It’s a mystery to me why I didn’t see the “Arnold Schwarzenegger battles a vagina-faced alien” movie Predator until now. I’m part of the generation of men that this film schooled in the ways of über-masculine handshaking, interstellar sportsmanship, and glistening muscle maintenance. This is not something I would consciously avoid. I wonder how my life would’ve been different had I seen this movie when I was supposed to. Now that I have finally experienced Predator, I’ve made the following conclusions about my childhood:
- The crippling lack of tough-guy manliness I suffer from as an adult can be traced back to an incident in 1987 when I didn’t watch grizzled mercenaries shoot huge pieces of weaponry at an invisible extraterrestrial hiding in the jungle.
- The only possible explanation for me not seeing Predator sooner is that I wasn’t invited to enough sleepovers in middle school.
- Every kick-ass, ultra-violent action movie I loved as a kid in the ’80s will inevitably seem like Howards End to my children.
It isn’t that Predator fails to hold up; I know for a fact that it holds up among many of the now-thirtysomething dudes who obsessively watched it while munching on Funyuns and sucking down Mountain Dew in wood-paneled basement rec rooms back in the Reagan years. When I mentioned that I was finally seeing Predator for the first time and writing about it for The A.V. Club, several friends raved about it being one of the best action movies ever, a real “guys’ movie,” and some truly sick shit to watch while under the influence of hallucinogens. Some of them also expressed bewilderment that I hadn’t already seen it.
Predator doesn’t show up on AFI’s top-100 list, and it isn’t most critics’ idea of essential viewing, but I did feel a slight twinge of shame over having such a huge gap in my knowledge of ’80s action cinema, which was the first film genre I ever immersed myself in back in my tween and early teen years. You see, kids, back then, movie-theater ticket-takers and video-store clerks were more cavalier about allowing youngsters to see R-rated bloodbaths. I repeatedly rented bullet-ridden classics like Die Hard (also directed by Predator’s John McTiernan), Robocop, The Terminator, and Lethal Weapon, and watched them when my mom was at work. At 11, I ventured to the local theater to see Lethal Weapon 2 with my 15-year-old brother, who (I guess) passed for my guardian. It was my first R-rated movie in a theater, and it was a great first R-rated movie to see: There were tons of gore, an incredible amount of F-words, and (jackpot!) full-on female nudity. All that time trying to catch glimpses of breasts on the scrambled HBO stations suddenly seemed like a waste. I suppose this should’ve turned me into a bomb-building sociopath a few years later, but the only re-enactment I did of all that gleeful killing and unrepentant wisecracking was with my Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys on the floor in front of the television.
I understand the impulse to shield children from the tawdry, sex- and violence-drenched images adults make up to amuse themselves. But watching Predator reminded me of something I realized about ’80s action movies even when I had to sneak around to watch them: These films are way too cartoonish and endearingly stupid to take seriously. Predator is about an alien who arrives on Earth with no apparent purpose other than to hunt and skin humans in the middle of Central America. Interestingly, his main motivation is sport, not food. He can make himself disappear in the jungle brush, but otherwise has no special powers. But he is chivalrous; he won’t kill anyone who’s unarmed. However, if you call him an ugly motherfucker, he isn’t above laughing maniacally before blowing up himself (and everything else in sight) in a nuclear mushroom cloud. Now tell me, should parents worry about kids confusing that with reality? Now that we’re a generation removed, movies like Predator don’t seem that violent. Kids raised on Kick-Ass might even find it sort of sweet.
Predator is also notable for starring two future governors, Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. (Less memorable are the leadership aspirations of co-star Sonny Landham; the former Kentucky gubernatorial candidate effectively ended his political career in 2008 when he referred to Arabs as “ragheads” and “camel-dung shovelers.” Fortunately, this scene didn’t similarly haunt Ventura.)
As strange as Schwarzenegger’s rise to political office still seems, it’s even stranger in retrospect that he was once the biggest action-movie star in the world. Though he doesn’t entirely lack charisma, Schwarzenegger was only believable when he was playing dead-eyed machines or (maybe) Danny DeVito’s brother. Otherwise, he doesn’t really have the qualities you and I would readily identify as human, like body hair, emotions, and arms that look like arms instead of like basketball-swallowing boa constrictors. That might not have mattered in the pre-irony ’80s, when people were more willing to accept an ex-bodybuilder from Austria playing everything from a pregnant male scientist to an undercover policeman posing as a kindergarten teacher with a strident aversion to brain tumors. But now, seeing the mountain of overheated testosterone that is Schwarzenegger onscreen undermines the plausibility of every movie he ever starred in. Arguably, that’s less of a problem with Predator, which is filthy with muscle-heavy freaks like Ventura, Carl Weathers, and Bill Duke. But, seriously, can you imagine a movie today playing the infamous handshake scene straight? Of course not, which is why somebody subtly altered it on YouTube.
Schwarzenegger has always been less interesting to me than his rival, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone also made plenty of movies 30-odd years ago that work better as camp than action spectaculars these days, but in addition, he worked as a legit auteur, writing and directing shitty films that were undeniably personal statements. In the mid-’80s, the politically conservative Stallone re-fought and won the Vietnam War in Rambo: First Blood Part II, then finished off the Cold War in Rocky IV.
It’s tempting to look for a similar political subtext in Predator, where Schwarzenegger sneaks into a Central American country and wreaks havoc like the Reagan administration did in the Iran-Contra affair, which Congress investigated in televised hearings that took place just a few months before the movie was released. But, c’mon, let’s not shit a shitter here. One of the big reasons Predator is so beloved is that there is no subtext; there isn’t even really a text. This has to be one of the most single-minded action flicks of its time, which is saying a lot: Basically, Predator just consists of tough guys you know very little about, shooting at an alien you know very little about, all for around 100 minutes. (Sometimes it’s even less than that, like when the tough guys simply empty rounds into trees for several minutes.)
Pointing and laughing at the period-specific cheesiness of Predator is like shooting a rocket launcher at a jungle vine. But what really stood out for me after [SPOILER ALERT!] watching Schwarzenegger “win” his battle against the alien and getting whisked away from his post-apocalyptic pocket of Guatemala via military helicopter was how mild Predator seems in 2010. By modern standards, it actually moves relatively slowly, and with surprisingly minimal violence. McTiernan films the big setpieces competently, and with little flair; you can actually tell what’s going on most of the time, which has become a rarity in today’s bug-eyed, fast-cutting shoot-’em-ups. But what seemed like a briskly paced seat-clencher at the time lurches forward with a methadone-addled trajectory for today’s Crank-loving speed freaks. Such is the way from generation to generation: No matter what disgusting, sub-mental garbage littered the pop-culture landscape when you were a kid, the next wave of young people will always demand even stronger stomach-shredding gore and fewer seconds between synapse-snapping thrills. I’m confident that the only thing smaller about Nimród Antal’s 2010 sequel, Predators, will be the size of the forearms on the grizzled mercenaries. People just don’t know how to shake hands anymore; hopefully, they’ll eventually catch up to Predator, too.