Monday, August 31, 2020

Mars Movie Binge: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)


George Pal and Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) remains beloved by the generation that grew up with it in the late 1960's. By and large, genre critics praised the sci-fi film upon its original theatrical release and soon after, as well.

For example, author and scholar Jeff Rovin termed the film an “excellent and offbeat ride” and a “thoroughly convincing retelling of the classic tale” in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films (Citadel Press; 1975, page 131).

And while noting that the film is “not fast-paced,” the authors of Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films observed that Robinson Crusoe on Mars “succeeds…in its ability to evoke a sense of wonder in the minds of its audience at the exploration of a new and different kind of world.” 

Furthermore, the same authors wrote that director Haskin accomplished this task by making Mars itself one of the film’s essential or key characters (Arlington House; 1982, page 174).

That last observation is the most trenchant one because Robinson Crusoe on Mars impresses even today on the basis of many of its colorful and dynamic visualizations. Shot in Death Valley and buttressed by some still-impressive matte paintings, the film feels both authentic and vivid in its depiction of a desolate, lonely planetary surface. 

At times in the film, the landscape itself feels almost oppressive in its craggy, mountainous appearance, and at other junctures -- such as the discovery of the polar ice caps -- it appears downright wondrous.  The film conveys the idea of not just a single locale, but of an entire, harsh ecosystem, and that’s quite an accomplishment.


In terms of narrative, Robinson Crusoe on Mars succeeds too because it clearly has the literary model -- Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book -- to fall back on, and it needn’t veer too far from that impressive source material.

In fact, by retelling Defoe’s famous story in a “final frontier” setting, the 1964 film suggests some universal qualities about mankind. Specifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars meditates about both the human desire to survive even when survival is damn near impossible, and about our need for companionship.  

In fact, companionship is right up there with the other essentials to human life -- air, food, and water -- and Robinson Crusoe on Mars does a good job of exploring that powerful notion. 

I count Robinson Crusoe as one of my favorite stories of all time, and find that in 2015 Robinson Crusoe on Mars still captures the essence of that classic tale well, even if all the details of life on Mars in the film don’t conform to modern scientific knowledge. 

Indeed, this George Pal production remains just the brand of imaginative, colorful sci-fi epic that spurred my fascination with outer space and other worlds in the first place. And in its exploration of companionship as a key “resource” permitting humans to survive in any frontier, Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes a case about man in space that we must not forget.

When at last we travel to the stars, we should go in great numbers, because we will likely find it impossible to thrive there in isolation. As Robinson Crusoe on Mars reminds us, we need each other, whether here on Earth, in darkest space, or on the surface of the red planet.


In the near future, Mars Gravity Probe 1 narrowly avoids a disaster in planetary orbit, specifically a collision with an asteroid.

Unfortunately, the ship cannot hold altitude after altering its trajectory, and the crew must eject from the vessel.  

Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) lands his craft in a crater, scuttling it, and finds that his commanding officer, McReady (Adam West) has died during his landing attempt. The ship’s monkey, Mona (The Woolly Monkey), however, has survived.

With Mona in tow, Draper attempts to solve the problems of human survival on Mars. He finds the atmosphere thin, and therefore breathable only for short durations, and must determine a way to maintain a breathable air supply. With the use of native rocks, he does just that.  Draper’s next problem is locating water on Mars. When Mona doesn’t evidence signs of thirst, Draper decides to investigate her daily routine, and discovers a water source.

Sometime later, Draper sees a ship landing in the distance, and realizes that it is an interstellar craft.  Alien slavers have come to Mars, but one of their slaves -- whom Crusoe names Friday (Victor Lundin) -- escapes from their custody. The two survivors become friends, and set about to evade the aliens for as long as possible.

Draper and Friday make a long trek to the polar ice caps, and there receive a happy transmission from an Earth vessel and rescue ship.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars remembers and translates to the “space age” virtually all of the important story beats of the famous Defoe literary antecedent. 

In Robinson Crusoe, as you may recall, the sea-going protagonist escapes a shipwreck, and salvages what he can from it, with only the captain’s dog (and a cat or two) for companions. Crusoe then lives on an inhospitable island alone for some time, dwelling in a cave and growing his own food. 

Over the course of his stay on the island, Crusoe becomes more religious, reading the Bible, and ultimately saves a man, whom he names Friday, from cannibals. He eventually converts Friday to Christianity, and together the men leave the island on an English ship.

