Predator: 1980s military adventurism meets alien horror

Arnold Schwarzenegger stands in the crosshairs of an alien predator.
Movie poster art for Predator. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Predator starts off as a standard 1980s-style military adventure film, not unlikeSchwarzenegger’s own Commando. It’s got the bad-ass elite soliders (led by Arnold’s own Dutch), a bombastic soundtrack, and a pitched firefight with guerillas.

But in between the bouts of testosterone, there’s tension. Our troops realize something isn’t quite right — but is it in the mission (fouled by their CIA contact) or something else?

Of course, we know it’s something else … something extraterrestrial, given that an alien spacecraft was dropped to earth by an alien starship just before the opening credits. But as to the nature of their alien adversary, that’s a mystery that’s revealed ever so slowly. First with the skinned remains of U.S. Army Green Berets hanging in a Central American jungle, then with glimpses of the commandos through the heat vision of the predator (which is itself a clue).

Despite being a 1980s big action movie, Predator is surprisingly nuanced and restrained in revealing its major threat (following the all-important Rule #1 established by Jaws). This allows the movie sustain our interest over three distinct acts: the initial insertion and hostage-rescue mission, our heroes subsequent attempt to escape (and their first real encounters with the Predator) and Dutch’s mano-e-mano battle wiht the creature itself.

The opening act does beg the question why is this hostage rescue team blowing up an entire enemy complex instead of stealthfully rescuing just the hostages within and escaping, but hey, run with it … we need them to be good guys. Plus, this is the sort of movie that demands that you suspend your disbelief, and that’s something watches were will happily do.

“You are one ugly son of a –“

The Predator itself is a perfect creature feature monster. We begin the film by witnessing its handy work, and it’s not until we’re a third of the way in that we start catching glimpses of it. Even then though, we’re not really seeing it because the Predator shrouds itself in a stealth field. It’s not until near the third and final act that it’s wounded enough to drop that field … and we get to see its crab like face and super-human build

More than the slow reveal of the Predator, what makes this movie so effective is its constant cutting between the Predator’s thermal hunting view and the soldiers. It’s not just the visuals — it’s the entire feel: the music drops off, audio scanners pick up, and we’re suddenly seeing the jungle’s heat signature. It reinforces the shear alienness of their opponent, while simultaneously teasing us as to the Predator’s capabilities.

The final act of the film, pitting a trap-making, MacGuvyer-ish Dutch against the alien and its superior technology, is a blast to watch. And like many of the other films that make up Monster Week, Predator manages to avoid feeling dated because of — not in spite of — it’s special effects. The “man in a suit” approach to Predator (consciously copied by writer/producer Robert Rodriguez in the sequel Predators) means that Arnold’s acting against an opponent whose really there, not a green screen special effect. It gives the movie an on screen weight and substance that subsequent genre films often lack.

The Gamer Angle: Predator Gnomes

When my group playtested Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition I ran an encounter in Sigil in which a band of 4E gnome thieves decided to ambush our plane-walking heroes. The thing is, I read the statblock for 4th Edition gnomes incorrectly. I thought they could use their invisibility power — which is triggered whenever they’re attacked — as an at-will power, rather than as an encounter power.

Thus were born predator gnomes.

Despite my rules confusion it was a great encounter and one that’s still talked about to this day. It worked partly because of the surprise — the players never expected gnomes to be so hard to kill — but also because it created a situation the players hadn’t been in before. They were suddenly being circled, taunted and harassed by enemies they couldn’t see … and when they could see them, it wouldn’t last. It ended up being a pitched fight that almost cost the player characters their lives, and taught them just how dangerous the streets of Sigil could be…

Final Analysis

Predator created one of the most badass alien villains in modern cinema, inspiring four sequels: Predator 2, Aliens vs. Predator, Alien vs. Predator 2: Requiem and Predators. Their sense of sport, their deadly gadgets, and their thirst for ever greater challenges resonates with maker geeks on a certain level, and makes them the sort of villains you’ll happily cheer for.

Product Details

  • Predator
  • Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura
  • Director: John McTiernan
  • Running time: 107 minutes
  • Rating: R
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