Post #5: The Most Dangerous Game: Evolving Ethical Character in the ‘Predator’ Series (1987-2010)
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Friday August 1 2014
In his May 2nd review of the 2014 re-release of 1954’s Godzilla, Fresh Air contributor and film critic John Powers remarked on how most recent movie monsters are “soulless things to be destroyed” whereas creatures like King Kong and Godzilla pushed audience to identify with them. Among the likes of Jaws and Aliens, Powers used the alien hunters in the Predator films (1986-2010) as examples of soulless antagonists. He is certainly correct about the aliens of the 1986 and 1990 films, which are more in the vein of the slasher flicks so popular at that time, but the most recent rendition of the aliens on the silver screen, Predators (2010), challenges the audience to see the soullessness in the hunted humans.
I didn’t see the most recent Predator entry Predators, directed by Nimród Antal and produced by Robert Rodriguez, when it came out in theaters in 2010. The work of Rodriguez is very hit-or-miss for me; his is the kind of style that’s wonderful in smaller doses but can quickly overwhelm with too much style over substance. I enjoyed Sin City quite a bit, even when it seemed to be too over-the-top for its own good (that said, I am excited for Sin City 2 this August), and I liked the Machete trailer in Grindhouse, but I was slightly irritated by the halfway point of the feature film. And Machete himself, Danny Trejo, is a character (albeit a minor one) in Predators. So I didn’t have a burning desire to see it. At first I was worried that the creative staff had taken an outrageous, unrealistic take on the Predator series, but my fears, it turns out, were unfounded.
Anyway, I saw Predators recently and thought it quite good. Not having done much research on the film before I watched it, I at first thought the film was supposed to re-boot the continuity, but it inhabits the same narrative universe as its predecessors Predator (dir. McTiernan 1987), Predator 2 (dir. Hopkins 1990), Alien vs. Predator (dir. Anderson 2004), and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (dir. Strause and Strause 2007).
To establish their shared continuity, Antal’s film has several conscious references to Predator, the most obvious being the re-cap of the events of the 1987 film by Isabelle, an Israel Defense Forces soldier.
ISABELLE: We don’t have a name for them. ‘87 Guatemala. A spec-ops team went into the jungle. High-end. Six men plus a CIA liaison. Only one made it out.
On the DVD commentary, Antal remarks that he wanted to capture the feeling of the first film, which he thought was better than the subsequent entries. But Predators also pushes the ideas of the previous films in new directions. This is evident in the gang war between larger and smaller Predator species in the film: near the climax, the larger Predator fights and kills a smaller Predator, which looks remarkably like the alien in the first film. Royce, the mercenary protagonist of Predators, then kills the larger Predator, asserting the new entry’s dominance over previous ones (figure 1).
In this post I want to focus on the ethical character of the humans hunted by the aliens. The Predators themselves abide by a sort of ethical code: they don’t go after unarmed humans (like Anna in Predator) or pregnant women (like Leona in Predator 2), they can level the playing field when facing a worthy opponent (like Dutch and the Predator in the 1987 film and Harrigan in the 1990 film (figures 2 and 3). The aliens don’t distinguish between morally good and morally corrupt human prey in the series--they kill soldiers, drug traffickers, and cops without compunction.
In the first film Dutch deploys his team into the jungle at the behest of his old buddy George Dillon, now a CIA agent. Dillon at first claims that they’re rescuing a kidnapped member of the President’s cabinet, but it turns out he’s using the team to eliminate a group of guerilla fighters. He redeems himself when he makes a stand against the alien, allowing other team members to temporarily escape.
DILLON: Guess I've picked up some bad habits from you, Dutch. Now don't argue with me, you know I'm right. Get to that chopper and hold it for us. We'll be along.
Predator thus suggests that in the face of being hunted by the aliens, humans band together and are ethically transformed. In the crucible of exigency a moral center forms.
Because Dillon has become, in Dutch’s words, a “pencil pusher” government worker who consequently thinks little of using Dutch’s team, but this hardly makes him a “bad guy”, nor are the soldiers of the mission presented as ethically compromised. By contrast, in Antal’s effort the human characters are ethically compromised on a completely different levels. From criminals to soldiers, they are all morally reprehensible, or at least have questionable ethics: their ranks include a serial killer, a Yakuza gangster, a drug enforcer, a Sierra Leone death squad soldier, and a gun-for-hire. Even the one truly “good” character, Isabelle, speculates that she was brought to the Predator planet because she failed to prevent her partner’s death.
In the mold of the 1987 film, several characters sacrifice their lives until only three are left: Royce, Isabelle, and Edwin. When Edwin is maimed by a trap, Royce suggests to Isabelle that they leave him behind.