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Kip Draper is marooned on the planet Mars, rather than on an island. He has no humans to keep him company, but rather an animal companion like the captain’s dog: the monkey named Mona.  The alien slavers substitute for the novel’s cannibals, and of course, Crusoe’s Friday is a one-to-one corollary with Draper’s alien friend. The topic of the Divine and religion come up in both stories as well, with Draper quoting Scripture to the alien at times in the film. Finally, the two men are rescued by an Earth ship as the film closes. 


Beyond its relocation of narrative points from the Defoe story, Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ strongest interlude occurs shortly before Draper first encounters Friday. He is ensconced in his home cave, at night, and the shadow of a humanoid falls across his transparent-rock cave door. Draper opens the door and suddenly encounters a silent, zombie-like McReady, who refuses to speak to him, or even acknowledge him. 

Draper awakens --sleepwalking -- and realizes he has experienced a nightmare. This scene is creepy as hell, from the first appearance of the silhouette (surrounded by weird Martian lighting), to McReady’s unearthly demeanor as Draper desperately tries to make him talk to him. The scene beautifully expresses the absolute terror of Draper’s predicament as the only intelligent being, essentially, on an entire planet. He also, no doubt, feels survivor’s guilt. He lived, and McReady didn’t.

Importantly, this sequence in the film follows those in which the resourceful Draper has licked a number of survival problems. He has learned how to breathe on Mars (using yellow, air-producing rocks) and he has found food and water. 

But the problem of companionship is not something he can tackle alone, and his so Draper fears his mind will fall apart, that he will start to lose his grip on sanity. Draper notes that the “hairiest” problem for astronauts is “isolation,” and also makes a special point of describing how for astronaut training he was in an isolation tank for a month to prepare for the hazards of lonely space travel. But, as he says, he knew, at that point, that he would be with people again. At this juncture, there is no certainty. He could live the rest of his days without seeing anyone else. That is a tremendous psychic weight to carry. Thus the movie equates companionship with the survival necessities of air or water, or food.

If the small, intimate scene of McReady’s visitation sells Draper’s terror at being the only living being on Mars (outside of Mona), then the many shots of the astronaut traversing the landscape alone help enormously as well. 

In sustained long shot after sustained long shot, we witness Draper making his way from one dead zone to another, from one rocky outcropping to the next. Seen against the land, he looks truly small, truly insignificant.  Some shots see the camera pointed at our eye level (and below) so that we don’t even see the red sky.  Instead, we see a lot of ground.  On one hand, this prevents the need for every shot to be fixed with a Martian skyline in post-production. On the other hand, the effect is that we see just this one tiny figure moving against a sea of rock and sand.  He seems truly lost there.



But impressively, the film’s visuals aren’t boring or repetitive, and don’t sacrifice interest, even considering the desert landscape. There’s one scene set in a grotto or grove, where Draper goes swimming, and the view is magnificently imaginative.  


At another point, Draper and Friday seek to escape the slavers, and head down into a subterranean world, where they must navigate a narrow ledge. 


Again, the effects work is stunning, and a reminder of how Hollywood successfully performed “world building” in an age before CGI.  The film’s final visual flourish plays as catharsis and relief. We see Friday and Draper at the polar ice caps, surrounded by cleansing water and immaculate white ice.  They have been delivered from the red, fiery Hell of Mars’ surface.  This is a great note to go out on.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars also features, perhaps to its detriment, a strong colonial tone. Almost immediately after meeting Friday, Crusoe assumes his superiority over his new friend and tells him that he is the boss, demands that Friday learn English, and attempts to convert him to his own religion.  In 1964, this attitude would not have been questioned, but today it seems as dated as the portrayal of Mars’ atmosphere as breathable by humans.  

Later films of this type, like Enemy Mine (1985), go out of their way to suggest that representatives of different cultures have much to teach each other, but here a lot of the teaching is one way: Draper to Friday. In fairness, however, this was also the nature of the Defoe literary work. It concerned a "civilized" Englishman sharing his culture (and breeding) with a savage.


It is not fair, perhaps, nor entirely appropriate, to judge a film made fifty years ago on the basis of knowledge we possess today, but if Robinson Crusoe on Mars is judged not to pass muster by some viewers today, it is likely because the film doesn’t conform to our 21st century fund of knowledge about the red planet.  

