'Predator' is one creature-feature that revels in its own animated excess, a major studio production of graphic exuberance. A combination of The Most Dangerous Game meets Lord of the Flies, the John McTiernan-directed blockbuster infuses a tongue-in-cheek attitude into a cheap-thrills plot, where audiences are expected to actually believe the unstoppable, muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger could ever be in mortal danger. As it turns out, only a seven-foot, big-game hunter from outer space can provide such a menacing threat to the rippling stature of the Austrian megastar of the decade. The following year, McTiernan would go on to change the face of the action movie with 'Die Hard' — average Joe turns action hero. But here, the director delivers with a boisterous combination of formulaic style and 1980s ultra machismo.
At first a seemingly brainless summer action flick, 'Predator' is a surprisingly well-structured movie which seamlessly and cleverly melds genre conventions. Even the promotional campaign took part in convincing moviegoers this was a straightforward guns and explosions type of feature while at the same time keeping the alien's appearance to a minimum. The sci-fi aspect was not a secret, but no one really anticipated the sudden shift in formula, treading carefully between horror and slasher elements. It was like nothing that had really been seen before. To have a movie unexpectedly change into a thrilling cat and mouse game of human versus extraterrestrial was a bit of a shock to say the least. And somehow, the experience isn't jarring or irritating at all, but exciting and novel.
As the movie moves along, McTiernan shows great control of the camera by maintaining focus on his main attraction, namely Schwarzenegger. And later, when the elite commando team raids a rebel encampment, the filmmakers have us fully convinced that things will continue in this direction. Essentially, the entire first act is nothing more than a setup, a crafty swindle of sorts to draw viewers in with expectations of a typical Schwarzenegger actioner. It's much like what Dillon (Carl Weathers) does to Dutch in the story. It's no coincidence the film follows a small fighting force into the jungles of Central America with what at the time was standard action violence. The moment it's over, the deception — both on Dutch as in the audience — commences, with tension that never lets up and a gory spectacle from an unseen assailant that stalks and kills his victims, one at a time.
Even as 'Predator' abruptly changes gears into a suspenseful thrill ride, McTiernan keeps our attention on the soldiers while keeping the alien at bay. Sure, we're allowed some minor glimpses of the creature, but it's always from a distance so as to save the best for last. Unlike the horror/slasher flicks which occupied many of the screens at the time, these men are not simply fodder for the massacre. They're a group of guys we end up liking, combatants with highly-specialized skills of defense. And unlike standard action fare, we are made to believe these fearless warriors are in serious peril, that they are victims rather than the heroes. Again in the encampment scene, they demonstrate their competence and know-how during a dangerous confrontation. So when the creature finally goes on the hunt, their expertise is put to the test while the alien is practically seen as more effective and proficient, which only adds to the overall suspense.
Born of a joke that Rocky's next title match should be with E.T., 'Predator' is ultimately a spectacle of violent, self-indulgent action with a surplus of manliness that humorously borders on homoeroticism. From the very start, we see that the movie will be a gathering of enormous, throbbing muscles — Dutch and Dillon arm wrestle as part of their introduction — including that of the alien played by Kevin Peter Hall ('Harry and the Hendersons'), who thankfully replaced Jean Claude Van Damme for his more physically dominating presence. Normally, Schwarzenegger is the sole brawn giant on screen, but here, he's joined by a cast of gung-ho behemoths with sizeable, intimidating weapons. Jesse 'The Body' Ventura chews tobacco and loves his Gatling gun (nicknamed "Old Painless"), Bill Duke shaves his face without the luxury of saving cream, and Sonny Landham is just one scary-looking dude.
The only characters without their own gravitational orbits are a female prisoner (Elpidia Carrillo), who's obviously exempt from the blatant display of virility, and two average guys, Poncho (Richard Chaves) and Hawkins (Shane Black). Other than proving to be efficient soldiers, the two men seem to be compensating for their lack of muscles. While one carries a grenade launcher to make really big explosions, the other comes equipped with really bad, vulgar and lewd sex jokes. Now, I'm not pointing this out to form a disapproving judgment of 'Predator.' Rather, I like to think of it as part of the film's overall effect, where all the heavy firepower and strong presence of machismo clearly does nothing in combating a superior alien being. This forces the main protagonist to find his inner hunter-gatherer, to use his primeval instincts as a means to fight back.
In the end, 'Predator' is one sci-fi/action extravaganza with a shrewdly understated sense of irony, using genre conventions effectively for a fun time at the movies. No matter how we look at this now classic, the creature-feature was a novel twist to the summer blockbuster, igniting a popular franchise. Today, it remains just as entertaining as ever with one of Stan Winston's most memorable creations.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment unleashes 'Predator' on a single BD50 Region A locked disc, which is housed in a standard blue keepcase. At startup, viewers can skip over a preview for the latest installment to the franchise, 'Predators,' from Robert Rodriguez and Nimród Antal ('Vacancy,' 'Armored'). The main menu offers a standard selection of options while full motion clips from the movie play in the background.
