The Setup: Friday, June 12, 1987. Some friends and I were in Westwood, CA at the old AVCO Theater on Wilshire Boulevard about to catch the 7:00 pm show on opening night of the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “Predator.” The showing was in the original lower-level auditorium which seated 1,000 patrons, featured a 70-milllimeter projection screen and 6-channel discreet sound system with earth-shaking bass. It was THX-certified just a few years earlier. Stepping into that cavernous auditorium I had no preconceptions about this new film. I hadn’t read any reviews. I just knew it was Arnold’s latest action movie following his dismal stinker, “Raw Deal.” When the lights came up almost two hours later, I was speechless. “Predator” wasn’t just another action film with a muscle-bound cast and pun-intended one-liners – it was an Experience. It was a Hunt.
I ended up going back to Westwood to see the film again… and again. I saw “Predator” four times, before it was bumped into one of the smaller, inferior auditoriums. I have since owned the film on VHS, then Laserdisc, then DVD and now Bluray. When you count all the years those formats cover, it adds up to just over 20 years. I have seen the film dozens of times. I know every shot, every line of dialogue and every note of music.
Watch: Predator (1987) Trailer
While the purpose of this article is to bolster the virtues of “Predator” as the ultimate action movie, it also falls into the “creature feature” category. To that end it deftly keeps us in the dark as to what exactly this monster is until nearly the end of the film. It’s what we, the audience, don’t see and what we don’t know that keeps us unnerved throughout the course of the story. Thankfully, the final payoff of the creature is worth its weight in gold! The Predator, as created by Stan Winston, is now an iconic movie monster!
I would also opine that “Predator” meets the criteria of a good thriller by using suspense and tension throughout. For me, this is what made it such a good movie. While you have some of the most aggressive action sequences of any action film, you also get very intense moments of near silence, crouching in the jungle undergrowth with our heroes, nervously scanning the trees for the mottled, glassy outline of the extra-terrestrial hunter. There’s this unnerving sense that at any moment, the predator will materialize from the jungle wall and take another victim.
I’ve already covered some of the reasons I think “Predator” is the ultimate action movie in a bigger-picture sense. Now I’ll give you 10 specific reasons, so let’s “get to the choppa!”
1. The Title
I love great titles. I especially love them when they come packaged in a single word. Originally titled “The Hunter,” based on the spec screenplay by Jim and John Thomas, the film’s production worked under that title until the extraterrestrial “hunter” design was completely revamped by Stan Winston, and subsequently the title changed to “Predator.” The beauty of the title is in its simplicity – we all know what the word predator means. And in the case of the film, the word predator is not only applicable to our camouflaged, otherworldly hunter, but also to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, Dutch, who discovers his own ability to camouflage, as well his own sheer will to hunt and kill the alien menace, thus becoming a predator himself.
2. The Minigun
Called the General Electric XM214 Automatic Gun and originally designed to be mounted on helicopters and light aircraft, this beast was first featured as a hand-held weapon in the movie “Predator!” Jesse Ventura’s character (Blaine), affectionately named this hand-held Gatling gun, “Painless.” Previously, nothing like it had been featured or even seen in a movie. To give you an idea of the actual power this thing boasts, here are some facts:
The spin rate of all six barrels can vary from 1,000 all the way up to 10,000 rpm
It can unload up to 166 rounds per second
The scenes of Jesse Ventura wielding this canon while chopping through the small South American village with a hailstorm of bullets are just surreal. Everything he points the gun at is vaporized! Think of a fire hose that sprays bullets instead of water. I remember having a hung-open jaw during the Minigun scenes when I first saw “Predator” in the theater, and frankly it’s still very impressive to watch 20 plus years later!
3. Gunfire and Explosions
The action sequence that follows our heroes on a raid of the guerilla camp is an action movie marvel. The amount of sheer destruction is prodigious. Huts splinter apart like matches while bodies rocket through flames and tumble earthward. Guerilla soldiers are torn asunder by the dreaded 6-barreled, hand-held Minigun as wielded by Jesse Ventura. Lead actors remain in frame while buildings nearby are incinerated. Foreground and background action together in single shots make everything feel more connected visually. A great example of this is Jesse Ventura firing the Minigun at a sniper’s nest high in a tree. In the foreground, out of focus, is the canon and some distance away, in focus, is the target being ripped into a million pieces…all in one shot! And because “Predator” was made in the days before CGI, the sequence feels much more authentic. There are no digital stunt doubles, no photo-realistic Maya buildings or enhanced flames, no surreal speed ramping (ala “300”) to capture a bullet in mid-flight. It’s all real time, real explosions and real actors, and it absolutely kicks ass!
4. Even More Gunfire
There is a scene in “Predator” that literally kicks every other action movie in the face, dares them to get up, then kicks them in the face again, and for good measure, throws them off a cliff! Just after Blaine’s character (Jesse Venture) is killed, Mac (Bill Duke), catching the first clear look at the camouflaged hunter, picks up his dead partner’s Minigun and unleashes hell into the jungle. One by one, the rest of the team arrives at his side, and they all begin unloading ton after ton of ammo. And just when you think they’ll stop shooting, they keep firing and they keep firing… and holy cow they keep on firing! Never in the history of action movies has there been a scene of un-interrupted gunfire that is so long and so loud! And when it all stops, Mac is still mashing his finger down on the trigger while the multi-barreled weapon spins dry. Finally he lets go, and the jungle is absolutely silent, decimated from the discharge of a million rounds. People in the theater, myself included, actually chuckled in sheer disbelief at the end of that scene! And to top it off, Poncho (Richard Chaves) cryptically reports “…no blood, no bodies. We hit nothing!”