To put this another way, film lovers and science fiction lovers can and will look past this particular deficit, and judge the film accordingly, based on its historical context. But there will be some viewers who can’t do that, and who will be put off by Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ flights of fancy about a Mars consisting of subterranean water pools, ample (purple) vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere.  Today in September 2015 -- we know that part of this depiction may actually be accurate! On Monday, NASA announced that there are flowing, salt-water streams on Mars, so perhaps in this one regard the film is ahead of its time.

The film’s re-use of some stock props and miniatures, such as the costumes from Destination: Moon (1950) and the Martian war machines from War of the Worlds (1953) -- as well as some oft-repeated footage of those alien ships -- may prove more legitimately disturbing to some fans than do these scientific errors.  The alien slaver ships are seen, in particular, in the same three or four shots, and these shots are repeated over and over again. For a film that features such lush visuals in other arenas, the sort of cheap-jack depiction of the slavers is doubly disappointing. 


These points diminish Robinson Crusoe on Mars significantly, but they do suggest how far ahead of their time later works, like 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were by comparison. In some ways, the Pal film feels like the last gasp of a 1950s version of outer space, while Kubrick’s film (followed by efforts like Moon Zero Two and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) feel much more modern. 

Yet what doesn’t age Robinson Crusoe on Mars -- and indeed what renders it relevant more than fifty years later -- is its focus on the human equation, and its message that friendship is as nourishing -- and as necessary -- to the human animal as oxygen, or fresh water.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Flashback: Big John, Little John (1976)


Big John, Little John (1976) is a short-lived, live-action Saturday morning series from Lloyd and Sherwood Schwartz (1916-2011).  

Sherwood, as you may recall, is the creator of Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), It’s About Time (1966-1967), and The Brady Bunch (1969-1974).  

This series ran for just one season -- and thirteen half-hour episodes -- on NBC and concerned science teacher John Martin (Herb Edelman) of Madison Junior High School.  

On vacation at Ponce De Leon Park with his wife, Marjorie (Joyce Bulifant) and son Ricky (Mike Darnell), John drinks from the Fountain of Youth and it changes his life.  Before long, his body begins to undergo a transformation. 




Now John randomly goes from being forty years old to just twelve, and then back again.  Unfortunately, the “change can happen anywhere, anytime,” especially when John “doesn’t expect it.” 

In the first episode, “a Sizeable Problem” John undergoes the transformation for the first time, and becomes twelve years old (and played by Robbie Rist) just as he must interview for the position of head of the science department at his school.  

John tells his wife and son what is going on, and they help to keep his secret.  In age twelve mode, John says he is Martin’s nephew, John, someone who is staying with the family.  This lie is accepted by virtually everyone.



Meanwhile, John’s perpetual nemesis in Big John, Little John is Mrs. Bertha Bottomly (Olive Dunbar), the stern school principal who is always in danger of learning his secret and firing him.

For its thirteen episode run, Big John, Little John treads all-to-familiar sitcom material, as John must navigate his random transformations and not get caught by the school authorities.  

One episode, “Peter Panic” sees Mrs. Bottomly cast Big John as Captain Hook and Little John as Peter in a school play of Peter Pan. Now he must be in two places at the same time! 

Another story, “Very Little John” involves a case of mistaken identity.  Big John believes that he can “dilute” the aging transformation by drinking excessive amounts of water (!) and thus remain an adult.  He conducts this experiment in dilution when Marjorie and Rick are away from home.  While they are gone, however he agrees to take care of a neighbor’s baby.  So when Marjorie and Rick return, they mistake the infant for Little John, and believe that the dilution has changed him into a one year old.


As you may suspect, the jokes in Big John, Little John are pretty lame most of the time, and common sense is in short supply among the characters.  

For example, it is never really explained why John can’t notify authorities (particularly scientific authorities) about his physical situation, and allow them to witness the transformation for themselves.  He could become the world’s most famous and perhaps richest man. 

Similarly, John never shares with other scientists the location of the Fountain of Youth, even though young and old alike could benefit from its effects.

Instead, Big John, Little John is all about its formula -- John suddenly finding himself in awkward situations as either an incongruously placed child or an adult -- and that formula is hammered home relentlessly.

Today, the Sherwood brand of sitcom this series represents is pretty much completely dead, so Big John, Little John feels like a relic from not just a different time, but a different culture all together.  

