Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: call me the most boring man alive, but I couldn't think of a fitter way to greet the attempted franchise resurrection that is Predators than by hauling out the movie that created said franchise in the first place.

The plot of the iconic and much-copied 1987 film Predator is borderline non-existent: a team of tough-as-nails commandos are tricked into entering the South American jungle on what they think is the rescue of a prominent U.S. government official, but is actually just a shady CIA operation meant to derail some indeterminate Soviet military scheme. Having successfully done this, the commandos are unexpectedly set upon by a Thing, a seemingly intelligent entity that is invisible but for a certain biped-shaped waviness in the air, and that possesses some nasty energy-based weaponry with which it murders the commandos, one by one, until just the top-billed actor remains. Other than dressing it up with the character names, I genuinely don't know how you could expand that plot summary. That's all the film is: men, jungle, unseen killer beastie.

On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Predator being even a whit better if it had twisty subplots or character-driven conflict. In its current, ruthlessly bare state, it achieves a sort of sublime purity: it is Action Movie, nothing more and nothing less. Perhaps the most hypermasculine film ever put out by a major studio, it sacrifices everything for propulsive energy, enthusiastic violence, and explosion porn. It would be easy to write it off as stupid; but it is not. It is unblinkingly efficient, and all of the things that ordinarily make a movie "smart" would only distract from its efficiency.

Hindsight tells us that Predator was part of the still-vital cycle of Alien rip-offs, and you don't have to squint too much to see why that makes sense. Structurally, they're basically the same film: there's a first act that establishes the setting and the characters, then an implacable, murderous alien comes into play much further along into the film than you probably think it does, especially if you haven't seen it in a long time. Then the death starts a-happening. On the other hand, this structure is hardly unique to Alien: an expository first act that transitions into a body count picture is also the basic description of the slasher film, which was still at the very peak of its influence when Predator was in pre-production. And of course, it is the model of countless stories that predate both Alien and the slashers.

Besides, the link between Predator and Alien really owes more to a sight gag in the dire Predator 2, from 1990, which in turn spawned a flurry of comics and novels and ultimately two incredibly awful movies all centered on bringing the Alien xenomorphs and the predators into the same continuity.

I rather expect that the final form of Predator, if not the original concept which was mangled in all sorts of ways by the time the shoot began, is better thought of as a knock-off of The Terminator: a terrifically straightforward action film with some science-fiction trappings scattered about. And they both star Arnold Schwarzenegger! Not that producers Joel Silver and Lawrence Gordon were specifically thinking of their project in those terms, of course, but both films continue to work, years after so many other '80s action pictures have been lost to time, for largely similar reasons. They have very little in the way of bullshit.

That said, Predator is a film that benefits from ending extraordinarily well, rather than operating at the highest heights throughout. It's a rather curious thing about the movie that I tend to misremember it, despite having seen it a good half-dozen times at this point. The movie in my head involves only a team of commandos fighting a technologically advanced alien game hunter, with a glorious protracted battle between Schwarzenegger's Dutch and the predator (Kevin Peter Hall, in a great piece of physical acting) . In fact, the movie is solidly not that at all for a good 30 or 40 minutes: it is all about the mysterious operation in the jungle, proposed by Dutch's old war buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers). It's at times problematic: there are wave after wave of anonymous Latino terrorists getting shot down by the bold Yanks, culminating in the capture of a single female rebel, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), who is thankfully not made a sexual object at any point in the film. But in the main, it presents a certain type of cookie-cutter action template with a reasonable measure of skill and flair. This was director John McTiernan's second feature, after the little-seen thriller Nomads, and for a sophomore filmmaker, he had an impressive easy command of action movie storytelling (he also had a tight screenplay credited to first-time writers, the brothers Jim and John Thomas, along with God knows how many script doctors). The story is presented with an emphasis on "what" instead of "why" - all the better to get us into the action faster - while characters are introduced swiftly and without fanfare, given one quirk each so that we can readily tell them apart. They're one-dimensional at best, but since they're also just cannon fodder, it doesn't really matter. Though I do wish that Billy (Sonny Landham), the member of the team who is a great tracker and eerily in tune with nature, didn't also have to be the member of the team who is a Native American.

