Why The Predator (1987) succeeded where its sequels failed

It may not be a movie from thirty-five years ago or even twenty-five years years ago but Predator—which hit theaters in 1987—is still awesome, thirty-one years later. So why are we discussing it now? Why not last year when it hit such a significant anniversary? Because next month Fox is dipping back into the Predator well to release a new entry in the franchise. If you’ve not been keeping up, the newest movie, titled…are you ready for this? “The Predator” will be the sixth movie in the thirty-year-old franchise….but it’s been more misses than hits, unfortunately.

Predator 2 (1990) tried to take the “man vs hunter in a jungle” concept and move it to Los Angeles. In theory, it wasn’t a terrible idea (a big city is often called an “urban jungle”) and had potential to expand on the original movie. It featured a lot of ideas that ended up being cut from the original, such as new weapons and skills used by the titular character. It was a disappointing movie, however, lacking the “simple dumb fun” of the first.

Alien vs Predator (2004) is a thing that happened. There was also an Alien vs Predator 2 (2007). Let’s move ahead.

Predators (2010) returns to a jungle setting and likewise features an ensemble cast of highly trained killers. Like Predator 2 it incorporated an idea nixed from the original, in that it featured multiple aliens hunting the heroes. It too failed to reach the heights of the first, but you probably already knew that, since you probably already forgot the movie even existed.

So now we come to the sixth film in the “series” and the fifth attempt to recapture the magic of the first. What’s been so hard about making a good Predator movie? Why have all the previous ones failed to connect with audiences the way the original did? What’s so special about Predator?

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Maybe it’s the fact that it was smart enough to leave out those elements that all the weaker entries in the series kept trying to shove back in. Do we need multiple enemies to create effective tension? No. Do we need a dozen little tricks and tools wielded by the creature, like he’s a Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond? No. Do we need to take things into the realm of “dumb but not dumb-fun” storytelling, heavy on the sci-fi? No.

Predator worked because it was simple, easy to grasp, didn’t get bogged down explaining things and, perhaps most importantly, it was a movie so macho it was almost a parody, without ever falling over that threshold and becoming one.

Of course you can’t discuss the movie without discussing the star. In a lot of ways the movie was just another vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s no different than Running Man or Commando in that respect, except it’s a lot more famous than either of those movies.

So why did this movie become a pop culture hit while something like Running Man remained niche, barely remembered outside of 80’s movie aficionados? If you ask Arnold himself it’s because Predator was more of an ensemble movie that featured a cast of really muscular dudes. That’s his sole reasoning! And, to be fair, it’s not a bad point. Predator feels like a bigger movie than Commando, for example, because Arnold is able to bounce off more characters for much of the runtime. And unlike in many other movies of his from the era, those characters he interacts with are likewise really big dudes…

Predator worked because it was a macho action movie first and a sci-fi movie second, which is where most of the sequels stumbled. If not for the thirty-second teaser at the very beginning of the movie, you could sit down to watch the original film and have no idea this was anything more than a “war movie.” And even after the alien is introduced, the grounded setting and characters remain in tact. For the most part the movie doesn’t even treat the alien like an alien; it treats him like a foreign enemy with tech and abilities that outstrip the commandos (Green Berets? What even are those guys?).

For the first 2/3 of the film there are precious few glimpses of the creature and even less explanation given as to its origin or goal. The audience is given just enough to make the villain work in the context of the movie. The people involved here knew they did not need to go into great detail because that would just bog down the story (a lesson modern Hollywood often forgets).

Speaking of, Predator also worked because it was absolutely perfectly edited and paced. There are three clearly defined acts: (1) Arnold’s team carries out the bogus mission, (2) the team struggles against the alien hunting them, (3) Arnold goes solo to take down the hunter. Throughout those acts, the major beats in the story happen at ten-minute intervals, almost to the minute.

  • After just ten minutes, Arnold’s team is in Central America running their mission.
  • Ten minutes later we’re given our first glimpse of the hunter stalking the team, using its infrared vision.
  • Ten minutes later and the mission is over and exposed as a ploy, leaving everyone looking to get out of town.
  • Ten minutes later and the hunter nabs its first kill.
  • Ten minutes later and we get our first real look at the alien.
  • Ten minutes later Arnold utters his famous “if it bleeds we can kill it” line and sets booby traps around their location.
  • Ten minutes later Mac and Dillon hunt the alien and fail miserably.
  • Ten minutes later Arnie is all that’s left and, covered in mud, discovers a way to fight back.
  • Ten minutes later the hunter becomes the hunted and the tables turn with it shooting blindly into the jungle, unable to find the single soldier who just landed a hit against him.
  • And then, just ten minutes later, the fight ends in a stalemate with the alien choosing to blow itself up rather than continue the hunt. The movie ends less than two minutes later.

It’s the tightest-put together film I’ve seen in that respect since Raiders of the Lost Ark (which likewise was deliberately paced to have an action moment every ten minutes or so).

Finally, Predator worked because it was one of those rare-bird “moment in time” movies that you can’t just recreate because half of its magic wasn’t even the story or the effects or anything that you can just update for a new audience. It was a movie born and bred in the 1980’s, featuring over the top tropes and little touches that were just part of the fabric of that era of movies. To try and recreate those little things would make the movie weirdly retro (in the wrong kind of way).

It’s not a movie that needs to be remade, rebooted or even returned to in sequels. It just needs to be re-experienced in its original glory, as a delightful over-the-top product of its time.

So good luck to “The Predator” next month because it’s trying to break an 0-5 streak. Having just rewatched the original, I’d say it has very little chance of succeeding.

We’ll see.

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