second act.  Finally, it ends with a man vs. monster showdown that removes not only the established rules, but reveals the creature’s monstrous nature.   What about the amazing cast?

BEN: Schwarzenegger plays “Dutch” the leader of an elite group of soldiers who are tasked with retrieving a missing U.S. diplomat in the South American jungles.  Opposite him, in an ironic twist is Carl Weathers, who plays Dillion, an old friend of Dutch’s. The irony was that he played Apollo Creed in the-then four Rocky films.

While we all cheer for Schwarzenegger, the supporting cast really is the foundation of this film.  Bill Duke, who also starred in Commando with Schwarzenegger is beyond awesome, especially when he gets pissed off.  Sonny Landham, who starred in 48 Hrs. plays Billy, a ‘tracker’. Billy really resonated with Shane Black’s “Hawkins” raunchiness, which Billy only partially gets.  The gunner, Blaine is played by Jesse Ventura.  He looked like he had a lot of fun with this role, especially when he interacted with “Poncho” played by Richard Chaves: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”  “You got time to duck?”

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KYLE:  Yes!  I think it’s a testament to the script in how well each of the characters are distinctly developed.  It could have been easy to overdo the action and violence, but instead the story takes its time deliberately fleshing out each victim so their eventual death has more impact.  You mentioned machismo, and while I agree, there’s also a bit of deconstruction, such as Mac’s monologue to Blaine before the pig attack and Billy’s supernatural fear of the creature.  Speaking of, it was Stan Winston’s design right?

BEN: Interestingly, Richard Edlund developed the original creature, which proved unworkable in the jungle.  It was scrapped and redeveloped by Winston with the help of an unlikely source:  James Cameron.  R/Greenberg Associates, who received critical acclaim for their opening credits work on 1978’s Superman, were on board to help supervise the practical effects, giving us the now familiar infrared imagery from the Predator’s perspective.  The 1.85:1 aspect ratio that McTiernan and Donald McAlpine shot the movie in gave the film a visual intimacy, allowing the Predator to blend into the jungles, only revealing him late in the second act.

KYLE: I think that is one of the entire franchise’s best elements, how they weave together the POV’s of both the human characters and the alien.  McAlpine’s eye really captures some amazing shots, the intro of the team as they arrive in a helicopter in low light is fantastic, as is the wide shot of Poncho and Blaine underneath the hill as it explodes.  Every time the creature is revealed with that mask is both stunning and chilling.

BEN: Jean Claude Van Damme was originally signed to play the Predator, but it was thought that he was not menacing enough.  Kevin Peter Hall, who also played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons and would reprise his role in Predator 2 in 1990 filled the costume with his 7 ft 2 in frame.  He was the perfect size to play the behemoth.  Sadly, he died in 1991 at age 35.

Underscoring the onscreen action and the drama, was maestro Alan Silvestri.  His bombastic military themes, with deep brass expanded the stage while the brooding sci-fi themes underpinned the otherworldly nature of not only the Predator, but the jungle itself.

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KYLE: That is a great point!  From the second they repel down into the jungle, the viewer knows they’ve left the safety of the civilized world and entered a place of extreme danger.  The brotherhood building fantastic, because the characters (for the most part) work together against the threat, rather than it becoming a three-way dance between oppositions and I really respect that choice.  I think it’s one of the reasons the film remains a personal favorite for so many film lovers.

BEN: Watching the film on a big screen the other night was a treat.  The film’s looks hold up and its story is relevant today.  However, its pacing always felt just a bit off for me.  We go from longer sequences and typical sci-fi style edits to rapid-fire editing indicative of military films.  Oh, don’t mistake me.  The movie works because of its cast, the story, and for exactly the same reasons Alien, The Thing, and Aliens worked:  they all gave us relatable characters and a series of events building up to the big reveal.  They maximized the humanity while crafting the finite details and environment; and they weren’t worried about creating a world or a franchise.

KYLE: I can respect that.  I think I’d go 4 or 4.5/5 if I were pressed, but as a favorite, pure entertainment affair, this is one of the all-time greats for me.  I enjoy the pacing and the tonal shifts because I think it’s really Predator’s key to success.  The endless copies tried to emulate the formula and continually failed because they went to heavy on one of the themes rather than finding harmony, which McTiernan does with a great sense of style.  This was the beginning of his legacy.

BEN:  Jesse Ventura would go on to be governor of Minnesota and Schwarzenegger would go on to be governor of California (and he married Maria Shriver during this film’s production).  McTiernan went wide with this film and he would go even further with 1988’s Die Hard, setting up a solid track record of films with solid stories.  Joel Silver would go on to work on other big projects, giving us Lethal Weapon, of which Shane Black wrote the screenplay for, and would work with the Thomas brothers on 1996’s Executive Decision. Black, who caught a lucky break when Silver owed him a favor with his role as Hawkins, shadowed McTiernan and is writing and directing next year’s The Predator.

KYLE: The Thomas brothers would also write the script and Silvestri would score the second film as well.  You know I had to include a shameless plug for Predator 2!  What a fantastic franchise!  Highly recommended?

BEN: I respect the inclusion of Predator 2.  We are in agreement!

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