Saturday, July 31, 2010

Movies: Misremembering to be surprised.

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?


Shon Richards said...

Watching 80's action movies that I loved as a kid is always disturbing. I caught Predators recently and I was pretty depressed by how casually they slaughter the freedom fighters and my young self never blinked.

I am glad you mentioned the cloaking effect because that had the biggest impact on me as a first time viewer. Witnesses kept saying that "the jungle grabbed him!" and I always thought that was a lame description. I expected a monster in jungle camo and didn't understand why people would be so over dramatic. The first time I saw that shimmer and someone die, I was like "Oh %$#@, the jungle did grab him!"

For me, 'Alien' is a perpetual memory block every time I see it. I keep seeing new scenes that I could swear were never there before. I am convinced that Ridley Scott is screwing with me.

Troy Z said...

CRwM, thanks for another erudite entry.

I, too, even back then in my high-school-age 1980s, could notice the tonal shift in action movie hero archetypes, and the distinction seemed to come down to the heroes' classification as either Proactive or Reactive.

The paramilitary crew in "Predator" is a Proactive group to the point where one could employ it as a textbook definition. The specifically-trained, hardware-bristling, and cartoonishly-muscled members are voluntarily inserted into a battlefield for a prescribed mission. Just now, I used Google to finally track down the originator of the term my friends used then for just such a cast of characters: "Testosterone Bob's Hurt Patrol" (the answer: Dave Barry in 1986).

But Proactives are also all, by definition, alien. Whether it's the Creature in "Predator" or John Rambo in "Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Rambo III," they are mechanically transported to a setting that is not their territory in order to sate a need established by others, whether it be national interest or a social ritual of honor.

What makes "Predator" such a fun thrill ride and a benchmark action movie is that it is not a traditional Protagonist vs. Antagonist or Hero vs. Villain narrative, but a Proactive vs. Proactive cage match.

Reactive heroes, on the other hand, like the John Rambo in "First Blood" or John McClane in the "Die Hard" franchise, have the dangerous situation thrust upon them. Such a case is, surprising poetically, best distilled in the very tagline for "Die Hard": The Right Man in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. And there's the rub: these characters are identifiable as Men, not as aliens.

By the way, it is of note that Terry Gilliam cast Bruce Willis for his role in "12 Monkeys" specifically for that scene in "Die Hard" in which he is bleeding in the bathroom and shakily asking to have a conciliatory message to be given to his estranged wife. Up to then, Gilliam couldn't recall a scene with an action hero who seemed aware of his future condition or emotional surroundings outside his immediate peril. Which, I think, is why the Reactive is more fascinating to watch: Reactives are shown to have things to lose. At best, Proactives have already lost, and have as their mission to get others to lose.

Now, if you really want to get into a hornet's nest, start discussing Ripley's role using this rubric.

zoe said...

this is a fascinating and disturbing essay (i missed both of these movies), and the comments are also full of things to think about...thank you!

DM said...

I was just a little kid in the 80s and, growing up in Canada, was completely out of touch with Reaganism. I used this as the reason why I approach Predator not as an essay on the application of violence for political (right-wing) gains but as a form of thematic expression.

What I'm trying to say is this review kinda blew my mind. I suppose I knew the implications of Arnie's actions--the commentary--but lacked the knowledge or experience to articulate them.

As for that opening scene, I think it goes to show how clever a filmmaker McTiernan was (I've hated everything since Die Hard 3). To show us something so unreal and otherworldly and then to surprise us with this same information later on suggests an understanding of audience participation and investment.

In spite of the fact that a goddamn alien spaceship just landed on earth, we've got juiced soldiers and shit blowing up to deal with. Arnie and co's excess completely overtakes us, assaulting our senses to the point where we simply can't handle or process anything other than what's right in front of us, here and now. And then here comes the alien and though it would seem right out of left field, this fantastic reveal, we have no trouble accepting it. Part of that, of course, has to do with the willing suspension of disbelief, but I think also because the idea was planted in our brain ahead of time that we are in fact watching a sci-fi movie.

CRwM said...

Excellent observations all.


The proactive/reactive matrix elegantly explains what I danced around for about 2/3 of this post.

Good point about the mutually reinforcing aspects of the film - the alien's appearance rides on the our already suspended disbelief over the casual hyperviolence of the stereotypical men-with-guns subgenre.