In fact, the series seems frozen in amber, like the mosquitoes of Jurassic Park.  Big John, Little John repeats the same formula again and again, telling the same story as the characters fail to grow or learn, week-to-week.

I have vivid memories of watching Big John, Little John in 1976, when I was six years old.  At the same time, I remember not liking it terribly much, and yet feeling compelled to watch it because there was, essentially, nothing else on TV…and Saturday morning TV was an important ritual for kids in those days.  

Today, you can satisfy your hunger for Big John, Little John 1976 nostalgia with a look at the introductory theme song/montage, embedded below.  This sequence I remember very well, particularly the images of John Martin drinking from the Fountain of Youth.  Also, this title sequence depicts John going from age forty to thirty-three, to twenty-five, to nineteen, to twelve.  But only the 40 year old and 12 year old John are ever featured in the actual stories.





Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Predator Binge: Predator 2 (1990)


The opening shot of Predator 2 (1990) is a remarkable one. 

Director Stephen Hopkins’ camera rockets over a dense jungle landscape, thus reminding audiences of the 1987 John McTiernan film and its Central American locale.  

Then -- as the camera continues to speed over myriad tree tops -- it pans up to reveal…modern Los Angeles, the urban jungle, on the horizon.

This composition is a great visual way to connect the two films in the franchise, and a sure sign that Hopkins boasts an active intellect and more to the point, a great eye. 

It’s as if the last moments of Predator have become, literally, the first moments of Predator 2.  




Predator 2 is also appreciated by many horror movie fans because it provides the first cinematic evidence of a “shared” universe with another beloved franchise: Alien (1979).  

During the climax of this sequel cop/warrior Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) finds his way aboard a grounded Predator spaceship and sees a trophy room that boasts a Giger-style alien skull. 

At first blush this might seem like a throwaway moment, but, certainly, it paves the way for the Alien vs. Predator movies of the 2000s. Already, Dark Horse had seen success by pairing the two monsters in a comic series, but Predator 2 is the first such evidence of a shared universe on the silver screen.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll leave up to you, the reader, but Predator 2 intimates a shared history between two great movie monsters in a way that isn’t entirely obvious or craven (like, say, Freddy’s finger knives dragging Jason’s hockey mask down to Hell.) 

Instead, the reveal of the alien skull in Predator 2 is an awesome moment that expands significantly both franchises.We now know that Predators have defeated the acid-dripping, silver-jawed monstrosities, and likewise that those monstrosities have been around since well before Ripley’s first encounter with them. This moment in the film thus succeeds in the manner that was intended.  It tantalizes us with possibilities, and with a history/relationship we don’t fully understand...but can imagine.  Sadly, this summer's Alien: Covenant (2017), largely overwrites this history, since the android David doesn't create the Xenomorph we know (and love?) until centuries after the events of this film.

 

This sequel also shares much with another science fiction film of 1990: RoboCop 2.

For example, both Predator 2 and RoboCop 2 feature moments that suggest the tabloidization of American news, the rise of such fare as Inside Edition or A Current Affair. Both films also worry about runaway crime rates in America at the time, and obsess on the notion of our streets becoming the battleground for drug and gang wars.  

And both films -- truly -- are anarchic in visualization, graphic violence and tone, suggesting that the near future will be a time of visceral, bloody horror, sensational news and beleaguered infrastructure. 

In both films, the cops can barely hold their own.

Predator 2 never quite reaches the provocative and anarchic highs or lows of RoboCop 2 but -- to its ever-lasting credit -- the Hopkins sequel is more than willing to acknowledge the humor inherent in its central scenario. 


At one point, the hulking Predator ends up in the bathroom of a cranky old woman, and at another juncture attacks a busload of commuters (including a Bernard Goetz character…) simply because they are all armed. 

This scene may represent the best argument for gun control ever put to genre film: Don’t carry a weapon on your way to work, because the Predator -- while on safari -- interprets all gun-owners as “soldiers” and wipes them out with extreme prejudice. Seriously, this film imagines Bernard Goetz-vigilantism as the norm of 1997, and it's a commentary right in line with the imaginings of the RoboCop films.

I admire many aspects of Predator 2 and consider it a worthwhile sequel overall, yet I don’t see it necessarily as an equal to its predecessor in terms of suspense and storytelling. The movie occasionally suffers a bad case of Alien-itis too: cribbing too liberally from 20th Century Fox’s other space monster franchise.

