The Predator Raises the Question: Why Does the Predator Franchise Exist?

Shane Black's lackluster entry doesn't understand the appeal of John McTiernan's action classic.


20th Century Fox

When John McTiernan's Predator hit theaters in the summer of 1987, it was greeted with mixed to negative reviews. The movie starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as the leader of a special forces unit that ends up in a bloody jungle showdown with a memorably ugly alien sport-hunter; many critics viewed it as yet another bloody, bullet-ridden showcase for Schwarzenegger and his biceps, and not much else. It was, they said, little more than a plodding, thinly-plotted, predictably macho action movie, like so many others from the era. Even those who enjoyed it regarded it as unexceptional: In a three-star review, Roger Ebert wrote that "it supplies what it claims to supply: an effective action movie." Predator was, at best, a competent but forgettable B-picture, nothing more.

Yet Predator wasn't forgotten. Over the last 30-odd years, it has come to be regarded a classic of '80s action cinema—not just another big-guns-and-bigger-biceps blow-'em-up, but a canonical example of the genre that makes particularly effective use of its hulking star in his buffed-out prime.

Since then, the Predator has become a recurring character in Hollywood's pantheon of modern movie monsters, spawning an immediate sequel (set in Los Angeles, without Schwarzenegger), two shabby crossovers with the Alien franchise, and, more recently, two late-breaking sequel/reboots—including The Predator, which opens this week.

These follow-ups have varied wildly in tone and quality, with new casts and characters for each outing, little in the way of narrative continuity, and a pervasive sense of confusion about what, exactly, the series is really about. The only connecting tissue between the films is the presence of the titular alien itself.

Somehow, the Predator films have stumbled their way into franchise territory without any of the traditional markers of long-running franchise success. Plenty of people love the original Predator, but you'd be hard pressed to find truly devoted fans of the Predator franchise. The series, such that it is, survives almost entirely on the strength and popularity of the original film.

The Predator does nothing to alter this dynamic. Directed and co-written by Shane Black, who played a supporting role in the original (and also wrote the script to another '80s action classic, Lethal Weapon), it aspires to a crude '80s-action nostalgia but misunderstands what made the original great. Indeed, The Predator does such a shoddy job of all the things Predator did so well that it raises an existential question: Why is there a Predator franchise at all?

Based on the evidence supplied by the movies, the answer seems to be something like: because the creature—sorry, the franchise IP—is widely recognized; because Hollywood loves sequels; because producers and writers keep coming up with ideas for Predator films that seem, on balance, like better ways to blow $50 or $100 million than anything else anyone can think of; and because the creature itself looks deeply, terrifyingly, nightmarishly cool.

There's something to the last point. The masked and dreadlocked "rastafarian warrior," as designer Stan Winston once described it, is an iconic screen presence designed by one of Hollywood's top creature makers at his pre-digital peak. The quad-mandibles that make up its mouth were suggested by James Cameron, fresh off the success of Aliens, making the design a product of some of the era's top genre minds.

But even an alien design as iconic as this one isn't enough to carry a franchise for 30-some years, and the Predator films have otherwise been too inconsistent to really benefit from clear audience expectations. Sequels are dependably profitable because viewers have a rough sense of what they're going to get. With a Predator film, aside from the monster, no one really knows.

Mostly, then, the franchise seems to exist because of the enduring love for the original Predator, the sense that it actually delivered what action movies of the era promised but rarely achieved. Yet even that film, I think, is at least somewhat misunderstood.

Predator works mostly because McTiernan makes it work; it's almost entirely a product of his direction. The barebones script is less of a story and more of a concept. (On paper, it really is just an blend of B-movie action and pulpy sci-fi/horror.) But McTiernan's clever, economical direction elevates it at every turn. He's not flashy, but each sequence is shot and edited to deliver the maximum amount of information—what the characters know, what they don't, what's happening, and, most importantly, what could happen. You're always prepared for the possibilities. In contrast to the hectic, disorienting shootouts that punctuate action movies today, his action set pieces offer remarkable geographical clarity. Those sequences, meanwhile, are constructed as payoffs to periods of sustained and escalating tension. Predator is an action-horror hybrid, but McTiernan shoots and paces it like a high-wire suspense thriller.

