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.