That tendency doesn’t help the film to cement its own individual identity, and works against the director's best efforts.




“Shit happens.”

In the near-future year of 1997, Los Angeles is choking under perpetual smog, and its streets are a war-zone.  

There, rival gangs -- the Jamaicans and the Colombians -- duke it out for superiority. One of the city’s best cops, Mike Harrigan (Glover) attempts to bring order to the streets, but soon finds that a third, chaotic element has been added to the summertime bloodshed.

In particular, a stealthy alien hunter or predator has arrived in L.A. and begun picking off gang members, as well as cops like Harrigan’s trusted friend, Danny (Ruben Blades).

When a federal agent, Keyes (Gary Busey) begins interfering in his investigation, Harrigan suspects a dark secret.  

He soon comes face to face with the intimidating alien hunter, and learns that Keyes and his men are planning to capture it…




“There’s a new king in the streets.”

When I think back on Predator, the images that stay with me, in particular, come from the last third of the picture. There, Arnold’s character, Dutch went up against the Predator with no advanced technology in a primordial jungle, and won.  

The battle could have occurred in prehistoric times.

Obviously, a sequel to Predator couldn’t plumb the identical imagery or locale, or even concept, and so Predator 2 tries hard to carve an original space for itself.  The sequel notes, for example, that in the 1990s, “cops” are the warriors of civilization, fighting back criminals on the streets and protecting an endangered populace.  

This is a valid concept, and also feels very much of the epoch. If you gaze at the 1990s, and consider series such as Law and Order (1990 – 2010), or movies such as The First Power (1990), Fallen (1998), Resurrection (1999) or End of Days (1999) it’s not difficult to see how the police procedural format became incredibly popular, and dominated genre entertainment.

Predator 2 fits in with that trend, and Danny Glover makes for a very different kind of “soldier” than Arnie did. Both men are fiercely protective of their teams, but Harrigan is -- living up to his name: “harried” -- forced to accommodate multiple levels of hierarchy and bureaucracy in a fashion that Dutch simply did not.  Dutch eventually had to deal with Dillon’s duplicity (as Harrigan deals with Keyes’ secrecy and cover story), but Harrigan is more constrained from the get-go based on his job, his heavily populated “arena” of battle, and other factors of late 20th century human civilization.. 

One way to gaze at the Predator franchise is simply as a study of soldiers, an examination of the qualities that go into the making of a good one. Predator, Predator 2, and Predators (2010) have different things to tell audiences on that topic, and all the observations are intriguing. Certainly, Predator suggests that  good or advanced weapons don’t make for the best soldiers.  

Predator 2 seems to suggest that a good soldier succeeds by overcoming not his enemy, but those unofficial enemies who make his task more difficult. Harrigan must contend with the presence of innocent civilians, bureaucrats, and infrastructural impediments on his mission to stop the alien hunter. Meanwhile, Predators seems to suggest that real soldiers are a breed apart, and that breed seems to span all cultures.

The downside to Predator 2’s approach is simply that as soon as you have a rampaging alien creature in familiar, city environs, some moments there are going to read as…funny. You can’t play on the feelings of isolation that you might in the jungle setting.  

So when a Predator crashes through a bathroom wall here and nearly runs into an old woman brandishing a broom, you’re in a whole different kind of territory. The last act of the film suffers from a tonal ping-pong between action, comedy, and horror. I prefer the back-to-basics, straight-on approach of Predator’s finale in the jungle. It’s more pure, somehow; more consistent.

Predator 2, at times, seems to verge on camp. If the film featured a more pronounced, consistent social commentary (as is clearly the case in the gonzo-crazy RoboCop 2), the tone-changes in Predator 2 might have tracked better. I like Gary Busey just fine, but his presence -- and line readings -- ratchet up the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the film.


Lions, and tigers and bears. Oh my.

In the introduction, I also noted creeping Alien clichés in this film. There’s one scene here in which right-thinking Harrigan watches on a row of high-tech monitors as wrong-thinking Keyes leads an ill-fated attack against the Predator. The Predator decimates the team, and Harrigan -- tired of being on the sidelines -- steps up to save the day, or win the battle.  

This scene is an exact mirror of a scene in Cameron’s Aliens (1986).  There, Ripley watches on a row of monitors as the Colonial Marines get their asses kicked on Sub Level 3. She must take action herself, because she is right, and Lt. Gorman is so clearly wrong.  

