Predator

Not as fluid as McTiernan films to come -- he finessed his cutting philosophy with Frank Urioste and Jan de Bont during the production and post-production of Die Hard -- but clearly, robustly the work of a born filmmaker. Not only for his ability to create space out of the jungle, but also for his ability to give a plastic reality to thought and emotion through the camera.

The long takes are unassuming yet sinuous: a dolly shot of the canopy from below cuts to a close-up of Richard Chaves (prior shot being his POV), the camera arcing around his head in shallow focus --> he moves out of frame, and a rack-focus finds Shane Black moving laterally in the background --> the camera parallels him until he comes upon Arnold, who then redirects the motion himself, the camera dollying under a log and tilting as he stops and looks up, prompting a cut back to the canopy. The tilt catches his full form in pose, and anticipates the movement of his eyes. These three shots link the men as both a unit navigating space, and as separate perspectives scanning the environment.

Another similarly nimble shot, more concretely an expression of realization: Sonny Landham, clambering into the background, is displaced by Chaves moving into the mid-ground --> the focus adjusts to Chaves' plane as he moves into the foreground, partially obscuring the entrance of Arnold into the now-vacant mid-ground -- there are layers of movement, like the prior shot. Chaves moves out of frame, Landham quips "Like a hunter", and Arnold has his realization: the camera pushes in on his face as his eyes widen -- and I think there's even a little zoom hidden in there, obscured by swirling fog (the space seems to warp for just a second!) -- then tracks around the left side of his body (frame right, for the audience), tilting up as he lifts his gaze again to the canopy. This time the camera has followed his gaze, tilting to see the canopy with him. In a kind of spiral, the camera arcs around Arnold's left, while Arnold, scanning the trees, turns right, the two meeting in the middle, Arnold once more facing the camera. The effect is indelible: the realization of a new sphere of combat.

Far from cherry-picking, this is an identification of the basic probing and searching mode of the film's form. The focus is always adjusting, investigating different planes, the camera tilts and pans to discover where things are in relation to each, and who is looking at what. The form isn't godlike orchestration, like Die Hard's or The Thomas Crown Affair's, it's grounded and trying as hard to navigate the difficult terrain as are the cast and crew. These, I think, are the fruits of necessity, a talented director and cinematographer trying to work with the immense challenge that is shooting in dense tropical foliage. I also think it is the interaction of this particular script with this particular formal mode that has prompted the wealth of interpretations that have met this film. An amusing wealth, given its origins and purpose, but also an understandable wealth. Very few genre films, from America at least, prompt such abstract considerations as this one does.

For my part, I think any anti-imperialist leanings are incidental. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them texture, I’d adjust instead to “by-product” -- these readings are the by-products of some of the film’s content. The famous sequence of the soldiers shooting into the jungle, the general arc of muscled American commandos getting negated and skinned -- yes, you can walk away from the film with a notion of anti-imperialism, but a notion at best: no political reality is considered regarding the opening 20 minutes and the situation of the guerillas. I’m not here to argue for that alternate film, I just think it’s important to identify where the film puts its emphasis, and how. More important than geopolitical specifics, in this particular case, is a more abstract binary: technology and nature.

You can miss the subtle mirroring in the film, the hints dropped right at the beginning: the infrared maps of the terrain in the briefing scene, the infrared camera on the helicopter that drops off the soldiers… the first irony of the film is the hyper-advanced American paramilitaries stuck on the wrong end of a technological gap, the second is the predator’s own technology ultimately failing it. Who’s really in charge here? Think of Apocalypse Now: “Yeah.” Man vs superior beast, superior beast vs jungle. Like many McTiernan films, then, it becomes about thinking through a situation on your feet.

Saying it then becomes about something feels cheap. Rather, as it progresses, it becomes more mythic: the commandos, and finally Arnold, are stripped of their superiority by a technologically superior force. They must relearn how to use an environment to their advantage, without mediation; they fail at this. In the final act, it reaches into primordial imagery: man at the dawn of technology (fire, spears, bow & arrow), alone in nature, howling before the full moon. The realization of nature’s power (Arnold is de-centered by becoming invisible, thus his hostility is functionally omni-present for the predator) finally equalizes the once superior foe, who after all can’t fight the jungle itself. Mano a mano, it finally becomes simply will vs will, body vs body, Arnold following trails of glowing green blood spear-in-hand.

And here’s where I turn mystic, or at least romantic, having had a strong relationship with this film for much of my life: that final “What the hell are you?” I come back to this film looking for that moment, I see the film as having earned it. Arnold performs evolution in miniature: emerging from the water, crawling through the mud, forging tools; gazed at from below, glowing red in the de-masked predator’s gaze like a devil -- what the hell are you? For me, the question’s always felt posed at humanity. Man comes into his own, his celestial mirror flinches.

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