More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

In our last podcast, we said, more or less, that Aliens was the Alien formula amplified and dropped into an action framework. To an extent, Predator is the Alien formula taken largely as is, and dropped into an action framework. And if you’re going to do that in the Eighties, there’s no better person to have in your corner than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Here he plays Major Alan Dutch Schaffer, leader of an elite search and rescue force called in to, well, search for and rescue a supposed government cabinet member whose chopper was shot down in the jungles of the Eighties favourite fictional conflict zone, Val Verde (or Guatamala if you believe what Predators tells us, or in some instances Columbia, but Val Verde 4 life, dawg). However, as we’re being told this by a CIA agent, even if it is one of Dutch’s old army buddies, George Dillon (Carl Weathers), probably best to take that with a grain of salt.

So, into the jungle goes Dutch Schaefer and his team — Bill Duke’s medic Mac Elliot, Sonny Landhams’ tracker Billy Sole, Jesse Ventura’s gunner Blain Cooper, Richard Chaves’ explosives expert Jorge “Poncho” Ramírez, and radio operator Rick Hawkins, played by Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, for some reason.

They start tracking from the crash site, soon coming across disturbing scenes – soldiers skinned and hung from the tall branches. Those horrible Val Verdean rebels! Although, as we know from the occasional infra red viewpoint shot, it’s something rather more potent rumbling in this jungle.

The team eventually reach the rebel base, and clock their Russian advisor – those horrible communist Val Verdean rebels! A firefight with Dutch and co doesn’t go all that well for the Reds, as the business end of Blain’s Ol’ Painless minigun rather liquidates their holdings. Dutch is about to get very angry at Dillion, but having witnessed the team’s combat prowess, the alien Predator (political affiliation unknown) sees how worthy a prey the lads are and starts stalking and picking them off, one by one.

The rest of this film details Dutch, his dwindling squad and captive, well, let’s be honest, token woman Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) as they try to make it to an extraction point – yes, that’s right, they need to get to the choppa – of course culminating in a mud-caked Ah-nold going mano -a-xeno with the be-mandibled menace.

I was surprised to read that Predator received a mild to frosty critical reaction at the time, because I’ve always found it to be an incredible amount of fun, even after all this time and rewatches. I suppose the overarching point that it’s a bit weakly plotted has a degree of truthiness to it – the essential details can be reduced to about one and a half sentences – but it’s always been less about the narrative and about the atmosphere for me.

If Alien managed to build a sense of claustrophobia with the spaceship environs, Predator proves it’s just as possible to feel the walls close in when there aren’t any walls around. The jungle, while making for a nightmarish shoot by all accounts, makes for a hugely effective setting, and Dutch and co’s gradual realisation they’re going from hunter to hunted makes a terrifically tense slice of film-making.

I’ve kind of skipped over the Predator him/her/itself in this, as I’m largely assuming you know what it is. Perhaps that’s me normalising my experience too much, and I suppose there’s got to be someone who hasn’t seen this. They’re a race of aliens who treat some of the universe’s most dangerous locations as a safari-esque proving ground, although none of that information comes from this film, and to be honest not having the motivations screamed at us by Gary Busey is another reason to appreciate the minimalism of this film.

I’ve never quite been able to square the notion that these hunts are the various Predators pitting their skills against the best warriors in the galaxy as some sort of noble right of passage, as the playing field is a little slanted – not only does Preddy have his unfeasibly sharp bladed weapons, infra-red tracking ability, shoulder-mounted auto-tracking space-blaster, he can also turn invisible through some optical camouflage equipment. Just a slight tech advantage.

I had thought I’d need to be making apologies for the exceedingly macho attitudes on display, and there’s certainly no minimising that, but it was much worse in my head then the actuality of it. With the exception of one throwaway homophobic line and Hawkin’s line of “jokes”, there’s not much here to apologise for, and the bulk of that’s over in the first ten minutes.

And, here’s the thing, all this macho man posturing and swaggering is necessary, if just to show the contrast as they fray and break under the tension of the ordeal this alien bastard puts them through.

There’s more to be said on this, but the basic point I’m trying to get across is that I think this is a very tense, well executed film, with a strong concept, some great casting and compelling performances that makes this not just a great genre film, but a great film full stop. Highly recommended in the unlikely event you’ve not seen this already.