In light of the fizzling firecracker that is media coverage of Predators, I decided to revisit the original flick.
Oddly, I was completely surprised by the very first scene.
And, I should add, I've seen Predator more often than I care to remember. In fact, I got into a nearly four-year long debate in college about whether a weapons system like Old Painless actually existed. That's how into the freakin' film I was. (The answer, then as now, is "kinda, but not the way it is represented in the flick.")
And yet, I realized that I've somehow blocked the very first scene out of my mind.
And I don't think I'm alone on this. Running through the criticism of Predator, both among the pro set and the Holly Hobbyists of the personal blog set, is the idea that one of the things that makes Predator stand out is the unexpected, genre-warping second-act twist that, one first viewing, hit folks from out of nowhere.
This despite the fact that the very first scene - what we see even before the credits - is an image of an alien drop ship dumping something on Earth.
Perhaps all the other pro-am blog types mean their descriptions to be taken in a more nuanced way, but I honestly remember the appearance of the alien big game hunter as a complete surprise. I remember the flick starting with Arnie and Co. landing dramatically on a South American beachfront - imagine a reworking of the Air Cav scene for the Reagan Era - and Arnie bantering with Apollo Creed.
But there it is, clear as day, a big ol' "Hey, this is freakin' sci-fi movie and there be aliens in them there footage" scene as the first thing we see. In fact, it oddly resembles the opening shot of Carpenter's The Thing remake, which hit screens nearly five years earlier. I have no idea whether or not this is an intentional homage or a coincidence. My general instinct is to, when in doubt, credit filmmakers with the talent and background knowledge. Given that one can find similar echos to films as diverse (yet, strangely, alike in their white-folks-in-the-bush anxieties) as Apocalypse Now and King Kong, I don't feel wholly out of place giving McTeirnan the benefit of the doubt that the allusion is intended.
More importantly, weird. Why do I always forget that the movie plays the alien card from frame one?
Now that my weird - though perhaps not so weird, does anybody remember that the second act appearance of the alien is a Chekhov's gun? - inability to remember the flick is out of the way, my impressions of the original, viewed decades later, is how dated it seems. Not the effects, which are still beautiful, if no longer state of the art. Ironically, the original Predator's masking effect actually feels right - it's imperfections suggest an actual device at work rather than the seamless irreality of CGI. Rather, it's the action that seems dated. There's something distinctly early '80s about the action.
Action doesn't seem like something that should age. Sure, there are changing norms of acceptable explicitness in films, curves of fx development, and, like all human creative endeavors, the art of disassembling fellow humans into their constituent humans is an ever eager adopter of the latest technological innovations. But action - boiled down to its basic, we're talking about energetic motion - seems like it should be a constant.
But it's none of the factors listed above that date Predator so distinctly. Rather it's the relentless dehumanizing firehose application of violence that captures a distinctly Reagan Era fantasy about the application of power: The narrative of violence is essentially unilateral and what we talk about when we talk about violence is the imposition of our will on a mute world. Post-Vietnam, we strove to redefine violence in terms of mastering the ability to deal it. Emblematic of the shift is the distinction between John Rambo and the Terminator. Both films deal with characters programmed for violence. But, in First Blood, Rambo's hardwired capacity to kill is revolt against his own nature. It renders him both pathetic and monstrous. In contrast, there's a crystalline perfection to the violence of the Terminator. He's without conflict and built for it. (And, in a neat thematic match, he excuses our heroes violence by being a robot, and therefore okay to kill.) The development of the '80s expression of violence would be the story of Rambo's transformation from a nightmare vision of what we'd done to ourselves in order to create a people who are ready to kill into a story of people always ready to unleash hell for the proper cause.
Predator is a near perfect expression of this in that we get two seemingly contradictory, but self-reinforcing projections of this fantasy: First there's the slaughter of the rebel camp, then the mano-a-xeno combat between Gov. Shwarzenegger and the titular alien (not called Predator or a Predator anywhere in the flick - the alien is simply identified as "the creature" in the credits). In the first fight, Arnie's team brings a beat down that is almost comically one-sided. In fact, not almost: Arnold and a handful of his crew find time to crack a few one liners as they mow down scores of left-wing rebels (we learn later of the rebel's Marxist sympathies - the reason it presumably okay to mow them down wholesale). The "fight" at the rebel compound is massacre. And, in the end, Dutch and Co. learn that the whole thing was a snow job. The Marxist rebels have no hostages and they were sent in as assassins. They are upset about being lied to, though this is more because a bond of personal trust was violated and not because they killed dozens of men under false pretenses. It's the killers that are important. The victims, by virtue of being victims, aren't.
In the second act of the film, by far the most interesting segment, Our Men at War start to get picked off by the Predator. The reason this section has always interested me most is this because it's here that the flick threatens to eat itself. Prior to now, the crew were straight out of central casting: the stoic indian, the weary warrior, the nice guy, the nerd, the redneck - and so on. Suddenly they all begin to crack. They show fear and their personalities cleave in bizarro, not totally logical ways. My favorite scene in the whole flick appears in this section: When Bill Duke's crazed Mac character, nearly exhausted, is chasing after the beast while wheezing out Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." There are more thematically sound scenes - such as the brilliantly thunderous impotence of the scene where our panicked boys level the jungle in a vain attempt to tag the invisible Predator - but few get at the surreal bad ugly that threatens to engulf this flick like the disjointed, grim nakedness of this moment.
At this point in the film, it would seem like the script's been flipped and it is now the American soldiers's turn to feel what it is like to be on the receiving end of violence. It would seem as if they've been put in the place of the freedom fighters - oh, um, I mean, Communist militants they slaughtered. But, as depicted, the relationship is not all that similar. Even at the worst moments, the mercenary crew is not summarily slaughtered like the rebels were. Right when the flick looks like it's about to spiral into some dark pit of craziness and doom, the third act redeems act one and two by evoking another myth of American might. Less you think that the soldiers' ability to turn the rebel camp into an al fresco abattoir was simply due to their technological superiority, Arnie taps into the rugged lone American archetype, the survivalist killer frontier spirit that allows him to defeat the beast and demonstrate that our dominance is natural, Darwinistic.
He even survives getting nuked, so as to suggest that, while we are the only country to use a nuclear weapon in combat, we could totally take it too if we had to.
Curiously, John McTiernan, the director of Predator, put this kind of supermanish unilateral hero out to pasture himself. Recent Sly Stallone blamed - believe it or not - Tim Burton and Michael Keaton for killing off the muscle-bound action icons of the 1980s. But Sly utterly misses the point. John McClane, with his abused body and edge of panic approach to heroics, was the beginning of the end for Arnie. Not that McClane was somehow less a fantastic projection or any less morally complicated. Heroes always overstep the bounds of the moral order. (Even Atticus Finch breaks the law.) McClane reintroduced an almost Buster Keatonish sense of scale. McClane, even before the first bullet flew, was out of his class. With his informal, off-duty cop clothes in the dapper corridors of high-powered business, he doesn't fit from the jump. And his efforts always seem last second, barely pulled off, half inspiration and half luck. The image I feel most captures McClane's appeal is him, trailing a A Better Tomorrowush ribbon of blood into the bathroom to dig glass out of his feet.
That, it seems to me, was the beginning of the end for Dutch-style action hero. But then I couldn't even remember the whole spaceship at the beginning of the movie, so what the hell do I know?