Saturday, June 16, 2012

King of the Jungle: ‘Predator’ Turns 25

1987 was a big year for producer Joel Silver.  Lethal Weapon was released on March 6th to great success.  It launched a franchise and reinvented the buddy cop genre.  Three months later, another Joel Silver production would stake a similar claim at the summer box office.  It was yet another “high-concept” offering, as well as a genre mash-up.  It would combine the militaristic jungle adventure motif of Rambo: First Blood Part II with the otherworldly menace of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  While that might sound like an uneasy match, director John McTiernan made it work like gangbusters.  Though the production nearly swallowed him whole, he stayed the course and finished the game.  On June 12th, 1987, the world beheld the fruit of his labor.  It was titled Predator.

When a presidential cabinet minister and his aide mysteriously go missing in the jungles of Val Verde, an elite group of American commandos is hired to rescue them.  The team is headed by Major Alan "Dutch" Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who performs the mission at the behest of his old friend, CIA agent George Dillion (Carl Weathers).  Upon touching down in Val Verde, the team quickly realizes that something strange is afoot.  After they decimate local guerilla forces in a firefight, an unseen opponent begins stalking them as they make their way back to their extraction point.  It soon becomes clear that this unseen force may not be human.  The situation ultimately comes down to a Mano-a-Mano showdown between Dutch and his otherworldly opponent.  

Predator was largely inspired by a joke that had been floating around Hollywood at the time.  A year and half before its release, Stallone had struck box office gold yet again with the fourth installment in the Rocky franchise.  Rocky IV had the Italian Stallion fighting a massive, steroid-addled opponent named Ivan Drago.  Drago seemed more like a machine than a man, as he possessed superhuman strength and a robotic demeanor.  Upon seeing him, people in Tinsel town began to joke that Balboa would have to fight a space alien in Rocky V if he hoped to find a challenge.  Screenwriting brothers Jim and John Thomas took the concept literally, penning a script titled The Hunter.  The screenplay focused on the concept of planet earth being a giant game preserve for extraterrestrial hunters, and humans being the ultimate game.

When director John McTiernan read the screenplay, he saw allusions to a classic jungle adventure that focused on a much more terrestrial (though no less fantastic) threat.  The scenario presented in The Hunter bore similarities to the “Monster Island” portion of King Kong.  In high-concept fashion, the filmmakers realized that this “Monster Island” homage could be effectively crossbred with the Vietnam War allegory attempted by James Cameron in Aliens, where a group of well-armed colonial marines encounter a situation for which they are ill-prepared.

Indeed, films such as Predator are very much dependent on creature design.  John McTiernan was well aware of this.  He was also aware that truly inspired creature designs are extremely hard to come by.  However, that little dilemma would turn out to be one of many problems that plagued the film’s location shoot in the jungles of Palenque, Mexico and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  The hotel in which the cast and crew stayed had a substandard water purification system.  As a result, many of them suffered from diarrhea for much of the shoot.  In order to avoid a similar fate, director John McTiernan ate as little as possible.  He wound up losing 25 lbs.   As if that wasn’t enough, the film went wildly over budget.  When funding ran out, production had to be shut down for a time. 

The original design for The Predator.

The halt in production actually proved to be a blessing in disguise.  Up until then, Predator was making due with a rather awkwardly designed creature that resembled something out of a 50’s B-Movie.  The biomechanical monstrosity consisted of an insectoid head atop an elongated neck.  It also had a humanoid torso atop hind-legs.  Had that design made it into the finished film, it would have denoted Predator as nothing more than a schlocky monster movie.  Luckily, Veteran special FX wizard Stan Winston came to the rescue.  His design choices proved both inspired and revolutionary.  One in particular drew it’s inspiration from a rather unlikely source: A painting that hung in producer Joel Silver’s office.  Winston described his epiphany upon seeing the painting:  

"I saw that [the Rastafarian Warrior painting] and thought it was a great starting concept for the Predator; I started drawing and designing this alien character with quills that in silhouette would look like dreadlocks. During this same period of time, 'Aliens' had come out, and Jim Cameron and I were flying to Japan to participate in a symposium about the movie. We were sitting next to each other on the plane, and I was sketching and drawing the Predator. Jim suddenly said, 'you know, I've always wanted to see something with mandibles.' And I said, 'Hmmm, that's an interesting idea.' And I started drawing the now-famous mandibles of the Predator. So, between the Rastafarian painting in Joel Silver's office and the mandible idea from Jim Cameron, I came up with 'Stan Winston's Predator'. And I take complete credit for it, even though I had nothing to do with it, obviously!"
      -Stan Winston, The Winston Effect

The choice to give the Predator quills (IE dreadlocks) adds a racial dynamic to the film.  It also brings to mind that most fascinating concept from author Eric Lichtenfeld’s Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie: Fear of, and fascination with, the “other.”  I continue to site his concept so often because 80’s action cinema is rife with prime examples of it.  For most Americans, Rastafarianism remains a strange and exotic culture whose aesthetic has been feared and fetishized by Whites in equal measure.  The predator’s quills suggest exoticism and cultural fetishism.

