The Demon Who Makes Trophies of Men

illustration by Tony Stella

for John “Dutch” Greer

Predator is widely considered a classic of the action genre, but in fabled Hollywood fashion its path to greatness was anything but paved. It was a grueling bushwhack, one threatened by oversized egos, lean budgets, and a physically-demanding on-location shoot that halted and restarted as studio faith vacillated, but in hindsight this is all part of the movie’s particular genius. The mythology of its production is woven into the final product, making it all the more its singular self.

This myth began, inauspiciously for an action movie, during a period of inaction. With his brother John laid up with a back injury, Jim Thomas suggested they work on a screenplay. The original idea was an extraterrestrial “The Most Dangerous Game”: “What would it be like to be hunted by a dilettante hunter from another planet the way we hunt big game in Africa?” It’s unclear whether this was Jim’s true brainchild or something he’d overheard at the water cooler; after the success of the Rocky franchise (which by the mid-‘80s had seen Rocky outlast Apollo Creed (twice), Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago) the joke among Hollywood executives was that Rocky V wouldn’t sell unless his opponent was a literal alien.

So Predator began as a joke, and a lame one at that, but aren’t all action movies something of a joke? One man—an everyman but also highly trained, with an Olympian physique—must and does stand up to the forces of evil, emphasis on forces, plural. An action movie hero will take down terrorists, terminators, Nazis, assassins, hitmen, Communists, dinosaurs, and anything else that stands in his way, always in great droves. It’s a wild libertarian fantasy, the idea that the individual, if noble of spirit—that is, possessing American virtues or simply American firepower—can oppose powers larger than he is.

This fantasy might still be seductive today were it not so obviously vain, so comically masculine. With the exception of maybe Die Hard, whose muscles shine with elbow grease more than baby oil, movies from the genre’s heyday in the late ‘80s are simply too in love with themselves to have aged gracefully. According to Carl Weathers—who plays Predator’s only real villain, the commando-turned-desk-jockey Colonel George Dillon—the cast (and their body doubles) would wake up as early as 4:00 am so they could get in a pump before shooting began at 8. The results are evident, grossly so. At the beginning of the movie, when Dillon and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer meet again after years apart, they greet one another by clasping hands, and the camera cuts to an unabashed shot of their veiny, bulging biceps, lingering there for one, two, three beats.

This is much of the appeal of the action movie, reveling in violence and its agents—men, muscles, guns, explosions—to indulgent, practically absurd ends. “It’s a genre dedicated unreservedly to carnage as a source of aesthetic delight,” Adam Sternbergh writes in his elegiac but conflicted essay on the unconflicted genre and its slow decline. I’m not going to argue that Predator is any less pornographic than its peers. This is, after all, a movie in which then-pro-wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura walks around carrying an M-134 Minigun, a gun normally mounted to a helicopter. It’s actually a heavily modified version of the gun, nicknamed “Ol’ Painless.” Director John McTiernan had the rate of fire reduced from 6,000 RPM to 1,250, but not to make the weapon appear any less deadly; at higher speeds, the gun’s barrel becomes a blur, and he wanted this rotation to be visible. Predator is no less graphic and indulgent than other action movies, but it’s not unaware of the seductiveness of aestheticized violence and—at a more abstract level—the image, the semblance. The movie achieves “the nifty artistic trick” that Sternbergh values, “of both embodying and critiquing this quintessentially adolescent dream of dominance—providing us with fantasias of cartoon violence that also served as canny dissections of our lust for cartoon violence”

The movie’s biggest and showiest example of this is the action sequence that ends Predator’s first act. After helidropping into the jungle, Dutch and his team quickly locate the guerrilla encampment where a cabinet minister and his aide are being held hostage. There is some tactical maneuvering, a few stealthy kills, but this is just a kind of foreplay for the main event: the swift and systematic elimination of the guerrillas and their encampment in what is a truly a spectacular display of firepower. Jesse Ventura’s Blain mows down guerrillas with Ol’ Painless, the gun’s barrel emitting a distinctive, high-pitched whine that cuts through the din. Poncho razes palapas and bunkers with his custom 37mm grenade launcher, sending men flying and flipping in slow motion into bodies of water—that classic shot. The violence is chaotic but choreographed, beautiful in its efficiency and efficacy. It’s choreographed, but for these men, experienced as they are, this violence has become second nature. They have the presence of mind to crack jokes as they kill—corny, obvious ones. “Stick around,” Dutch ad-libs as he knives an anonymous guerrilla through the chest, sticking him to a wooden post. “Knock, knock,” he announces as he kicks down a door and executes two more guerrillas. For these men, violence isn’t just natural, but fun too. It’s sport.