5. Building Tension
“Predator” succeeds where so many other action movies fail. It creates lasting tension with great payoffs so when the action comes, it is far more intense! From the moment our heroes land and discover the skinned carcasses of Jim Hopper and his men hanging upside down in the jungle canopy, we know something is horribly wrong. It immediately puts us on edge as Billy (Sonny Landham), makes a chilling observation, “…there was a firefight. They were shooting in all directions.” In the following sequences, we are introduced to the thermal imaging POV of the predator and the nagging feeling among our heroes that they are being watched. This continually provides us with uncertainty and tension as they venture further into the jungle until the first attack when Hawkins (Shane Black) is killed. From there, we are officially on the hunt, and one by one our heroes are systematically taken out. Great tension helps amplify resulting action when it happens, and “Predator” reigns supreme in this regard.
Any action movie worth its own weight must have memorable one-liners. Often times it’s a pun made by the hero at an opportune moment delivered with all the subtly of a ball-peen hammer between the eyes. Case-in-point, Dutch throws a massive blade into the belly of an attacker creeping up on him from behind and says “stick around!” But “Predator” has some far more iconic one-liners that help bolster its place as the ultimate action film. Probably the most memorable of these comes from Arnold after realizing they have wounded their seemingly unstoppable foe, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
Billy: “There’s something out there waiting for us, and it ain’t no man. We’re all gonna die.”
Mac, after killing a scorpion crawling on Dillon’s (Carl Weathers) shoulder: “Anytime.”
Blaine: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
Honestly there are a lot of great lines in Predator, too many to list here without transcribing a large portion of the entire film!
7. The Music
Composer Alan Silvestri, who previously to “Predator” had scored “Back To The Future,” has created what is now considered to be one of the greatest action movie scores of all time. Several years back, Varese Sarabande Records released a 3000-unit, limited edition CD of the entire score. I ordered it on day one! I urge you to go back, watch the film again, and really listen to the score and how much it adds to the action, tension and mood of the film. The dynamics of the music follow precisely the dynamics of the film. From the quietest moments with eerie violins to the running-like-hell sequences with pounding brass and percussion, the score adds rocket fuel to an already intense experience and lights it on fire! Want to sample a great cue? Check out the track called “Jungle Trek” on YouTube. The music of Predator definitely helps put it over the top as the ultimate action movie!
8. The Creature
So we come to the climactic battle of the film. All guns and explosives well spent, it’s now hand-to-hand combat: Dutch vs. the Predator. Up to this point in the film, we’ve seen this creature appear as several things – from a camouflaged, glassy outline to a seven-foot tall masked menace. The only thing we haven’t seen is its face. This is a moment that, had the Predator been a goofy-looking monster, would have tanked the whole film… and, as it happened, the initial design was goofy! The original predator was a long-necked creature with a duck-billed head and one yellow eye. Thanks to the genius of Stan Winston (with some input from James Cameron) and an 8-month hiatus in filming to re-create the monster, we ended up with one of the most terrifying and memorable creatures in movie history! I also credit the late Kevin Peter Hall for his performance inside the Predator suit. His staggering 7-foot 2-inch frame, coupled with his body movements, gave the Predator a real sense of personality, which transformed it from mere monster to a lead character!
9. The Directing
A director’s job is simply this: to serve as ambassador for the audience in the fictional realm of the story. He is there to decide what we, the audience, want to see, what we need to see, and how we will see it. Director John McTiernan was our visual ambassador for “Predator,” and he gave us the best of all worlds. He took us on the hunt. He kept us low to the ground, and he got us up and running like hell. He led us into a ferocious village raid, a deafening firefight and threw us off a waterfall. He put us in the ring for hand-to-hand combat with a terrifying alien foe, and we loved every minute of it! One short year after “Predator,” John McTiernan would go on to direct what many would consider to be another one of the greatest action movies of all time – a little gem called “Die Hard.”
10. Arnold Schwarzenegger
I think this goes without saying, but in the late 1980’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the top dogs in the action film universe. The larger-than-life star with the equally larger-than-life name gave Predator the edge in the action film hall of fame as well as a draw at the box office. In any given Arnold film previously, there were no worthy opponents. No one could so much as put a dent in the bulging mass that was Arnold, and to that end, no audience would believe for a second that he was in any sort of peril – until “Predator,” when a towering 7-foot-tall alien hunter shows up and makes him look like a peanut.
In the climactic minutes of the film, our previously invincible action hero takes the beating of a lifetime, literally crawling away from his attacker as it all comes down to one last chance for survival: a crude, but cleverly rigged, booby trap! Arnold comes out on top, but barely, proving that great action movies plunge their heroes, no matter how strong, into deep peril and then pull them back out!
To this day, I put “Predator” on my list of top films because I have enjoyed it so much over the years. And quite honestly, I can’t think of another action sci-fi thriller that has been able to match the tension, pace and raw action of the film (which is now 23 years old!). “Predator” rightly deserves to be considered one of the ultimate action movies of all time! Do yourself a favor: pick up “Predator” on Bluray, crank up your 7.1 home surround system, turn off the lights and go on the hunt again!
Eric Tozzi is an LA-based director, editor and producer working in the independent film, web series and documentary fields. Visual effects and compositing is also becoming a regular part of his work in independent film. As a director, Eric created one of the very first dramatic web series, “The Dirty Bomb Diaries” which was released in early 2007 before most people knew what a web series was. Eric currently works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the Mars Public Engagement office, producing and editing documentary content that chronicles past, present and future Mars Exploration Missions.