(John McTiernan, USA, 1987)


Arnold Schwarzenegger's action vehicle Predator leaves one dumbfounded. On a superficial level, the film is easy to forget. There is nothing exceptional about its story or its characters – a platoon of commandos on a Rambo-like mission into the Lain American jungle. In fact, when the film tries for conventional dramatic effects like pathos or moral complexity, it fails rather miserably.

The fascination of Predator lies elsewhere: purely in the strangeness of its special effects and in the way it stages violent action. In a genre film like this, where one is fully aware of its predecessors and competition, everything rests on the twist that can be worked in – the novelty element.

Often this novelty arises from the way two different formulae are crossed – a phenomenon known as the mutant genre film. The term is very appropriate to Predator, considering that what starts out as a post-Vietnam war saga ends up as a mind-boggling variation on sci-fi horror films like Alien (1979).

It has often been suggested that contemporary American horror films (such as The Believers, 1987) play out, in an unconscious fashion, that nation's deep-seated fear of other races, cultures and beliefs. The monster or evil figure is that dark neighbour who carries the threat of being different, not quite comprehensible.

Predator turns this Freudian-Marxist line of interpretation into a completely literal plot premise. Once again, popular culture reveals itself to be smarter and more playful than its analysts.

Schwarzenegger's presence allows a few more strange mutations to take place inside the film's most inventive scenes. I am not among those who automatically dismiss Schwarzenegger as an actor. He is a charismatic figure who sometimes exhibits a very knowing self-irony.

That marvellous film The Terminator (1984) established Schwarzenegger as man and machine; Predator separates Schwarzenegger from his own movie image and forces him to do battle with it.

Indeed, the chief delight of this film lies in the way it renders Schwarzenegger quite impotent in the face of the dexterous Predator. Their tactical positions slowly reverse themselves in the course of a long struggle: as the Predator becomes more visible, more real in some sense, Schwarzenegger has to coat himself totally in mud to blend with the surrounding jungle. This is a neat structure which delivers a great pay-off.

The makers of Predator have no doubt been listening to all those pundits who complain that modern horror or sci-fi films are all special effects and no content. Here, too, the movie goes one better than its competition by exaggeration right over the top. For the most part, the Predator is quite literally a shimmering video special effect. And his synthetic point-of-view shots come complete with a visualised, pulsating soundtrack. Rarely has a screen monster been so completely identified with and absorbed by the high technology of the filmmaking apparatus itself.

Predator is no real contender for the great movies of 1987. But for anyone truly concerned with the forever mutating state of popular art, it is a minor revelation.

MORE McTiernan: Last Action Hero, Basic

© Adrian Martin August 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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