'Predator' has been released so many times on DVD and other formats that it's difficult to keep count anymore. Unfortunately, the film has never made much of an impression visually, including its original Blu-ray debut from 2008. While the quality of that initial hi-def release was not a complete disaster, the MPEG-2 encode brought with it a few issues and artifacts as well as simply not comparing to other catalog presentations. According to a disc announcement, Fox promised a new restoration of the film, and fans were somewhat excited — if not slightly skeptical — to see what this classic creature-feature would ultimately look like. I'm sorry to say, the studio has actually made matters worse with this so-called "new" 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, retaining its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
When 'Predator' was originally shot, the makers used a specific film stock with a color temperature that required little filtration or expensive lighting equipment. Given the schedule and limited budget before dailies were shown to investors, photography was done quickly and with available, natural light of the Mexican jungles. On this hi-def presentation, the benefits are fairly clear in many exterior shots where foliage is distinct and excellently detailed. The finer lines in clothing, weapons and the alien costume are terrific while facial complexions are often revealing with beautiful, lifelike texture. Colors are nicely saturated and clean, with primaries looking really vibrant but not overstated. While I couldn't detect any edge enhancement, I did notice sharpening tools were in definite use. Thankfully, it wasn't to the point of annoyance, but it's still there.
Now, the one drawback of shooting with a high temp stock and poor lighting conditions is a much grainer picture, especially during dim, night scenes. With this being the case, 'Predator' should show heavy amounts of film grain, but it's not to be seen. It's pretty obvious that much of this structure — a natural and expected result of celluloid photography — has been digitally removed via noise reduction. Most immediate and damning is the indoor, dimly-lit scene where Dutch and Dillon first reunite early in the story. Both actors look artificial and synthetic, lacking any definition in their aged faces and plenty of soft edges. Adding to the disaster are a couple of frames which appear natural one second and then strangely foggy and dreamlike the very next instant. Carl Weathers' moustache is a deplorable and unacceptable travesty (because of the noise reduction mind you!) .
Later, in the final fight at night where grain should be thickest, minor background info is missing and the entire sequence loses its overall gritty nature. This is not only a disappointment which distracts from the picture's better parts, but it's also a significant detriment to the film's entire presentation. Complicating matters, contrast has been boosted somewhat. Granted, there are no issues with clipping and the image possesses a nice pop, but this is at the cost of weaker black levels during night scenes. In daylight, things look acceptable, but when Schwarzenegger goes 'Lord of the Flies,' we lose depth, gradational details are lacking, and shadows are murkier. All things considered, this is nowhere near how 'Predator' was originally shot or even presented theatrically.
I don't doubt Fox has gone out of their way to strike a new HD master for this presentation — as seen in several sequences of this Blu-ray edition — but it is unfortunate they deemed it necessary to alter a great deal of the image. For a true remaster, the original film elements should have been scanned and cleaned with the least amount of digital manipulation. Sadly, this latest version of a Schwarzenegger classic appears less like an improved restoration and more like digitized man-handling with some scenes almost looking computer-generated. I don't believe making an entirely new internegative (IN) for a fresh, "untouched" release print is too much to ask of a studio, especially for a film with such a strong following.
When that day finally comes — and hopefully, it will — we'll, of course, have yet another version of 'Predator.' But as long as it's done properly, we'll at last be given the film as it should've always looked rather than this presentation of wax figurines.
On the brighter side, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack makes a better impression, sounding pretty much as expected of an 80s film. Compared to the previous Blu-ray release, both tracks appear to be identical. Listening specifically to the musical score during opening credits, the attack on the rebel encampment and the final battle with the alien, I alternated between discs and found no discernible difference. It's not that I hoped for some kind of improvement, but after watching the mess made of the video, I figured the studio might have also manipulated the audio. Luckily, it remains unscathed.
Personally, I like the way 'Predator' sounds on this high-resolution codec. But I have to admit the original design doesn't really allow for a very immersive home-theater experience. At its worst, the low-end is fairly weak and cuts off far too early, making several of the action sequences feel rather flat. The first major explosion at the camp is a good example where the lower frequencies are greatly lacking. A few sporadic atmospherics help to enhance the soundfield somewhat, but they're not very convincing or consistent throughout.
At its best, the front-heavy presentation displays a clean mid-range with strong fidelity. The entire soundstage fills with good imaging and balanced separation between channels, feeling very open and wide. Dialogue reproduction is stable and appreciable during the mix's loudest moments though nothing standout. Alan Silvestri's memorable score is the lossless track's best feature, extending into the background smoothly and keeping viewers engaged. Overall, 'Predator' sounds good on Blu-ray, but it doesn't pack much of punch to rank any higher.
Part of the disappointment with the first Blu-ray release of 'Predator' was a bare-bones package. For this new Ultimate Hunter Edition, Fox Studios corrects their previous blunder by porting over the same set of bonus features seen on the two-disc special edition DVD of 2004. And they add a couple of new featurettes.
John McTiernan's 'Predator' is a fun and entertaining creature-feature which revels in its animated machismo and an exuberant display of graphic action. The movie is a surprisingly well-structured blend of genre conventions which draws viewers in with one set of expectations and abruptly changes pace for a suspenseful thrill ride. This new Blu-ray comes with a video presentation that's shockingly worse than the first release, and the audio is the same as before. However, Fox does correct past blunders by porting over the same set of bonus features, along with a couple of exclusives, for this Ultimate Hunter Edition of the Schwarzenegger classic. All things considered, this is just another case of good flick, bad disc.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.