Hollywood tried time and time again to understand the Vietnam War and its impact, and it is Predator that understands it best. It is not just the thick jungle populated by tall trees and clustered villages that set the scene, but what Arnold Schwarzenegger and the titular alien creature embody. The gun-toting action hero representing the banner of freedom faces off against an enemy that adapts to its surroundings immediately. It uses nature and instinct to its advantage. Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and company have the blunt, American gusto. Their confidence is misplaced, but initially, it is a conceivable notion to hold onto. They are prepared for the dangers of the jungle, or so they think. The parallels are rather obvious.
Writer John Thomas is often quoted as saying that, had the film been made earlier, “it would have been set in Vietnam”. As if setting matters to the simple-yet-cutting political commentary found within. Predator is typical. Scenes that show the black-clad American helicopters rolling into parts unknown with a jolly soundtrack, it could be used as B-Roll for a film looking to depict the war on communism. Even the excruciating violence and attitude of the tired-but-alert soldiers is played with well. Carl Weathers, in particular, is clumsy but prepared for combat. Early in the film, when silence is necessary, he stumbles halfway down a bank. There is no visible threat on screen, nor does anything come of this moment, but it is the heightened sense of importance from the music, and the fear in the eyes of Weathers that sell it so well. He is a nice parallel to the rest of the team, especially Blain Cooper (Jesse Ventura), who, when cut, must surely bleed red, white and blue.
An idyllic representation of the American hard-ass, paired against an enemy they outnumber and outgun. Predator is not armed with the weapons these grizzled veterans of war are, yet these troops are picked off through their lack of tactics and inability to adapt their mission. It is the comparison between the Predator and Vietnamese then, who were outgunned and outmanned, using their environment to counteract this lack of modern tactic. While the ballsy brute force of the American hero is picked apart, it is John McTiernan that leads the charge. He lingers the camera on the machoism of Dutch and Dillon (Weathers) very early on. They are drenched in sweat, their muscles bulging in a scene that, had it been a second shorter, would be earnest rather than satirical.
But it is that satire that makes Predator such an endearing action film. Its pangs of Vietnam and the content that looked to capture it is all well and good, but McTiernan’s piece must work simply as a fun flick. It is well done and brutal. Conventional bust-ups and explosions mark the first act with the typical renegades firing and fighting through the jungle. Moments of distrust among fighters are contrast with the perspective of a Predator. Taking a leaf from the book of Alien, McTiernan understands that it is more effective to know of the monster than to see it. Its vision exposes the lingering threat to us, but not the characters, who are kept in the dark as they are hunted. They themselves are, obviously, prey. While the eventual reveal and CGI of Predator have aged as poorly as one would expect, there is still an endearing quality to it.
Panic sets in with instant affliction to the assembled team, but with such panic comes a heightened sense of confidence. “Come on in you fuckers, come on in…” Cooper taunts, and it is this taunting that gets him his just desserts. Bill Duke is distraught, he sells the fear so well. His thousand-yard stare and sweat dripping from the brow is an understanding of the shellshocked warrior. In among all the usual one-liners from Schwarzenegger are the dynamic distrust between a group of hired heroes. Are they even heroes? They are in a place they do not need to be, killing people with generally fading reason, and are hounded out of the country by a threat they initially took no notice of. If that doesn’t strike up thoughts of the Vietnam War, then what else will?