Although “Predator” (1987) itself wasn’t part of the wider “Alien/Predator” franchise when it came out — the linkage would start with 1990’s “Predator 2” — it has a lot in common with the “Alien” films and no doubt appealed to fans who flocked to “Aliens” the previous year.
Films that follow this structure — a small group of people enter a distinct environment; a mysterious monster starts picking them off; and a lone survivor has a final-act, almost dialogue-free showdown — are often labeled “Alien” rip-offs, but “Predator” immediately transcended that label. It also is considered an elite film among Arnold Schwarzenegger’s oeuvre, and one of the definitive 1980s blood-bullets-and-brawn actioners along with “First Blood,” “The Terminator” and “Die Hard.”
Despite the country never being named in the film (novelization author Paul Monette calls it Conta Mana), the modern jungle setting is evocative, and distinct from the futuristic settings of the “Alien” films. Movies like “Return of the Jedi,” “First Blood” and “Predator” are the reason why kids of the 1980s and ’90s loved to stage imaginary movies in wooded settings. There’s also a “First Blood”-lite anti-war connection when Schwarzenegger’s Major Dutch Schaefer says his team does rescue missions, not ambushes, and yet they seem to be darn good at blowing the crap out of enemy compounds (a commentary on how soldiers can indeed be molded against their natural instincts).
The campy Ahnold-ization of the film is key to its enduring popularity. The group’s leader delivers classics like “Stick around!” and “You are one ugly m—-f—–” (check out a few other gems here), and other characters also go over-the-top (Jesse Ventura’s Blain is a chaw-chewing “goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus” and Carl Weathers’ Dillon passionately believes they’re dealing with “two or three men at the most,” not a “f—–‘ lizard”). Meanwhile, the destruction of the rebel camp and the unloading of ammo at the fleeing Predator — a barrage that seems to pulverize half of the tropics — are among the scenes that inspired “Hot Shots! Part Deux’s’ “ attempt to become the “bloodiest movie ever.” And the bombastic music intruding on scenes that could do without it is part of the charm, whereas it would be annoying in a lesser film.
“Predator” isn’t a meticulously crafted gem like “Alien,” yet its grittiness and 1980s-ness — under the direction of John McTiernan, who would helm “Die Hard” a year later — make it relentlessly entertaining.
Plus, it has a deeper, franchise-inspiring side to it: Central to this is Stan Winston’s creature design. While the novelization describes a shape-shifter, the film is more pragmatic yet just as effective. Despite the infusion of mysticism from Billy’s (Sonny Landham) connection with the creature, the Predator makes logical sense. It sees via heat and movement (something that gives Dutch a fighting chance); it practices mimicry; it’s loaded with technology, including an invisibility suit, a shoulder-mounted laser gun, and a wrist-mounted self-destruct; and it just plain looks cool (when it’s all suited up) and scary (when it removes its mask).
“Predator” lacks the wider mythology of “Alien” — the concept of a young Predator being dropped off to hunt on Earth every 10 years since pre-history isn’t established here — although there’s a definite sense that Dutch and rebel survivor Anna (Elpedia Carrillo) will pop up in a sequel (only the latter does). The fact that the “Predator” films don’t follow Dutch the way the “Alien” films follow Ripley is part of why they play second fiddle in the wider “Alien/Predator” universe; we don’t get the emotional through-line from movie to movie.
Still, if you boil it down to raw entertainment value, “Predator” earns its place as a classic and makes its title creature worthy of standing toe-to-toe with the xenomorphs in the comics, games and movies that followed.