There's even a similar deer-in-the-headlights moment in Predator 2 for  one Gorman surrogate, Garber (Adam Baldwin).



Similarly, Harrigan appropriates a Ripley-ish line from Alien, while talking to Keyes. “You admire the son of a bitch,” he realizes. 

This is also what Ripley realized vis-à-vis Ash and the xenomorph in the Ridley Scott 1979 original

It’s just baffling that a film seeking so aggressively to artistically break free from its successful predecessor would mindlessly ape another film series at the same. These moments are transparently derivative, and undo some of the creative success Hopkins achieves with this sequel.

Still, I appreciate the final revelations of Predator 2. These moments prove chilling. One of the final scenes, inside the spaceship, features not only an alien skull, but evidence that the Predators have been interacting with humans for a very, very long time indeed. They have been here, are here now, and will return soon.  




That’s a creepy thought, and I love how the old Predator leader demonstrates grudging respect for Harrigan, his prey, by gifting him a gun from the 1700s…a souvenir emblematic of their differences, and shared history.

Writing for The Washington Post, review Rita Kempley wrote persuasively of Predator 2’s “dismal irony” and “brooding fatalism” (November 21, 1990). 

I like those qualities too, and I enjoy this sequel quite a bit. I’ll take it over AVP: Requiem (2007) or Alien Resurrection (1997) any day. Predator 2 doesn’t scuttle its franchise, and in some ways it expands the cycle's reach in a wonderful, creative way.   

And yet the tonal lapses into comedy and rip-off territory prevent Predator 2 from being a truly great sequel to one of the best action-horror films of the eighties.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Predator Binge: Predator (1987)


Back in the summer of 1987, the conventional wisdom about John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) was that it started out like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and ended up like Alien (1979) or, perhaps, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). At least, that's how critic Roger Ebert described the film.

By framing the film in this simplistic fashion, Predator could be viewed as a simple or derivative swipe at two separate genre inspirations.  

It was part action movie and part sci-fi/horror movie.  

And that, as Ebert declared, passed for originality in Hollywood. 

That’s a left-handed compliment if I ever read one!

The truth about Predator, contrarily, is that it is all of a piece, and thematically consistent throughout. 

Indeed, the intense film forges a debate about warriors or soldiers, and asks, specifically, what the best soldiers are made of.  

Do soldiers succeed because of their technology? 

Or do the best soldiers succeed because of some combination of instinct, experience, and a tactical understanding of their enemy?

McTiernan’s film sets up this debate in the film's visualizations.

Specifically, a squad of American soldiers, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch, rain down death and destruction on Third World, Central American soldiers, literally coming down to a village from a point on high to do so. 

This action occurs in the first act, and establishes, per the dialogue, that Schwarzenegger’s team is “the best.” We see that adjective vividly demonstrated in a siege set-piece of extreme violence and bloodshed.  The soldiers show no mercy, and give no quarter to their enemy.

The next act of the film, however, deliberately reverses that equation. It positions Schwarzenegger’s team on the ground, and puts an alien hunter at an even higher position -- in the tree-tops -- to rain down death on his “primitive” Earthbound counter-parts. 

The soldiers who were the predators are now the prey. And they have no reason to expect mercy.

In both cases, the technologically-superior force wins, and the perceived primitive or lesser opponent is knocked down and defeated. 

In both cases, McTiernan vividly and explicitly associates that sense of superiority with a sense of geographical height; a high physical vantage point, captured by the camera's position.

The winner can, literally, reach heights that the loser can’t, and this is one important reason for his victory.

However, in the third and final act of Predator, Arnold and the alien hunter go head to head -- on equal footing -- and it is only on that terrain, one not involving technology, but rather instincts and know-how, that the best soldier is identified, and a victor is crowned.

So where many 1987 critics chose to see a film that is half Rambo and half Alien, I see a film that develops logically and consistently, act to act. You can’t get to that final, almost primordial reckoning in the jungle between the Predator and Dutch unless you frame the debate in precisely the way the screenplay does, and in the way McTiernan does. 

In short, the film depicts the best soldiers in the world demonstrating their ability to defeat all comers, only to be defeated by an enemy better than them; one not of this world.  

The first and second act are two sides of the same coin, the idea -- with apologies to Star Wars Episode I (1999) -- that there is always a bigger fish out there waiting to demonstrate superior technology.