So yes, Predator is a superior example of '80s action schlock—but it's also more than that: It's a sly subversion of the very genre it works in. Predator doesn't just recycle the macho tropes of the era—bulging biceps, oversized weaponry, crude male camaraderie. It highlights, amplifies, and exaggerates those elements. The snappy dialogue ("stick around" after pinning a baddie to a wall with a knife) is arch and knowing, the cadre of tough-guy characters inflated into cartoon archetypes. Just a few minutes in, Predator delivers what may be the best bro-handshake in history, when Schwarzenegger locks arms with Carl Weathers and the two proceed to flex their comically oversized physiques in an impromptu test of arm-wrestling strength.

This moment offers a sense of the movie's tonal complexity, its willingness to be both conventionally and unironically awesome and also self-consciously absurd. As with so much of McTiernan's direction, it's economical: In just a few vein-popping seconds, it establishes the competition between the two men, and Schwarzenegger's dominance, and suggests that the entire movie will take the form of a contest of brute physical power. It does all of this with a kind of self-aware wink, an implicit promise to the audience: Oh, you want a movie about big guys with big arms and big guns? This is that movie. This is more that movie than you've ever seen before. It takes its era's action-movie tropes and goes for hyperbolic broke.

In the end, though, it's not exactly a celebration of the macho ethos. The team of tough guys all lose out to the Predator; bluster and testosterone couldn't save them. In the third act, it's not just raw machismo that allows Schwarzenegger to survive, or overpowered weaponry; it's desperate, stripped-down human ingenuity. The biggest badass—the only soldier who survives—is the one who outsmarts the enemy.

McTiernan's interest in genre subversion would become clearer as his career proceeded. He followed Predator with Die Hard, a successful, critically acclaimed action thriller that placed a shoeless everyman at its center, subverting many of the same tropes that Predator seemed to work from. A few years after that, he directed Last Action Hero, a deconstructed action movie, verging on parody, that reteamed him with Schwarzenegger, from a script by co-written by Shane Black. The movie was widely panned and, I believe, widely misunderstood; in many ways, McTiernan was merely attempting to make explicit the subcurrent of genre satire implicit in his work all along.

In The Predator, Shane Black steps into the director's chair for the first time in the series' history, but the tonal complexity of the original is nowhere to be found. Black doesn't appear to have a clue what he's doing, or even what he's trying to do. It's a movie that doesn't know what it wants to be.

The Predator is visually muddy to the point of incompetence; the action scenes are haphazardly constructed and spatially incoherent. Black's edgy banter is occasionally amusing, but more often feels like it's trying too hard. Black expands the series lore—now there are Predator dogs, and an even larger class of Predator that hunts other Predators, and somehow global warming is involved—in a way that adds needless complexity to a concept that worked because of its simplicity.

Black, in other words, has made a Predator movie that lacks any of the wit or appeal of the original Predator and demonstrates no understanding of why that film was so successful. His ending, a cringe-inducing setup for sequels premised on giving humans access to Predator weapons technology, makes the entire film feel like a desperate attempt to answer that nagging question of why the franchise exists. But he has no good answer. If anything, The Predator confirms there isn't one.

NEXT: Send the Straight-Ticket Ballot Option Straight to the Trash

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  1. Blain: Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here. This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.
    Poncho: [holds up his grenade launcher] Yeah, strap this on your “sore ass”, Blain.

    Mac: You’re ghostin’ us, motherfucker. I don’t care who you are back in the world, you give away our position one more time, I’ll bleed ya, real quiet. Leave ya here. Got that?

    1. Meh. Predator is just James T Kirk vs the Gorn on a bigger budget.

      Only kidding but I’d rather see Predator vs the Gorn than another fucking Aliens cross-over.

  2. I suspect the popularity of Predator has a lot to do with crossovers with the Aliens franchise in various other media, such as comics and video games.

    1. It’s down to the Alien skull glimpsed in the climax of Predator 2. In the years before Aliens vs Predator finally came out fans built a brilliant Aliens vs Predator franchise in their heads that actual films can’t possibly live up to. We keep going just in case this time they finally get it right.

  3. Name me one other movie that produced two governors? YOU CAN’T. And I’m still crossing my fingers on Carl Weathers getting elected.

    Predator was great. It was two movies in one. The guerilla war movie and the science fiction movie. Everything since has been crap, as have all the Alien movies since Aliens. But if the Predator franchise bleeds ticket sales, the viewing public can finally kill it.

    1. Carl Weathers: Whoa, whoa, whoa. There’s still plenty of meat on that bone. Now you take this home, throw it in a pot, add some broth, a potato. Baby, you’ve got a stew going.

    2. The Running Man

        1. Bedtime for Bonzo.

          (I may be playing this wrong.)

          1. It depends what you’ve got for a hole card… Well?

        2. Who was in Batman & Robin? I took the easy way out and cited the other Arnold/Jesse movie. The Body isn’t in B&R is he??

