There is a general misapprehension that the 1970s represented the apotheosis of “political cinema” in the US; when the spirit of the 60s counterculture finally overwhelmed the entrenched conservatism of the old system and brought forth a heretofore suppressed sense of candour and challenge. But if one wishes to see ideological cinema in its purest and most persuasive form, one need look no further than the 1980s action film.
The idea that this cycle of films offered the battle-scarred audiences of the 70s a return to some prelapsarian idyll of heroism is one of the greatest lies ever perpetuated on the cinemagoing public. In these violent and stylised spectacles is a streak of ideology as strident as anything the New Hollywood ever produced. The vision of the world they promulgated has left an indelible impression on the American, and global, psyche.
With a film like Top Gun (1986), subtext became text; the exigencies of national security cinema burst through to the surface with a highly successful recruitment tool for the U.S. Air Force. The year 1980 was a threshold for the U.S. — politically, culturally and psychologically. The shift was symbolised as much by the catastrophic failure of Heaven’s Gate as the election of Ronald Reagan. The 80s action film offered an inverse vision of the America promulgated throughout the 70s; it was an affirmation of the values embodied by Reagan; a salving of old wounds — the exorcising of the past in largely symbolic displays of strength.
One such locale for these displays forms the basis for Predator. Reagan understood the value of the set piece, and Central America became the perfect stage on which the B-movie president could flex his muscles with a minimum of risk. The team of Green Berets in Predator are dropped into the jungle of an unnamed Central American country to rescue a cabinet minister and his aide who have been captured by guerrillas. Predator plays out like an imperial anxiety dream, in which the pursuit of the cure for what Reagan called “Vietnam syndrome” unleashes a more virulent strain of doubt. Vietnam hangs heavy over Predator: Libya, Afghanistan and Cambodia are referenced as the latest locations in which the empire has searched for a foe whose defeat will serve to assuage its sense of grievance.
Predator is perhaps the most seamless piece of military-industrial entertainment from this era, couched as it is in the conventions of the monster movie. But it is not without its paradoxes; as with all monster movies, the creature is an avatar for some social fear. The creature could be seen as the ghost of Vietnam and the divisions it wrought; a spectre that haunts the American subconscious, a disruption in the perceived order of thing which plunges the Green Berets and their superior firepower into an unaccustomed state of powerlessness. The creature becomes the hegemonic force, while the Green Berets are reduced to guerrillas. The creature could equally represent the crisis of masculinity implicit in such powerlessness; the cast presents a set of macho archetypes which strives to reassert masculine values. Predator ends up being as much about American manhood as Cold War realpolitik.
Predator and its sequel explore the two enduring concerns of right-wing cinema: military adventurism and urban dread. Predator 2 essentially conceives inner-city Los Angeles as another jungle, trading in the white-flight paranoia that became a staple of 90s action fare like Trespass (1992), Falling Down (1993) and Judgment Night (1993). Predator 2 predicts an L.A. in 1997 where Colombian and Jamaican drug gangs are fighting for control of the city; where the forces of order — embodied in Gary Busey’s conspicuously Aryan special unit — have abandoned all civic duty beyond ensuring that the unrest doesn’t spread to the suburbs where the affluent classes have sought refuge. The war has been brought home; the end of history has been pronounced and the empire has to look within for new monsters to slay. The drug gangs are the guerrillas whose presence serves to reify the logic of perpetual war.
In both films, traditional authority has been usurped; but in Predator 2, the creature’s appropriation of power assumes a more troubling dimension. In this sequel, the creature becomes a sort of vigilante avenger viewers are tacitly encouraged to root for as it bumps off drug pushers and muggers in a variety of grisly ways. The jingoism of the first film has become nihilism. The creature takes on an almost messianic dimension, a vengeful god purging the streets of the unproductive. What the creature has come to represent is the hope that authoritarianism will save us from chaos. This dehumanising characteristic has become more pronounced in the later iterations of the franchise; like victims in a slasher film, the humans function as a mechanism for violence to be enacted with almost ritualistic rigour.
Danny Glover’s presence as the dogged central lieutenant is a fig leaf for the misanthropic glee which typifies the film’s tone. This sense of intermingled moral outrage and prurience finds its fullest expression in Morton Downey Jr.’s bombastic news reporter, whose grotesquery is the closest the film comes to emulating the satirical sting of RoboCop (1987). Gone is the gung-ho sincerity of the original film, which operated from a fixed moral centre, however reductive. Predator 2 offers no such consolation. There is little possibility of fashioning a counter-narrative, as there is with the original — which, consciously or otherwise, creates parallels between the objectives of the creature and the Green Berets.
What viewers learn is that the creature will keep returning, mutating to meet one’s fears. What changes is the meaning. It will reflect whatever vulnerability one feels most acutely. The creature remains a potent symbol because it reminds that even the most powerful defences may be inadequate. The Predator franchise is a repository of the fears that plague the powerful. The context changes, but the fear persists — the fear that the conqueror may one day become the conquered. In experiencing powerlessness, viewers arrive at a strange sort of empathy for those who have been subjugated, and with it a pang of self-awareness.
The ending of Predator offers a perfect summation of this phenomenon. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch looks down on the fallen creature and asks, “what are you?,” to which the creature repeats Dutch’s question back at him. It is an oddly introspective moment in a film which valorises force; a concession of the things upon which power is contingent, a flash of awareness that by slaying monsters, we run the risk of becoming one ourselves.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.