Predator Turns 35: A Look Back at Sci-Fi’s Most Subversive Creature Feature
John McTiernan’s 1987 science fiction-horror hybrid Predator, apart from being the source of one of the funniest interactions in my immediate family, is one of the few late-20th century films featuring muscle-bound men shooting big guns that I feel I can make a case for actually being intelligent. Coming out near the end of the decade that gave us iconic action-thrillers like First Blood (1982) and The Terminator (1984), Predator stands as a certifiable ‘80s classic that takes the “tough guy” image so popular among movie heroes at the time, and strips it of its mystique with all the brutal efficiency of its titular creature skinning its prey.
Predator is a film that feels tailor made for men, specifically. The action kicks off with all the machismo, crass jokes, and literal flexing of arm muscles a guy could want as Vietnam vet Major Alan Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leads a crack team of other brawny and fast-talking military operators on a rescue mission deep in the jungles of one of those nameless South American banana republics so popular in action films from that era. Alongside them is Dillon (Carl Weathers), Schaefer’s old war buddy turned Langley spook. There are gunfights, one-liners, and explosions aplenty.
But when the action cools down, Schaefer’s team begins to suspect they are not the only “predators” stalking the bush. One by one, they are then systematically picked off by an enemy both technologically and physically superior. With each grueling death, McTiernan and Co. dismantle the carefully constructed image of the ‘80s “tough guy” and reduce action icon Schwarzenegger to a terrified man running for his life in a dark and brutal landscape, all while being stalked by an unearthly enemy. His guns, his muscles, and his damn-the-torpedoes attitude will, if anything, get him killed. He is forced to play the game differently, relying on guerilla tactics and good ol’ fashioned ingenuity to wage an asymmetrical war in which he is most assuredly at a distinct disadvantage. As a result, Predator stands as one of the most subversive films ever to land mainstream appeal and features one of the best and most nuanced performances from Schwarzenegger in his long and storied career.
The film’s success led to a plethora of sequels with diminishing returns. The first of these, 1990s Predator 2—remember when all it took to title a sequel was just a number and not an inane and absurdly dramatic subtitle? Ah, the glory days—featured Danny Glover (another ‘80s action icon) in the lead, reuniting him with another Lethal Weapon (1987) alum, Gary Busey. While reception was initially lukewarm and time has done little to change that—I, for one, absolutely loathe this film—the sequel nevertheless deepened and expanded the series’ mythology.
Nearly fifteen years later, well before Tony Stark ever dreamed of assembling the Avengers in Marvel’s popular “cinematic universe,” 20th Century Fox crossed over its two action-horror properties to bring audiences Alien vs. Predator (2004), and a direct sequel subtitled Requiem (2007). The films were moderate successes, with the first managing to win over one of its biggest skeptics, legendary film director James Cameron (director of Aliens), though the second struggled to retain any of the first’s charm despite showcasing one of the most popular and best designed hunters to date.
The series would again return in 2010 with a standalone sequel titled Predators, directed by Nimród Antal with no small amount of influence from producer Robert Rodriguez. I have always found this film to be criminally underrated, as it is the first film since 1987 that seemed to understand the subversive themes at play in the original and worked to build upon those, playing the audience against their own expectations much in the same way as the first. Coupled with strong performances by Adrien Brody and Alice Braga as unconventional leads and a who’s who supporting cast of some of the best character actors in the business, Predators is the rare sequel that works even if it fails to capture the magic of the Arnie-helmed original—but then again, it does not try to, and that lends the film no small amount of credit.
The less said about 2018’s The Predator, the better. Despite a solid leading performance from Boyd Holbrook, the film tosses out all nuance and suspense-building techniques in favor of loud, bombastic action set pieces and humor that lands with a dull thud. Critics and audiences alike hated it, and the vile, crass picture gave them every reason to.
The series then returned for a prequel, helmed by Dan Trachtenberg, to deliver what is arguably the best Predator film since the original. 2022’s Prey turns back the clock to the early 18th century, inserts indigenous actors as leads, and takes a back-to-basics approach to its storytelling. Amber Midthunder’s Naru stands alongside Schwarzenegger’s Major Schaefer as a skilled warrior whose mind becomes the ultimate weapon in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with an otherworldly enemy. A quieter, more tension-filled film than its predecessor, Prey is the perfect homage to the subversive original and a worthwhile addition to the quarter-century old sci-fi series, with at least one major news outlet calling the film “a franchise masterpiece.”