Predator’s third act -- a glorious back-to-basics conflict that looks like it was authentically staged in a prehistoric setting -- makes the point that the greatest hunter or soldier is actually the one who understands his enemy, and trusts his instincts.  

Why make a movie in this fashion? 

Well, in a sense, Predator might be read as a subversive response to the militarization of action films in the mid-1980's, and the kind of shallow, rah-rah patriotism that gave rise to efforts like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which celebrated an American military victory over…Grenada.

Grenada?  

Was Grenada really a challenge to American domination, given our military budget and might?  

Contrarily, Predator takes a group of tough-talking “ultimate warriors” and puts them in a situation where they aren’t merely shooting fish in a barrel.  

They are the fish in the barrel. 

In reckoning with this sudden and total change in fortunes, we begin to glean a true idea of courage and heroism. 

All of the Earthly politics in the movie -- illegal border crossings, a false cover story, documentation about a possible invasion, and so forth -- add up to precisely nothing here, and there's a reason why. Those details are immaterial to the real story of soldiers who reckon with an enemy that goes beyond the limits of Earthly knowledge.

Ironically, to be the best soldier in a situation like that, it isn’t the big Gatling gun that matters. It’s the ability to adapt to and understand the kind of menace encountered.

Predator features a lot of macho talk and clichés about war (“I ain’t got time to bleed,”) but it succeeds because it cuts right through this surface, hackneyed vision of military might typical of its time period and suggests a different truth underneath.

There’s always a bigger fish.



“You got us here to do your dirty work!”

An elite squad of American soldiers, led by Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), is dropped into a Central American jungle to rescue a cabinet minister being held by enemy rebels. 

Going along with Dutch’s team is the mission commander, the not-entirely trustworthy Dillon (Carl Weathers).

Once in the jungle, Dutch and his men launch an attack on a rebel village, and find that Dillon has manipulated his team so as to acquire military intelligence about a possible Russian invasion. The group soon takes a captive, Anna, (Elipidia Carillo).

But before the soldiers can be air-lifted out of the jungle, an extra-terrestrial hunter -- a Predator – sets his sights on the group, killing Dutch’s team one man at a time. 

Anna reports a local legend: about a demon who makes trophies of humans and is often reported in the hottest summers.

And this year, it grows very, very hot…

Losing his men rapidly, Dutch must come to understand his enemy’s weaknesses and strengths, and makes a final stand in the jungle, using every resource available…



“Payback time!”

John McTiernan’s camera in Predator rarely stops moving. It tracks, it pans, and it tilts, but is seldom quiescent. 

The constantly-on-the-move camera conveys a few important qualities about the film. The first idea it transmits is that the soldiers inhabit a changing and changeable world, one that only instinct and experience can help them navigate.  

The always-in-motion camera reveals the soldiers -- sometimes violently -- intruding into new space, new frames, and new aspects of their world.  The camera’s movement -- a kind of visual aggression -- suggests the force that the soldiers carry with them.  

This movement, this force, is then balanced by McTiernan against the utter stillness of the Predator’s vision or perspective. A contrast is quickly developed and then sustained.

Throughout the film, we see through the Predator’s eyes, or in what might be termed Predator-vision. These shots, from high above the landscape (in the tree-tops), tend to be still, un-moving. They thereby capture a sense of the whole world unfolding before the Predator, a complete panorama or landscape.

This is an important conceit. The soldiers are  always moving through a changing, shifting world that they, through their actions, impact.  

But they don’t get the whole picture, so-to-speak.  

By contrast, the Predator vision gives us long-shots, and shows the entire jungle terrain around the soldiers.  This viewpoint suggests omnipotence and power.  

The Predator, quite simply, is able to see more of the world, and see it better. He is able to strike from the tree tops with his shoulder-mounted laser cannon, and target with laser-light his distant foes.  

His sight is superior, until -- importantly -- Dutch manages to “see” through it; recognizing the flaw in the Predator’s infrared vision.


Again, this is an argument against relying too heavily on technology. Dutch’s soldiers rely on big guns, and get decimated.  

The Predator relies on his mask’s vision system (infrared), and Dutch -- smearing himself in mud -- negates the advantage it provides.  

But again, what’s important is the way that all this material is visualized.

The soldiers, on ground level, cut through and move through the frame, violently interacting with the world on a tactile, aggressive level.  