The scene is undeniably fun, but this fun is ejaculatory, explosive and satisfying and depleting as it is, and a little premature, ending before we’re even a third of the way through the movie. With all the hostiles “waxed” and a hostage taken (the movie’s only woman), we learn there never was a cabinet minister. Dillon cooked up this cover story to trick Dutch into doing the CIA’s dirty work, namely neutralizing a Russian-sponsored Communist coup and collecting whatever intel they were carrying, which turns out to be “a god-damn jackpot.” Dutch is enraged, in part because he’s been used (and by an old friend no less) but mostly because Dillon’s manipulation reveals the convenience of Dutch’s one-sided morals. His pious claim that he and his men “are a rescue team, not assassins,” follows the same logic an action movie uses to justify its violence, no matter how extravagant that violence may be: the ends justify the means, we are the good guys, etc. Predator shows how tidy and self-serving these excuses are and, in doing, alters the moral terms of the action. Without good guys, violence isn’t sport. It’s horror, one made all the more horrifying by the oblivious glee with which Dutch and his team engage in it.

So while it flexes like an action movie, Predator is really a horror movie, one that follows a classic format: the hunter becomes the hunted. The hunter is the titular Predator, an invisible force initially rationalized to be a jungle beast or the jungle itself, but eventually revealed (thanks to malfunctioning camouflage) to be an armored, 7-foot, Rastafarian alien who kills these men not for survival but for sport. He picks them off one by one so he can collect their skulls as trophies, removing them by ripping the entire spinal column from its skeleton. Anna, the hostage, says the locals call it El cazador trofeo de los hombres. The Demon Who Makes Trophies of Men.

Reduced to a paragraph, it’s a premise as silly as it is grotesque, but in the course of the movie’s events and with the source of such gruesome violence obscured or hidden from view entirely, the effect is terrifying, both for the men and the audience. The first to die, Hawkins (Shane Black), is whisked off screen in a blur and dragged into the brush. He is discovered there, nothing more than a pile of viscera, a sight so repulsive that Poncho—played by real life Vietnam vet, Richard Chaves—has to stifle a gag. “Where the hell is his body?” Dutch asks. These men, having shot first, are being made to ask questions they’d rather ignore entirely, ones with ugly, ironic answers. No longer the apex predator, these commandos are made to experience what they just made the guerrillas experience: ruthless annihilation at the hands of an unseen but superior alien force. It’s the exact opposite of what an action movie promises; instead of the aesthetic frisson of violence without having to worry about very real, very miserable consequences, Predator is all consequences with eerily little action.

This is why the movie makes such a point of demonstrating how the tools these men trust and worship—their bodies, their weaponry, their training—can be so quickly and easily neutered. When Blain dies, shot through the chest, the team returns fire blindly, ripping through ferns and felling saplings. It’s a display even more incendiary and brief than the raid on the guerrilla camp, a line of men emptying magazine after magazine into the jungle, but the only thing they wax is a half-acre of greenery. Shaken but not deterred, the men revert to more primitive and patient weaponry. They set tripwires, punjis, and other traps, but the Predator sneaks past these without the men noticing and without a trace—that is, except for another startling absence: Blain’s body is gone. The Predator is so advanced, the men can’t trust their most innate technology, their senses. Even Billy (Sonny Landham), the Native American tracker who relies on a sixth sense connected to a pouched amulet he wears as a necklace, is only able to sense the Predator, not actually see it, much less stop it.

Billy’s death is especially memorable and disturbing. The strong and silent type, he stays behind on a bridge created by a felled tree, so the hero Dutch, the captive Anna, and the injured Poncho can get to the infamous chopper. He removes his vest, plucks his amulet from his neck, and drops his gun over the side of the bridge. Wielding only a machete, he prepares to face the Predator by cutting a diagonal slash across his chest, as if his enemy too relies on a more olfactory sense to stalk its mark. The last we see of Billy—alive, that is—is from behind, through the Predator’s infrared vision as it sneaks up on him. But when the camera cuts to the remaining survivors, we hear him, not shouting but screaming—louder, higher-pitched, and more panicked than any of the other victims. The most stolid of the men, the most manly in a sense, is made into his opposite.

Each death follows a similar trajectory, a kind of poetic injustice. Dutch’s crew is a motley one, a patchwork of archetypes from American military history, its members differentiated but ultimately undone by their ticks and trademarks. Blain is the cowboy to Billy’s Indian. Headstrong as he is strong-strong, Blain chews Red Man and carries a gun that’s bigger than he is, but the Predator executes him from behind, denying the shootout his archetype so badly wants. Dillon’s death is even more comically literal. He is the second-in-command, the right-hand man, so he has his right arm shot off—and, like the dependable tool he is, the arm keeps firing off rounds into the jungle’s understory. Hawkins, then Blain, Mac, Dillon, Billy, and Poncho; these men’s deaths are like their names: familiar, but too much so. They stand out and alone; monolithic and exposed. Action movie clichés, they are being punished for the superficiality and self-assurance that a cliché affords.