Since 1987, the series has been kept alive between films thanks to the comic book and video game mediums. Published mostly by Dark Horse Comics and now under the ownership of Marvel (take over everything, don’t they?) the Predator comics have been the chief contributor to expanding the mythos and sustaining the series’ niche fanbase. In comic books and novel adaptations, the terrifying creatures that remain nameless on film have come to be known as “Yautja” and the inner workings of their clannish, warrior society have been explored at length.
Thirty-five years and five mainline films later, what is it about the Predator series that keeps audiences engaged? As I said earlier, I think the original is one of the most intelligent films ever written—the notion of taking a human, stripping them of means and allies, and forcing them to rely singularly on their wits to outsmart and ultimately beat an inhuman enemy is a very classic, even mythological concept. It is also the stuff of classic horror films like Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which almost single-handedly birthed an entire subgenre. The concept is malleable and can be translated to any number of different contexts where the humans remain the perpetual underdogs. It is a kind of “David and Goliath” story when that story is removed from its proper context.
The subversive genius of the original simply swapped out lusty teenagers for brawny action heroes (the guys who, in their own movies, always win), and put (what today we might call “toxic”) masculinity on trial instead of sexuality. Turning action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger into the burlier, male counterpart of the oft discussed “final girl” trope is the ultimate stroke of madcap genius that makes the original as absurdly compelling as it is downright creepy. The same trope is revisited and played straight in Prey, again reinforcing the notion that the best Predator films are the ones that adhere to the brilliantly simple concept of that 1987 classic.
Given the success of Prey on streaming, there is little doubt that the series will return in some form or fashion. And thirty-five years on, it has demonstrated its staying power. But what value do these stories truly offer us? So often they are lumped in with bottom-of-the-barrel actioners or discount sci-fi flicks and lambasted as trafficking in cheap, B-movie thrills (which Predator 2 and The Predator certainly do). But such analyses ignore the irreverent boldness of the original, the wrinkly morality of 2010’s Predators (the unexpectedly sinister Topher Grace makes this work), and the contemplative, unorthodox focus of Prey.
Taken together, these films offer a strange meditation on modern conceptions of masculinity, and how those have evolved in the past thirty-five years. Challenging cultural perceptions left and right, the best films of the Predator series offer a compelling thesis: that might does not always make right, and fragile egos often lead to grim demise.
The Christian tradition has codified this notion through the centuries by handing out conventional proverbs such as “the meek shall inherit the earth,” itself lifted from Jesus’s own extrapolation of Psalm 37 found in Matthew 5. The Bible’s narrative incorporates the feats of “mighty men,” while still demonstrating that “pride goeth before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Strength of character, it seems, counts for more than strength of muscles, though the latter has its appropriate applications in place and time. Predator articulates a similar notion when a guilt-riddled Schaefer, after learning he and his team were duped into killing dozens of enemies by his CIA friend, says, “My men are not expendable, and I don’t do this kind of work.” He reiterates, “We’re a rescue team. Not assassins.”
Schaefer is an efficient soldier, but one who operates with a clear sense of right and wrong, motivated by compassion. He not only shows deference for Captain Hopper when arguing with a dismissive Dillon (“He didn’t disappear! He was skinned alive!”) but also protects Anna Gonsalves (Elpidia Carrillo), ensuring that she is the only other character to survive. In Predators, loner Royce (Adrien Brody) must rescue his own humanity and learn to trust his new ally Isabelle (Alice Braga), learning that human connection and communication is his only hope of survival.
Believe it or not, there is a kind of baseline morality at work in the best of these rough-edged films. The Yautja hunters test the strength of character and creative acumen of the leads as much as they challenge their physical prowess. In the Predator series, the meek might not inherit the earth—but chances are, they will survive an encounter with a Yautja. And when all else fails—as Naru says in Prey—one simply must be smarter than a beaver.