Nostalgia has turned out to be a curse on the sci-fi and action films of the '80s. It's not hard to look back fondly on your favorite childhood movies when all you remember of them are some hazy scenes and quotable lines stored permanently in your brain. Falling into the trap of thinking a vintage blockbuster was actually much better than it was is a pretty common occurrence, especially when you're working with big iconic franchises like Predator. And certainly, no one will blame you for it.
But as The Predator's September 14 release date looms closer, it's time to start looking back in earnest and asking the tough questions. Does the original Predator actually hold up? Or is it really not as good as we remember?
The good news is, upon extensive rewatching and revisiting, we're happy to report that, yes, the original Predator does rule as hard as you remember--but maybe not in quite the way you've been picturing, especially if you haven't seen it in a while. Chances are this is not the movie you recall from your childhood, but that's OK. It's a movie that has no shortage of charms, even if they're sometimes unintentional and only obvious a few decades, and plenty of evolutions in the Predator franchise, later.
Over the last year or so, one of Predator's most over-the-top scenes has become a meme that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the movie: Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) spots his old war buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers), bounds up to him proclaiming "Dillon, you son of a bitch," and they clasp hands. But it's not a handshake. They keep their fists locked against each other, launching into a sort informal arm wrestling match as the camera focuses lovingly on their bulging, disembodied biceps. It's a lot to take in, especially for an interaction that happens about five minutes after the opening credits, but that's Predator in a nutshell: lingering shots of sweat-slicked muscles belonging to a bunch of cartoonishly macho men being as manly as they can. It's high camp masquerading as a sci-fi thriller.
Of course, in 1987, Predator was anything but campy. This was the height of that particular offshoot of action film, the subgenre that revolved around bodybuilders like Schwarzenegger overcoming whatever adversity lay before them with nothing but their well oiled bodies and a little good old fashioned grit. It was all very earnest in the same way Predator contemporaries like Lethal Weapon and Terminator were, partly because of the watershed advancements in visual and special effects in film making of the time and partly because of the geopolitical landscape of the era.
The '80s were a time where we were far enough away from the horrors of Vietnam that we could start comfortably romanticizing it in fiction while simultaneously criticizing it. Dutch and his buddies are all veterans, but ones that somehow came away from the war a whole lot cooler, quantifiably more badass, and not even remotely traumatized, except for a pervasive hard boiled cynicism that seeps into their every decision.
Sure, maybe they came away from their experiences as extremely awesome, super jacked action heroes, but that doesn't mean they believe their cause was just. Take Dillon's transition from the special forces to the CIA, which robbed him of his loyalty and his moral compass. He sent Dutch and his men into the jungle to die, camaraderie be damned. There may be honor among brothers-in-arms, but it suspiciously dries up when the shadowy decision makers, the brass and the spooks, start tugging the strings.
It's all pretty nuanced, really, considering how much Predator presents itself as nothing but a macho action spectacle. It does exactly as much as it needs to to drive the contradictory points home. Sure, war is definitely hell, but it's also super, super badass (especially when Arnold Schwarzenegger is there to fight an alien killing machine).
Said alien is also a major part of the movie's lasting charm. While some of the special effects have lost some their shine, the Predator itself still holds up. This is partly because of how infrequently we actually get to see it--the bulk of its screen time is spent through POV shots in its infrared vision or with it obscured by its active camo. Even so, the actual physicality of the monster is so impressive that it's no wonder it went on to become one of sci-fi's most iconic designs. Everything from the sound design--the garbled recordings of human speech played back--to the weaponry wrapping its body is pitch perfect and totally holds up, even with a modern eye.
Whether your memories of Predator hold up under close inspection or you're coming to the franchise for the first time to prep for the latest installment, there are plenty of reasons to stick around. So queue up Long Tall Sally and get ready to revel in the mayhem, dig deeper into the history and appreciate some truly innovative practical effects, because even 30 years later, the movie that started it all has still got it.