The Predator, like some great vulture, sits still in the trees (until he strikes), silently hanging back and taking in the lay of the land. He has the luxury to operate from a distance, from up on high, unobserved.

The film sets up a battle between these two perspectives, and one might even argue that the Predator ultimately loses because he abandons his best perspective -- the tree tops -- in order to get down to (and enjoy combat on…) Dutch’s level.


Over and over again, however, McTiernan’s gorgeous, moving compositions suggest that the soldiers don’t have the full picture. Not only is the Predator cloaked, but he has access to the world above the soldiers, the world that they can’t see. A brilliantly-orchestrated shot mid-way through the film sees Dutch hunting for Hawkin’s missing body. He can’t find it. After capturing imagery of Dutch trudging through the brush, McTiernan’s camera suddenly moves upwards, and keeps doing so.

It goes up and up, past a bloody fern frond, and then continues its ascent, until we see Hawkins’ naked, bloodied corpse dangling from the tree top.  The Predator is operating in, metaphorically a more fully three dimensional environment, this shot reveals. 

Dwight and the other soldiers can’t compete on that level. They literally can't even see to that level. 


Those who don’t appreciate Predator tend to watch the film, listen to the macho tough talk, and consider the film a kind of stupid, macho action/horror movie. It's just Rambo with an alien!

Yet in its own way, Predator glides right past such clichéd dialogue and situations. In doing so, it actually comments on them; it comments on two-dimensional thinking.  These cliches are not points of strength, the movie informs us, but points of weakness.  When the Predator uses his duck call device, for example, he apes the men at their most verbally simplistic.  “Any time…”  Or “Over here.”  

Then he is able to trick them using their own words. Their macho mode of expression becomes a tool to use against them.

As a whole, Predator tricks the audience with its appearance or visual trapping too -- as a macho war movie -- and then treads deeper to examine our conceits about the military, and military might. 

When Arnold finally defeats the Predator, he does so not as a twentieth century soldier with high-tech weapons, but as a mud-camouflaged cave-man, relying on his instinct, his knowledge of the land, and hard-gleaned information about his enemy.


Even then, Arnold barely wins.  

The Predator sacrifices his superior technology, comes to the ground, and takes off his mask because he wants to fight like Arnie; he wants to experience battle like a human would. That desire proves to be the alien's undoing, a sense of vanity about himself, and an unearned sense of superiority to his nemesis.  

And again, this quality reflects dynamically on the first act of the film. Everyone keeps calling Dutch's team "the best,: and the team itself wipes out the Central American rebels while hardly breaking a sweat.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?

Dutch, by contrast, demonstrates qualities that our culture doesn’t always value, especially in terms of our military men. He shows compassion and decency with Anna, a prisoner.  He trusts her when the situation changes, instead of continuing to treat her like a foe.  

He also rejects Dillon’s approach to war (that the ends justify the means), and does his best to get his men out of a situation in which they are not really fighting for their country, but acting as pawns in someone’s illegal agenda.  

Finally, Dutch is curious -- intensely curious -- and flexible enough to understand that he is being hunted by something inhuman. He doesn’t reject the possibility that this could be true, and instead contends with the facts. 

 “If it bleeds, we can kill it” Dutch concludes, and that is a perfectly logical and sensible argument in the face of what seems an irrational conflict: a battle with an invisible alien.

Dutch is lucky, of course, too. He discovers the secret of defeating Predator-vision by accident, by ending up in the mud. But he also makes the most of his opportunities by demonstrating flexibility rather than rigidity. He changes his very identity to win.  He goes from 20th century high-tech soldier to primitive cave man, to carry the day.


Thirty years later, Predator still dazzles, in part because of McTiernan’s often-moving camera and approach to visuals, but also because of that incredible final sequence in the jungle.  

Arnold and the colossal, frightening alien duke it out on a little parcel of land, surrounded by water.  The setting is picturesque, but more than that, it seems to evoke some kind of genetic memory, a feeling for the day when humans didn’t understand the world and were prey to saber tooth tigers or bears, or anything else that might find us when we ventured out of our caves. 

The film’s final battle -- shorn of high-tech military hardware -- gets down to the bloody basics and is incredibly satisfying on a human level.

Today, we have military drones, smart-bombs, and other incredible technology to help us win the day when we wage war, but Predator is a remarkable reminder from another movie age that the biggest, best guns don’t necessarily make great soldiers.   

If they did, the Predator would have won his battle with Arnie, right?

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