Throughout all of this, McTiernan and the writers drop in just enough hints that something is off that we never can quite settle into thinking that it's just a wannabe Commando we have on our hands. The first shots of the film depict a spaceship, launching some kind of tiny vessel into the atmosphere of a planet that we can readily assume is Earth, while the commandos' journey is intercut with unexplained POV shots from an individual who sees in infrared, and makes clicking sounds (now I think of it, this too is a clear sign that we're in Terminator territory).

It's a remarkable fact that doesn't seem to be remarked on often enough, that we always know more about what's going on than the characters do, particularly in our much greater knowledge of the predator's skill set. This in turn makes Predator not just a great action movie, but also a pretty fine thriller: when, for example, the heroes find another U.S. military team hanging from trees, skinned, they're disgusted by the barbarism of the act; we, however, know that the Whatever that came from that spaceship is lurking about, and probably wouldn't mind adding another seven skins to its collection.

Once the first act ends, and Predator transitions from being a better-than-average '80s flick to being a great '80s flick, McTiernan really starts to play up those thriller aspects, proving his directorial chops that would erupt in unmitigated brilliance in Die Hard the next year. The command of perspective in the middle portion of the film is uncanny: while we know more than the Americans, we see only what they see, and the tension between our abstract knowledge and our more limited perception is sometimes unbearable, especially when Dillon and Mac (Bill Duke, given the film's fourth most iconic role and giving back what is surely its best performance, with all due respect to Schwarzenegger, Weathers, and Jesse Ventura) are trying to sneak up on the predator - we know that he can detect their energy signatures, and hear their tiniest sound, and they don't, so we know that he's going to be able to pounce on them - but when? That is the quintessence of the cinematic thriller, and McTiernan plays the audience like a violin in such moments.

Then the movie switches the Final Arnold sequence, and Predator goes from being a great '80s flick to an impeccable '80s flick. The construction of the sequence is casually brilliant, in the way that Dutch and the predator become one another: as the man finds a way to adopt the alien's invisibility and monkey-like skills in the treetops, so does the alien lose his cloaking device and become noticeably more earthbound. It also uses Schwarzenegger's bulging-eye intensity - still his finest trick as a limited actor who is well aware of his limitations - to great effect, as we see a man broken by stress and the death of his dear comrades gathering up the survival instincts of a hunted animal right in front of us.

There are other certain things that work all throughout the movie, raising its quality and tying its three disparate parts together. The most obvious is Alan Silvestri's score, the best he ever composed - it doesn't seem nearly as nervy all these many years later, mostly because it has been copied hundreds of times (and even from the standpoint of 1987, he clearly borrowed more than a little from John Williams's work in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises), but the unusual percussive elements, and the fluttering hints of atonality that accompany the predator's attacks set all kinds of rules for action movie music that are still followed even today. Donald McAlpine's cinematography is much less obvious, mostly because it's not quite as showy, but the use of the natural light of the jungle, along with the omnipresent film grain that gives the whole film a dirty sheen, both lend Predator a subliminally guttural quality that well matches the intensity of the action setpieces and the visceral impact of the gore effects.

Of all the grace notes in Predator, though, it's those cuts to the predator's POV that have always most impressed me: the explosions of color divorced from representational norms that constantly threaten to push the film into the realm of abstraction. In the final fight between Dutch and the alien, it's not even a threat: there are certain moments when we can no longer properly distinguish shapes, only competing color values, and yet it's perfectly easy to follow the narrative through this altogether non-narrative visual cue.

In the end, Predator is not a great movie - and not just because an '80s action movie can't be great, for both The Terminator and Die Hard meet that standard, for a start. On the other hand, Predator is an exemplar of the kind of movie it wants to be. Yes, the film boasts some quasi-imperialist, racist undertones; yes, the characters are hyperbolically under-conceived. But to change those things would require that the film have nuance, and in this case, nuance would be the mortal enemy of the effective. These raw, oversimplified signifiers are the very reason that the film can be all about the kinetic moments which make up the entirety of its plot: Predator has no brain because it is one big adrenal gland. I wouldn't change it for anything.

Reviews in this series
Predator (McTiernan, 1987)
Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (The Brothers Strause, 2007)
Predators (Antal, 2010)
The Predator (Black, 2018)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
Predator 2 (Hopkins, 1990)