Thursday, February 1, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Predator (1987)

I've been interested in the Predator film franchise for a long time. The original movie was rated R, so I either had to wait until I was older to see it or saw it edited on television. I definitely remember seeing Predator 2, which I might have seen first, on television. I played an earlier version of the Alien vs. Predator video game at the arcade and read Alien vs Predator: Prey and possibly others. I saw both Alien vs. Predator movies and although they weren't as cool as they could have been (Nick and I concluded later they should have been set in the far future like the Alien films to avoid the continuity problems of the Xenomorphs encountering people in the 1990s), I didn't think they sucked like most people.

So when Myopia: Defend Your Childhood chose the first Predator film to discuss, I immediately snagged it on Amazon and watched it for the first time in probably eight to ten years. Although attending a friend's wedding in another state kept me from participating in the podcast, here's the podcast anyway.

And now for the review...

The Plot

Soldier Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a group of his comrades-in-arms arrive in an unnamed Latin American country, having been summoned by Dutch's old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers), once a soldier and now a CIA agent. They're told that a couple officials of a US-allied government have been in a helicopter crash "on the wrong side of the border" and are now prisoners of a group of Communist guerrillas.

Dutch's team sneaks into the country and while following the guerrillas from the helicopter crash site, discovers the skinned bodies of a bunch of Green Berets. They attack the guerrilla camp, killing most of them and capturing female guerrilla Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), only to find themselves being stalked by something otherworldly...

The Good

*The movie gets off to a quick start--eleven minutes in and we're in the jungle.

*Dutch's duel with the Predator displays both his cleverness and pure bravery and balls. Here's how it starts:

*The film's sound engineering is really good. The film goes SILENT except for the most important sounds in several key scenes. This mimics what happens in the natural world when a predator or something else that doesn't belong shows up--all the animals go quiet to avoid being lunch.

*Although the Predator is humanoid, it's not a Star Trek "rubber forehead" creature like a Vulcan or Klingon. It has glowing green blood, it sees primarily in the infrared spectrum, it's significantly bigger than an ordinary human, it has a completely different cranial structure, and given the times it comes to Earth, it hails from a much hotter world. It's not as alien as the creature from The Thing, but they still put work into making it something inhuman. And its physical differences--in particular how it sees--are very important to the story, much like how the Thing's biology played a major role in The Thing.

*Although the movie never names countries (and apparently takes place in a fictional "Val Verde"), the historical context of the film is the Nicaraguan Revolution (U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels against a leftist regime allied to the Soviets and Cubans) and the Salvadoran Civil War (U.S. support for an anti-Communist, often rather cruel and authoritarian, regime against left-wing rebels). The stated reason for Arnold and friends to go into the jungle is to rescue a government official (probably supposed to be a Honduran) who has been captured on "the wrong side of the border" (i.e. rebel-controlled parts of El Salvador) by "guerrillas" (probably the FMLN). You don't really need to know this and the film does a good job providing what you do need to know along with some scenery details, like the American soldiers operating around poor peasant villages and the like, a government official needed to be kept alive to ensure the CIA can operate in the regionthe guerrilla fighters including both men and women, etc.

*I like the parallel combats early in the film. Dutch and his men, through various tricks and superior firepower, reduce the guerrillas to a panicked mess firing in all directions at attackers they can't see before moving in for the kill, even though the guerrillas greatly outnumber them. This isn't long after Billy reports to Dutch that the Green Berets they found dead had been firing in all directions--only it wasn't against a human opponent. The Predator is to the best U.S. Special Forces types what they are to 3rd World guerrillas.

*The fact that dead men and severed limbs will spasm is put to gruesome use.

*Dutch's crew quickly finds their superior firepower isn't particularly useful against something that's (mostly) invisible and has superior weaponry. So they fight the Predator using strategy.

The Bad

*Although the movie is generally fast-moving, the opening contains a rather draggy opening sequence involving Dutch and his crew arriving and driving through the surf in jeeps from the landing zone to the base headquarters. Wouldn't it be smarter to put the HQ nearer the landing zones? Yes it's probably fun to drive a jeep through the surf, but good writing requires you to "kill your darlings."

*The relationship between Blaine and Mac needs to be built up more to explain the characters' behavior later on. It's there in broad strokes (they were the only two survivors of a unit that got wrecked in Vietnam), but more detail and personal interactions would be great.

*Are Arnold and his people U.S. soldiers or some kind of mercenary detachment? They have a particular specialty (hostage rescuing) and seem to have some latitude in determining where they serve that actual soldiers wouldn't, but at the same time they are "under orders," Blaine and Mac served in Vietnam together, and Dutch and Dillon have some kind of previous military history together as well. They could be some kind of proto-Blackwater of contractors with prior military service I suppose (this Aliens-vs-Predator Wiki entry states that's the case), but it's not clear in the film. They could just have made them regular soldiers.

*Although the military tactics are generally sound--"sentry removal" and the like before the big attack--Dutch and his crew are supposed to rescue two hostages. One hostage is killed as they scout the guerrilla camp, requiring them to attack immediately, but given the sheer shock and awe they unleash, they could have very easily killed the remaining hostage by accident. They don't seem to put any effort into finding where he is before, say, Dutch sends a pickup truck rigged with a bomb into the guerrilla leaders' tent, when soldiers in the trees fire grenades into the camp from above, or when they shoot up a helicopter that could be being used to transport the remaining hostage elsewhere.

*When the Predator first attacks, the soldiers' fire discipline completely collapses. They're alone in hostile territory and yet they're using up truly massive amounts of ammunition. Perhaps the goal was to show that they were panicking like the Green Berets or guerrillas had (see my parallel construction bit above), but it would have been better to show them start out using controlled bursts and proper techniques, then slowly breaking down over the course of time as they lose men and as they get more terrified. These men are the best of the best, but an alien big-game hunter is a major outside context problem.

*Given how the soldiers had to leave the base quickly due to nearby guerrillas and the repeated references to how the area is too dangerous for the choppers to get them due to guerrilla activity, perhaps later encounters between the soldiers and the pursuing guerrillas would have been cool. The two groups could even join forces once they realize they're both being hunted. Anna could serve as useful go-between.

*It would have been better if it was Cuban or Nicaraguan advisers supporting the guerrillas, not Soviets. Soviets (i.e. European or Central Asian men) would have stuck out too much, plus there were a lot more Cubans in Nicaragua than Russians. Also, a guerrilla force supported by Russian soldiers would have been a lot more formidable than the guerrilla band Dutch and friends rout early on. During the invasion of Grenada the Cubans were the ones who'd blooded U.S. troops the most, and Soviet special forces would have been far tougher customers than Cuban soldier-engineers. Seriously, the Spetsnaz guys would be the equals of Dutch's people, not a bunch of Third World country bumpkins.

*One character gets a lot of buildup for a Horatius at the Bridge moment against the Predator, but we never actually see the fight. Lame. The later film Predators gave us the scene I'm embedding below, and it would have been cool to see a similar scene in this one:

*The video credits are weird. Here they are below if you want to see them. TVTropes suggested it was to lighten the mood after such a bleak film, but still:

The Verdict

Good, but not as exciting as Total Recall, which we (also did for Myopia). 8.0 out of 10. That said, I've seen the film at least twice before. If you haven't seen the film already, you'll probably like it a lot more.

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