If It Bleeds, We Can Love It: Celebrating 26 Years of Predator
An inexperienced director. Two first-time screenwriters. A star with limited command of the English language. Creature designs so underwhelming they were junked and restarted from scratch. A production so low on funds that it had to be shut down before an ending was even attempted so the producers could beg for more money.
This sounds more like the making of a Hollywood disaster than a movie that would become part of the pop culture lexicon. But 26 years ago this month, on June 12th, 1987, the fruit of those sometimes troubled labors was unleashed on an unsuspecting public and a modern classic was born.
It was called ‘Predator.’
At least, that was what it was called when it came to theaters in 1987; when it was hatched as a spec script by two brothers, Jim and John Thomas, it had another name: ‘Hunter.’ The Thomases had first envisioned a brotherhood of aliens who travel to our planet in search of the most dangerous game: man (the second most dangerous game, if you’re curious: Parcheesi). Eventually the Thomas Brothers flipped their concept around and sent a single alien hunter against a squad of Special Forces soldiers and set the whole thing in the jungles of Guatemala.
Incredibly, Jim and John Thomas had never written a screenplay before ‘Hunter.’ They didn’t even have an agent. As the story goes, they snuck on the 20th Century Fox lot and literally slid it under the door of producer Michael Levy. He read it and liked it, and passed it along to another producer, John Davis, who passed it along to rising action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator liked the script too. The Thomases were in business.
Their work was eventually brought to the screen by John McTiernan, a man with a little more experience in the film business, but just barely. McTiernan had made one movie prior to ‘Predator,’ a independent horror picture called ‘Nomads’ with Pierce Brosnan. He’d never worked on something with big Hollywood money behind it -- and he wouldn’t this time, either. ‘Predator’’s initially budget was a staggeringly low $18 million. It’s hard to imagine the film being made today for less than five times that amount.
What McTiernan produced on a shoestring was an unconventional blend of conventional elements: part action, part sci-fi, part allegorical horror. The characters are so cartoonish they might as well have been taken straight out of the ‘Sgt. Rock’ war comic one of the commandos reads between fire fights; the violence is so disturbing some of it could be mistaken for outtakes from a snuff film. In other words: McTiernan and the Thomases made something truly rare: a knock-off that felt wholly original. In 1987, ‘Predator’ looked and felt like something new. In 2012, after many imitators and four sequels, it still feels unique. Nothing else has quite the same blend of thrills, scares, and laughs.
The film follows Schwarzenegger’s Major “Dutch” Schaefer, the leader of an elite unit of commandos that includes 'Rocky's' Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, former pro wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura and "Lethal Weapon" scribe Shane Black -- hired primarily so that McTiernan would have a good writer available on set for last minute rewrites. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the material that found its way to the screen, including most of the most iconic lines -- like Ventura shrugging off a bullet wound with the quip "I ain’t got time to bleed" -- belong to the Thomases’ ‘Hunter’ script.
As Dutch first leads his men into the jungle under the guise of a rescue mission, ‘Predator’ doesn’t look all that different from a standard military adventure movie. Over the years, some critics have argued that the Predator's slaughter of the American soldiers can be read as an allegory for the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam. In his book ‘Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies,’ film scholar Dave Saunders says that “from the alien’s devious use of the jungle setting, to McTiernan’s shorthand inclusion of rock and roll music, sweat-drenched paranoia, and the enervation of the troops to signify the Indochinese experience, this is clearly about dressing the "'Nam situation as a template for future endeavors.”
The Predator certainly makes a tidy, disturbing metaphor. But on a more basic level, he’s also just a great, left-field plot twist. Sure, the shot of his spaceship over the opening credits lets you know there’s an alien in the movie. Yes, all of the original marketing spoiled the fact that there’s something lurking out there waiting to tangle with Schwarzenegger and his buddies. But imagine how many people have flipped to this movie on cable over the years, thinking they were coming into a typical shoot-’em-up, and gotten blindsided by the appearance of the Predator? In the annals of movie swerves, the big Predator reveal belongs right up there with the shower scene from ‘Psycho.’
Let’s talk about the appearance of the Predator. With his enormous, towering frame, brown and amber scaled skin, razor-clawed hands and feet, dreadlocked hair, retractable two-pronged blade, and oh-so-creepy folding mandible jaw, he’s one of the most iconic movie aliens of all time. And yet if things had proceeded as initially planned, he would never have even existed.
The original Predator design concept called for a suit that was far smaller, with a slender head and elongated beak, that would have been worn by martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme. But when this first Predator arrived on set, McTiernan and the crew rightfully judged the creature too clumsy to convincingly menace Schwarzenegger, Weathers, and the rest. When shooting was suspended 2/3rds of the way through the film after the production had exhausted its initial budget, Schwarzenegger advised McTiernan to recruit Stan Winston, who’d created his makeup for ‘The Terminator,’ to redesign the Predator. Winston developed most of the character’s unforgettable look, including the dreads and the mask, but those unforgettable, unfolding mandibles came from an unlikely source: ‘Terminator’ director James Cameron, who suggested the addition while sitting next to Winston on a flight while the makeup artist was sketching the creature. But there’s another, even more important unsung hero in the story of ‘Predator’ besides Cameron: actor Kevin Peter Hall, the man inside the Predator costume.
By this point in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, he’d established himself as a nearly invincible onscreen hero. Rising to popularity in ‘The Terminator’ as an unstoppable robot killer from the future, the former bodybuilder carried that character’s persona and his aura of indestructibility to everything he made after it. With his monstrous physique and steely glare, finding opponents who could plausibly challenge Schwarzenegger in a fight was becoming increasingly problematic in the wake of ‘The Terminator.’ His movie’s concluding fights were often hopelessly anticlimactic; after you’ve killed 80 armed soldiers, where’s the suspense in a face off against one tubby dude in chainmail (see: ‘Commando’)? Killing people was so easy for this guy, he cracked jokes while he did it (“Let off some steam, Bennett!” he quips in ‘Commando’ after impaling a man with a leaking boiler pipe).
The Predator was the only villain Schwarzenegger ever faced who was tough enough to shut him up. The 7-foot-2 Hall made Schwarzenegger look tiny, the way Schwarzenegger made his future twin, Danny DeVito, look standing next to him. Early in ‘Predator,’ Schwarzenegger has a few snappy lines (“Stick around!” he jeers after hanging a dead man on a post with a machete). And Dutch's first scene with Weathers' Dillon, where the two old friends get reacquainted during a friendly arm wrestling match that is in no way homoerotic, is good for a few chuckles. But once the rest of the team is -- SPOILER ALERT -- dead, and it’s up to him to defeat the alien on his own, he drops the trash talk.
Earlier in the film, when Dutch and his men learn that they’d managed to injure the alien, and he’s stained some of the jungle foliage with his Ecto Cooler-colored blood, Schwarzenegger snarls confidently, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” But that works both ways: the Predator is the rare villain who made Schwarzenegger bleed, and who seemed to have a reasonable shot to kill him. Even after that final fight, Schwarzenegger doesn’t get a “Let off some steam” moment. The final image of the star is a long close-up of his battered, weary face, at a loss for words for the first and only time in his career. Ironically, this exploitation movie about a battle with an alien menace gave him one of his most human roles.