Film discussion

Predator: Looking back at the franchise

Predator is one of the greatest films of all time, and if you don’t agree then you can get right back on that choppa.

It is at once a relic of 80’s action movie cliches, and a combination of genres and ideas that have rarely combined successfully since. And it’s just a dang good time all round because it’s Awesome, capital ‘A’. Awesome movies are impervious to criticism and remain just as entertaining no matter how many times you watch them – see also Army of Darkness or Big Trouble in Little China. You know what I’m talking about. All in the reflexes.

So why is the 1987 sci-fi action flick such a venerated classic, thirty years later? How did it spawn two sequels (with a third due in 2018), two spin-offs and a slew of associated media including novels, comic books, video games and a boatload of merchandise (including the ill-advised Halloween costume still gathering dust in my garage)? How did it survive a troubled production to emerge as such a success?

Predator came along at just the right time for Schwarzenegger, following hits like The Terminator and Commando, and before his forays into more comedic roles during the 90s. The Arnie of 1987 was still a square-jawed beacon of masculine excess, his trademark one-liners now an established part of his arsenal. Predator feels like the first time he’d had fun with a role, a vibe that carried across the next ten years of his movies.

There’s no need to spend words outlining the plot here, as you should know the drill – Arnie plays Major Dutch Schaefer, who leads an elite commando unit to rescue government officials captured by Central American rebels, only to find his team stalked and killed by an alien creature armed with advanced technology. It’s a combination of plenty of surprisingly harmonious elements – military action, science fiction and slasher horror.

After an initial, somewhat goofy creature design (modelled by then unknown Jean-Claude Van Damme) was replaced by Stan Winston’s muscular, terrifying yautja (yes, that’s its canon species and no, I’m not ashamed I know that) and given its iconic, haunting voice by Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen, production resumed after a five-month delay. Enduring alternately sweltering and freezing tropical conditions, Predator endured a production cycle more akin to a Ridley Scott or James Cameron movie, with food poisoning and secret cast workout sessions due to the sheer volume of muscle mass on display leading to a competitive but hard-working set. No danger of the CIA making any of these lads push too many pencils.

The finished product shows the effort that went into it – the heavy use of practical effects means the only elements of the movie that have aged are the odd special effect, with even the Predator’s invisibility cloak still looking distinctive enough to not jar a modern viewer. Dutch’s lengthy final confrontation with the beast owes a debt to every desperate struggle between a Final Girl and her slasher nemesis, with Dutch squeaking a victory and narrowly avoiding the Predator’s final middle-fingered self destruct trick. Alan Silvestri’s bombastic, driving score sweeps from gung ho drums to eerie string drones and delivers an anthemic main theme that continued across the franchise. You’ll never hear ‘Long Tall Sally’ the same way again.

This brings us neatly to Predator 2 (1990), less of a box office success but arguably a great example of how to put a sequel together. Aside from transplanting the yautja from the actual jungle to the urban jungle (a what was then ‘near future’ of 1997), nothing else from the original carries across aside from a loose story structure, and the film is the stronger for that.

Danny Glover takes over from Arnie as embattled LAPD detective Harrigan, the kind of rule-breaking bad boy that nihilistic 90s action movies were so beloved of. Set during a heatwave and a vicious gang war tearing across the city, Harrigan already has enough on his plate before the Predator starts butchering gang members and cops alike, and as he seeks to avenge the death of his partner he’s drawn into a secondary conflict with the reliably loon-eyed Gary Busey as Special Agent Keyes. His high-tech team are tracking and trying to capture the Predator, and Harrigan’s pursuit brings the two parties into an uneasy alliance.

While Predator was a slow-burn, tense story punctuated by bouts of explosive action (cue gif of Mac unloading the minigun into the forest), the sequel mostly follows suit but keeps the bursts of violence more amped up throughout. As one of the first movies to receive an NC-17 rating, it swings from OTT spectacle (a memorable scene has the Predator waving a freshly-extracted skull and spine from one victim during a lightning storm) to genuine tension (as Keyes’ team are hunted from within their own trap in a frosty meat packing warehouse, deftly referenced most recently in Stranger Things 2), but eventually dials down to a one-on-one battle between Harrigan and the Predator that does not disappoint.

One element that made Predator 2 so effective was its setting – most of us will never visit the deep jungles of South or Central America, but we’ve all been in a big city at some point. The wounded Predator smashing his way through an apartment complex feels like it’s in our world, as opposed to the distant, other-worldliness of Dutch’s encounter with the creature.

Predator 2 also gave us the first hints of the expanded universe the franchise was looking to develop – a brief glimpse mid-movie of the Predator’s trophy cabinet clearly displays a xenomorph skull, and the subsequent Alien vs Predator spin-off franchise will have its own set of articles to follow (in summary – first graphic novel is ace, second isn’t, first movie is okay, second one is terrible). Harrigan’s final encounter with a pack of Predator warriors and a strong suggestion they’ve been visiting Earth for hundreds of years has never been reliably explored within official canon, but it adds some late depth to both the story and the expanded mythology.

And so in 2010, producer Robert Rodriguez and relative newcomer director Nimrod Antal brought us Predators, a franchise relaunch that throws some new ideas into the mix and creates a fresh narrative, even if you have to buy Adrien Brody as hardcore action hero Boyce. He isn’t. But bless him for trying.

With its decision to gradually reveal the action takes place on a game reserve planet that the yautja use for practice hunts, Brody and his growing band of mercenary stereotypes (an unfortunate roster of purposefully diverse, cardboard cutouts who roll out like a Metal Slug character selection screen) encounter a further canon embellishment as they get stuck between two warring tribes of the creatures.

That’s the mission statement of the whole movie – take plenty of elements from the 1987 original and dial them up further. The Predators sport more oversized weapons, the firepower for the humans is more exaggerated (again, each character landing with their chosen special weapon makes this feel like a video game adaptation waiting to happen, like many Rodriguez-influenced titles) and the scale of action is much broader.

However, despite what sounds like a list of reservations, Predators is actually a heap of fun. A late appearance by Laurence Fishburne as a nutty survivor deepens the backstory, future Oscar winner Mahershala Ali slums it as a Sierra Leone rebel, and a wonderfully creepy turn from Topher Grace reminds you that while Dutch’s team were all on the same side, Boyce and his renegades are very much rivals forced to work together and not liking it.

And that’s where we leave the franchise ahead of 2018’s The Predator, penned by Shane Black (which immediately has my interest) and sporting a suburban setting that is some cause for concern, given how badly that was handled in Aliens vs Predator: Requiem. It has some great talent attached in Thomas Jane, Yvonne Strahovski and Edward James Olmos, but detail is thin on the ground thus far ahead of its planned August release.

Here’s hoping we won’t need to trigger the self-destruct sequence for this one.

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