Summer of Schwarzenegger - "Predator" (1987)
What happens when you combine a hammy action movie with smart, scary sci-fi? In truth, usually absolute trash. The two things just don't work together, and it makes sense. Taking something that's intelligent and tense, and then marrying it to something dumb and lighthearted... well, that just seems like an outrageously incongruous mixture, doesn't it? Throw in an 80's-era Arnold and Carl Weathers, and it seems like something that, for all intents and purposes, is a piece of greasy muscle-man fluff paired with a shitty slasher movie.
But in a bizarre turn of events, it ends up being much better than that. Actually, it's probably one of Arnold's best movies, and one that shows his versatility as a performer. Not to mention the fact that it's one of the best sci-fi action flicks out there.
Why does Predator work so well? Like I said, it shouldn't. I mean, it's about a dreadheaded alien with thermal vision hunting down Arnold in the jungle with lasers and retractable blades. It's pretty much one of the dumbest concepts out there, if you think about it long enough, and I'm pretty surprised that some suit at a studio said, "hey, this sounds like a promising idea, why don't we throw some cash at it?" On paper, it sounds like an alien rasta wannabe decides to ape Jason Vorhees' schtick with a better arsenal and cooler tricks up his sleeve. In execution? It plays out way differently.
See, there are a few things that prevent this movie from being complete slasher trash, the first of which is how it's executed. There were so many movies back in the 80's about gruff men with bulging biceps and cocky attitudes running around and blowing shit up. No kidding, there must have been a warehouse of enslaved writers who were given an actor's name as a prompt and told to make something with loud explosions and tons of violence. These were heroes that always won, always had something funny to say, always had some person who wasn't a white American dude to kill. But here? We see this whole formula undone. A group of these action archetypes go to kill a bunch of natives, then slowly become the prey of the most deadliest hunter in the universe. This thing's called the Predator, so really, you know you're kind of fucked if you have to outwit it. And so, we see these stereotypes take on the same kind of victimhood usually reserved for topless blond women and meatheaded jocks in horror films. Pretty subversive, I'd say. And Arnold does a good job, I think, in this type of role, showing a commitment to it which highlights how flexible he can be if he really tries.
Aside from taking the epitome of 80's masculinity and victimizing him to the extreme, Predator succeeds where so many sci-fi movies fail in its presentation and set-up. There's no long-winded exposition about where the Predator comes from, why it's doing this, how its weapons work, how it uses the bathroom, what its alien junk looks like, blah, blah, blah. We see a spaceship, we see a drop to Earth, and then we see it skinning people alive and blasting their heads apart with shoulder-mounted lasers. It's good sci-fi horror, because there's a strange new creature with futuristic technology used in totally plausible, interesting ways, yet it's never explained away with made-up science. There's a certain mystery behind the creature, and that's a mystery that we're sharing with Arnold's character. If we knew more about the Predator, it wouldn't be as fun or scary. We just know it's a threat, a force to be reckoned with. Ah, yes, and that it bleeds. Which is important, because if it bleeds, they can kill it.
So yeah, this is a movie that is a success on multiple levels. It takes what could have been a formulaic action movie and turns it into something more compelling, something that touches on a lot of big things, like PTSD, the act of genocide, what it means to hold a gun in your hands, how humans behave when pushed to their limits. Sure, it has problems, like the paper-thin female character, and some incongruous tonal shifts at times. But still, it's a great film. There's not many things like it out there, and frankly, it's one of the first movies where we saw an Arnold that could do more than grunt, smile, and say something adorable and funny. Instead, he plays a role that is a stand-in for humanity. It's a return to a primal survivalist mentality, where any human being can imagine themselves in his position and being forced to rely on their wits alone. In this film, Arnold's role looks us in the face and asks us what we would do to survive against all odds.
And I think that's pretty fucking high praise.