The Predator as envisioned by Stan Winston

The Predator’s exoticism is not only expressed in his look, but in his exotic array of weaponry and equipment.  The most iconic of all his devices is the active camouflage.  As Gary Busey so eloquently explained in Predator 2, this species has figured out how to literally bend light.  It also sees the world entirely through thermal imagery, the clarity of which is regulated by a special mask.  In terms of weaponry, the Predator is equipped with a powerful shoulder cannon. It also has retractable twin blades mounted on its right wrist which can be used to gut its prey and to slash through jungle foliage.  To top it off, the creature is both agile and superhumanly strong.  

In 1987, CGI was not in frequent use by special FX artists.  The Predator would be brought to life via old fashioned means, namely the “man-in-suit” technique.  Jean Claude Van Damme was actually the first choice to don said suit.  The “Muscles from Brussels” quit after only two days, clearly feeling that his talents were being wasted.  Luckily, the job fell to Kevin Peter Hall, a basketball player who stood at over seven feet tall.  The choice proved to be an inspired one, as Hall towered over the bulky Schwarzenegger.

Predator deals with the western ideal that military might always makes right.  The heroes of Predator combat an otherworldly threat in a familiar environment.  The way they infiltrate and overtake the guerilla forces in Val Verde suggests how Europeans used their military might to invade and conquer foreign lands during colonialism. This instilled within them a certain level of arrogance.  After all, a powerful army with superior weaponry often views itself as unstoppable.  That brand of arrogance is symbolized in Predator by the character of Blaine Cooper (Jesse Ventura), and his use of the hand-held GE M134 Minigun.  Blaine has lovingly named his gun ‘Old Painless.”  It’s easily the most powerful firearm in the team’s arsenal.  It also proves ultimately ineffective against this strange new Alien threat.  

Blaine Cooper (Jesse Ventura) and "Old Painless."

The overconfidence of the commandos early in the film mirrors that of the Predator during its final confrontation with Dutch.  The Predator itself symbolizes the white man’s collective fear of the Black male, and all the tribal secrets he may possess.  These secrets, which in the film are symbolized by  the exotic weaponry, are beyond the white man’s understanding.  It is telling that Billy Sole (Sonny Landham), the lone Native American member of Dutch’s team, is the first to acknowledge the Predator’s presence.  He is also the first to acknowledge and fear its power.  It would seem that the old street saying is true. Game definitely recognizes game in this case. One “other” (A native American) respects and recognizes the aura of another.

Billy Sole (Sonny Landham), the Native American Tracker

Also telling is how the Black members of the commando team react to the presence of this extraterrestrial “other.”   Dillon does not recognize the creature’s aura as Billy does. In fact, Dillon could be seen as the film’s resident “House Negro.” This echoes the role of Apollo Creed in Rocky III, which was also played by Weathers.  Dillon’s lost touch with his roots, placing his trust fully in the Western superpower he’s become a tool of.  He’s a company man, and has been completely assimilated by the system.  By contrast, Mack Eliot (Bill Duke) is shaken to his very core.  Mack has not lost touch with his spiritual roots, and is driven crazy because of it.

Though ultimately defeated by western resilience and ingenuity, The Predator ultimately gets the last laugh.  He sets of a hydrogen bomb, decimating a huge patch of jungle, and along with it any trace of his existence.  The secrets of his culture and civilization remain a mystery to the culture that has bested him.  

To focus solely on any particular reading of the film is to miss out on its simple and wondrous pleasures.  Schwarzenegger’s “performance” as Dutch is one of his best ever.  The best Schwarzenegger films have always presented him as something of a sideshow attraction.  He is the Übermensch personified, so much so that he seemed to have stepped off the cover of a comic book.

Major Alan "Dutch" Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the "Übermensch"

The word Übermensch is the opportune one, since Predator solved a problem that Schwarzenegger, Superman, and Rocky all had in common up until that point.  So larger than life was Arnie’s physique and persona that it was hard to establish any opponent as a credible threat.  This was compounded by the big guy’s acting abilities, or lack thereof.  He couldn’t emote, and therefore could hardly convey vulnerability or fear.  To counteract this, the Predator is not only made physically larger and stronger than Dutch, but so insurmountable a threat that the hero wins almost by accident.   By the final act, the viewer is wondering just how Arnold is going get out of this one alive.

Director John McTiernan brought a totally different sensibility to action filmmaking, opting for fluid camera work over static shots.  He also had an amazing eye for exotic locales and beautiful landscapes.  Through his viewfinder, the Central American Jungle looks as vast and impenetrable as outer space.  Also not to be overlooked is the film’s superb pacing.  McTiernan, along with editor’s Mark Helfrich and John F. Link, create a palpable tension that gradually intensifies as the film progresses.  The filmmakers also take a page from Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott.  They only offer glimpses of the title creature until the finale.  Even after they have fully unveiled him, they allow him to remain something of a mystery.

Predator stands as perhaps the most pure and efficient example of action filmmaking ever committed to celluloid.  It occupies a weird space in the history of the genre, feeling hopelessly dated yet magically timeless all at once.  It’s Reagan era Hallmarks adorn it like Christmas ornaments, yet it feels just as fresh now as it did in 1987.  It engages viewers on a primal level, doing its job as thoroughly as possible.  It’s perfectly equal to the sum of its parts.  Like its title character, the film moves with stealth and cunning.  It’s a living, breathing beast, and a fierce one at that.  It may breathe, but there’s damn sure no killing it. 

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