Does ‘Predator’ Actually Suck?
On its 30th anniversary, we look back on 'Predator' to figure out why it was so despised by critics.
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Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.
When talking about decades as cultural epochs, we often use boundaries more arbitrary than January 1st and December 31st. The 1960s began in '64 and ended at the tragic Altamont Free Concert on December 6th, 1969 (or with Don Draper's hippie-culture-plundering Coke ad in November 1971). The 1980s began in '79 when Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" and The Knack's "My Sharona" both hit #1 and ended with the stock market crash of October 19th, 1987.
This great divide of 1987 extends beyond economic circumstances. Compare 1986's biggest cultural exports— Top Gun, Metallica's Master Of Puppets, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet—to 1988's: Die Hard, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Tracy Chapman. It's clear that the bedrock for the 1990s were laid in less than two years. Anything with excessive hair gel, high-sheen synths, or non-gratuitous violence was left in the dust.
Caught in the middle of all of this was Predator.
The big-budget film arrived 30 years ago today—four months before the crash and a year after James Cameron's Aliens shattered all expectations of what an R-rated sci-fi flick could do at the box office. Along with Top Gun, it's the quintessential 80s movie, complete with blatant Star Wars mimicry, Iran-Contra-era guerilla warfare in Central America, and a glorious shot of Jesse Ventura firing a comically large Gatling gun while wearing an MTV shirt.
Predator was late to the party and paid the price in the Arts section of nearly every major newspaper. The New York Times called it "alternately grisly and dull, with few surprises" while The Los Angeles Times claimed it had "one of the emptiest, feeblest, most derivative scripts ever made as a major studio movie." The Washington Post went below the belt, insulting the Predator itself: "Frankly, scarier critters have checked into Roach Motels." Critics, it seems, were so over the 80s even before their culturally-dictated end.
Gradually, the film's reputation improved. Predator has a dismal score of 36 on Metacritic, which aggregates reviews written at the time of the film's release, but a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, which takes later reviews into account. Its fan scores are 87 and 78, respectively, on RT and IMDB. In recent years, it's been called "The Greatest Movie Ever Made" and been ranked above Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix in a Rolling Stone "10 Best Action Movies of All Time" readers' poll.
Strict adherence to an era's trends usually results in a near-sighted initial reaction (I.E. The Matrix getting praised for its visual effects and "wake up sheeple" message only to seem dated and, in the latter's case, toxic in hindsight), but in Predator's case, the opposite was true. Critics had been bashed over the head with Schwarzenegger, automatic weapon-toting lunkheads, exotic jungle locales, and extra-terrestrials so often in this decade that by the time '87 rolled around, not even the most expertly-crafted combination of those elements could counteract the macho action/sci-fi genre's critical mass being reached.
So while most unheralded or "lost" classics are deemed as such because they were ahead of their time, Predator missed out on recognition because it was just a tad past its sweet spot. Were Friends With Benefits and Steve Jobs superior to their respective twin films, No Strings Attached and Jobs? Yes, but their impact was undeniably lessened by the fact that they arrived just months after similar movies hit theaters.
Though its testosterony core echoed dozens of previous blockbusters and it can't really be deemed "revolutionary" in any way, Predator was a good deal more prescient, and perhaps even progressive, than its contemporaries:
-- Starring Schwarzenegger, Ventura, and Sonny Landham, it was ground zero for actors-turned-gubernatorial-candidates, as the first two scored seats in California and Minnesota, and Landham has, to date, lost three election bids in Kentucky.
-- At one point in the film, Schwarzenegger is derogatorily referred to as an "expendable," which formed the basis of an entire separate film franchise.
-- Shockingly, the Predator's invisible armor is now close to becoming a reality.
-- The film's underlying theme of mistrust in the government and military was pretty radical by Reagan-era standards.
-- Landham's character may be a stereotype of the Native American tracker, but at least they got an actual Native American to play him (shout-out to Johnny Depp's Tonto).
-- Best of all, the two most intolerant characters (Shane Black's misogynistic Hawkins and Ventura's homophobic Cooper) are the first to meet their grisly fates.
I highly doubt that anyone at the time suspected that Predator would predict the future more accurately than 1987's bi-racial cop drama Lethal Weapon, but who could have guessed that a sobbing Mel Gibson shoving a pistol into his mouth would one day be a welcome, rather than a heartrending, sight?
The initial backlash against Predator resulted from a rare case of a blockbuster film being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see it happen more frequently in popular music, where trends move at a brisker pace than they do in an industry built around projects that cost millions and gestate for years. But after a decade so defined by every trope that formed its core, Predator was destined to catch the wave of shit that critics had been holding back ever since they begrudgingly tolerated Schwarzenegger in Terminator.
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