Of all of the soldiers, only Dutch survives. The team’s leader, the hero of this journey, he is bigger, stronger, and more level-headed than the others and so he should theoretically die in the most dramatic, irrational fashion. But instead he lives, emerging from the movie’s final explosion as heroic as ever. As the dust clears, a trumpet comes in with a somber but noble major key melody, and we see Arnold, covered in ash and mud, but standing strong and staged with his arms akimbo, giving the audience one last flex. This being not a minute after the Predator has thoroughly and unequivocally kicked our hero’s ass. It’s a startling exception to the movie’s horror logic, a complete tonal shift back to action. Anna, the proverbial final girl, has made it to safety thanks to Dutch’s sacrifice, setting him up to play the martyr. But instead he survives and is stronger for it.

It’s an exception, but it’s not a mistake. Dutch, though bigger and stronger than the other soldiers, is no match for the Predator physically or technologically. He’s no longer the elite commando but an underdog, relying on his wits and more than a little bit of luck. The playing field levels when Dutch slips and falls into a waterfall, after which he can barely drag himself to shore. The mud on the riverbank coats his body, making him mostly invisible in the Predator’s heat-based vision. He escapes, but after a nocturnal cat-and-mouse exchange, Dutch falls again into a body of water, washing away his competitive advantage. The Predator, adhering to its own code, drops its weapons and removes its armor, inviting Dutch to fight mano y mano. Dutch loses, but gets lucky again: the Predator walks beneath one of the team’s traps and is crushed by a falling tree trunk. Even then, Dutch doesn’t really kill the Predator. True to its code, it throws a final haymaker, setting off a self-destruct sequence that Dutch barely escapes.

Though Dutch is cast and introduced as an Übermensch, in surviving the Predator he reveals himself to be a callback to an older, more entrenched archetype: the American exception. The hero who is also an everyman. Allergic to losing, but his wins are narrow, scraped by with ingenuity, opportunism, and determination. Determination that is oddly pre-determined, almost divine, which is why the terms of Dutch’s victory verge on deus ex machina. It feels right because the shot and soundtrack say he earned it, but when you think about it he really just exploited favorable circumstances. It’s the story of Arnold himself, a perfectly middle-class, conservative Austrian who has been recast as an immigrant who willed and wriggled his way into America and then Hollywood, where he would play an American hero named “Dutch” of all things. Still standing after the blast, proud as ever, Dutch is a revisionist history, the horrors of war replaced by an action hero.

What does that make the Predator then? At first mystical and unbeatable, it turns out to be another showy, hypertrophied force, technocratic and linear; an invasive species relying on a moral code to justify a selfish pursuit that leaves innocent victims. At the time, the Predator would’ve been Communism, in need of Democratic interventions like Iran-Contra, the operation that so clearly inspired the movie. But in hindsight, the Predator more closely resembles America. Not the America of World War II but of Vietnam: a superior, alien force, who, against all logic, loses to the outmatched, native one. So what happens when the imperial America of today faces off against its more honorable past? Predator—the clever but ultimately romantic movie that it is—lets this monster throw the fight as punishment for its crimes, but also penance, granting it the self-delusion required to continue perpetuating them. The movie’s deliberate inversions end up being the doublethink required to live with America’s oppressive reality and the individual’s inability to oppose it. It’s an inexorable, circular logic that can be felt in the Predator’s last words, a mocking echo of Dutch’s own final line: “What the hell are you?”

The movie ends the way it begins, a lone aircraft flying low over a foreign landscape, escorted by Alan Silvestri’s menacing score. The tone is fatalistic. The next movie McTiernan directs, Die Hard, will be the number one movie in America. Arnold will continue his exceptional journey all the way to a major position in government (Jesse Ventura, too). Predator will evolve into a franchise, begetting sequels and a crossover with the Alien franchise, not to mention video games, apparel, and an Official Fan App. Action movies will also mutate and permute, giving us the feel-good disaster flicks of the late ‘90s and the interminable, saturated Sturm und Drang of today’s superhero movies.

Up next is The Predator, a reboot-slash-sequel written and directed by Shane Black, who played Hawkins in the original. In it, Jake Busey will play the son of Gary Busey’s character from Predator 2. He will be part of “a great ensemble of really amazing, funny comedic actors,” promises co-star Olivia Munn in an interview promoting The Lego Ninjago Movie. “It’s really cool because it’s a standalone, so we have the inspiration—we’re in the world of Predator so we have all the other movies that exist, but we don’t need to acknowledge them…We’re not erasing [the other Predator movies] and we kind of kick it up another level.” Munn, with earnest admiration, goes on to observe something “bananas…creepy…so visceral…really a trip…really intense, it’s jarring actually” that the Predator—in the original played by former pro-basketball player Kevin Peter Hall; now animatronic, a drone—“is not animated in CG; it’s just right there.”

The joke is still being told, but the only one laughing is the Predator. An empty, sinister laugh to accompany the self-destruct sequence.