    3. Yes. Also, the franchise ain’t got time to bleed.

    4. “But if the Predator franchise bleeds ticket sales, the viewing public can finally kill it.”

      Yes. Also, the franchise ain’t got time to bleed.

      1. Thanks. I was beginning to worry that a Predator discussion was to be had without quoting this line.

      2. If it bleeds we can kill it.

  4. “The masked and dreadlocked “rastafarian warrior,”

    Dem a fi get a beating.

    1. so your saying the Predator movies are a racist metafore and should be burned

      1. No, just quoting Peter Tosh.

  5. What did you do to Kurt Loder? I give this review a D-.

    1. I nominate this for best Predator review ever. He gets it.

  6. Those who review movies for a living are god damned effete elitists. It’s like it has to fucking mean something on a literary level else they just can’t abide it. Like those who say they only listen to NPR but you get in their car and the radio is tuned to country. No, country would at least be respectable. More like 90s pop with an overlay of Michael Jackson hits. And Whitney Houston.

  7. This series is really just riding on fumes from the incredible Archie Vs. Predator a few years back.

    1. Missed that. How does it compare to Archie Meets the Punisher?

      1. Not as good as Archie Meets the Punisher but better than Archie meets Glee and comperable to Archie meets Sharknado.

        1. Fuck you, it was way better than Archie versus Sharknado. I didn’t read the Glee one, but I suspect it’s better than that too.

          I think it’s similar quality to meets the Punisher

  8. “Black expands the series lore?now there are Predator dogs, and an even larger class of Predator that hunts other Predators”

    There were larger Predators in the previous movie already. It was a big part of the plot, but you’d probably have to actually watch the movie to know that.

    1. Predator dogs are also in previous media.

      1. That’s right! Should have mentioned that they were in Predators as well.

  9. Keep it simple.
    Like the first Taken movie: man, mission, man goes through process of accomplishing mission.
    Direct and to the point, not muddled up with ancillary virtue signaling.

  10. Predatiro, Zombies, Godzilla, Vampires etc…. If you don’t understand the premise then you shouldn’t be judging movies and have even less understanding of humanity and the eternal struggle to survive.

    BTW Predator movies are awesome

  11. I have never been more pleasantly surprised by a flick than I was by Alien v Predator. It was pretty good by modern popcorn standards, I was expecting the worst movie ever made

    1. It has a believable story, Aliens, Predators, and didnt virtue signal much.

    2. I thought AvP was shite – its sequel was decent though.

  12. Predator was, at best, a competent but forgettable B-picture, nothing more.

    Get this – Ebert was wrong from time to time.

    Predator is an awesome movie that still stands up against anything today. Predator 2 is . . . less good – but still a worthy attempt at a sequel.

    Now, what the fuck they thought they were doing with Predators and fat Lawrence Fishburne, I don’t know. And no, I don’t hold much hope the new one will be any good.

    1. But even an alien design as iconic as this one isn’t enough to carry a franchise for 30-some years,

      Go tell that to Ridley Scott. He really needs to know why his Alien movies keep coming out as shit.

    2. Predator is an awesome movie that still stands up against anything today. Predator 2 is . . . less good – but still a worthy attempt at a sequel.

      I’d put the Predator/Predator 2 combination up there with Robocop/Robocop 2. Certainly not above them, but up there with them.

  13. As long as they continue to make a profit you are going to keep seeing more of the same. I don’t blame them. It seems like easy money.

  14. Suderman!!!!! Youuuu son of a bitch!

  15. What’s-a-matter, Suderman? The Jacket got you pushing too many pencils?

  16. I’m afraid we all have our orders, Suderman. Once you reach your objective, Sihka will evaluate the situation and take charge.

  17. Robby: Hold it OBL, I’m going after Matt Welch!
    OBL: That’s not your style, Robby.
    Robby: I guess I picked up some bad habits from you, now get your people the hell out of here!
    OBL: You can’t win this Robby.
    Robby: Maybe I can get even…
    OBL: … Robby! [Throws him a a copy of the U.S. Constitution]
    Robby:… Just hold on to that damn ‘chopper.

  18. It’s really too bad there was no German-language translation of Atlas Shrugged back in the sixties. Ahnilt only bought the book because it looked to be about weightlifting and legalizing steroids. If only he’d understood the text… he might’ve made a good president!

  19. This sure is a loooooong article to basically sum up with ,”Predator, meh.” Must be a number of words assignment or something.

  20. Get to da choppa!

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