ROYCE: Look, you and I can still make it. We use him. We booby-trap him. They’ll go to him to take trophies. This is our last chance.
ISABELLE: This isn’t right. He’s one of us!
ROYCE: He is. That’s what they’re counting on. They want you to feel something for this man. To be human.
ISABELLE: And what are you?
ISABELLE: What’s that worth?
Royce leaves his companions and cuts a deal with a captured Predator to return to Earth. Isabelle’s liberal-arts disquisition on the nature of being human is soon after undercut by Edwin, a self-professed doctor and the seemingly most morally upright member of the group, who reveals himself as a true predator (figure 4):
EDWIN: I guess now you’ve realized why they chose me. I was right in front of you guys the whole time. Just watching you. Earning your trust. You couldn’t see me for what I really am. You see, back home I’m a murderer. I’m a freak. But here, among the monsters, I’m normal. I like it here. I wanna stay.
Edwin has struck a deal with the aliens to help them procure new human prey because of a kinship he feels with them (a prequel about how they first met and their interaction, please). So Predators refers not only to the plurality of aliens on the planet and the upping of the stakes à la 1986’s Aliens, but also encourages the audience to see the humans that the Predators hunt as predators themselves, and so perhaps deserving of death. There is an interesting subtext along these lines in Predator 2--the screenwriter is on record saying that he thought of the alien as coming to Earth to hunt big game just as human aristocrats did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Royce returns in the nick of time, rescuing Isabelle and killing Edwin. The 1987 film would lead us to believe that he fits into the reluctant hero type that has so many literary and cinematic antecedents--the gruff cowboy who in truth is just an ol’ softy--but previous events imply that this is not the case. Royce does what he does, not because he’s experienced a personal revelation about what it means to be human, but because it turns out that the ship he wanted to take back to Earth was rigged with explosives, and then he happens to stumble on Isabelle and Edwin. He saves Isabelle, only because Edwin’s out to kill him, too. There’s no change of heart here, just opportunity.
Royce is an anti-hero of the kind that has been so popular on television since the Sopranos debuted in 1999. His cynicism is what allows him to be the last man standing...next to Isabelle, who survives not because she is morally good, but because Royce decides to save her and then team up with her in the end. Predator expresses a belief in the essential goodness of human nature that manifests in the face of the alien enemy, but Predators is far less certain about what it takes to survive in face of alien and human predators. This uncertainty may be connected to the political climate of the turbulent 2000s, as compared to the moral certainty of the Reagan era.
After this bleak ending--we have to assume that Royce and Isabelle will be stuck on the planet for the foreseeable future--the song that plays over the end credits is the unabashedly exuberant “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard (figure 5). McTiernan’s film uses the same song, but in a very different context. Just before Dutch’s squad is dropped into the jungle, “Long Tall Sally” blares from a stereo in one of the helicopters as background for the squad’s preparations. We have only to think of the John Williams music in Star Wars and Indiana Jones as one of the most effective devices to generate audience recall and recognition of a link between past and present. As Rodiguez remarked in the Moviefone blog: “But it's like the James Bond theme – you can't use it all of the time, but when you do, you can get the audience really, really pumped.” On the commentary track Rodriguez identifies his use of this song as the only point of levity in the entire film. Whereas in McTiernan’s film the song, and the banter of Dutch’s squad, underscores the likability of all of the human characters, it has no place inside the narrative of Predators. Antal and Rodriguez mark out their perceived connection to the 1987 film as well as the differences between their moral universes.
In a review of the film Snowpiercer (2014) in the July 4th issue of Entertainment Weekly, Chris Nashawaty takes aim at sequels: “By my math, this summer we’ll be treated to 11 sequels. I wouldn’t say Hollywood’s taking the summer off, but it certainly isn’t breaking a sweat to come up with new ideas.” Predators demonstrates that not all sequels are derivative cash-ins, but instead explore “old” ideas in new directions. Sequels at their best can push the limits of a previous film’s universe and further delve into the implications within a context that has already been established (and so doesn’t need to be set up again). As Shane Black, screenwriter for the 1987 film and for an upcoming entry, said recently: “Why start over when you’ve all this rich mythology yet to mine?”
In the next post, I return to Batman and his role (or lack thereof) in creating the Joker. Believe it or not, there is a connection between the Predator series and Batman--three ’90s comics series called unsurprisingly Batman Versus Predator and Sandy Corolla’s fan film Batman: Dead End, which depicts full-on battle between the Caped Crusader and an alien hunter.