Retrospective

35 years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger made the manliest sci-fi movie ever — and launched an unstoppable franchise

Though it lives on today mostly as the source of the “Epic Handshake” meme, Predator is actually a lot more fun and meaningful than the meme implies.

20th Century Fox

“You son of a bitch!”

There are a lot of secretly revolutionary things about 1987’s Predator, a film that can be best described as the jock of science fiction movies.

At its release 35 years ago, sci-fi had already successfully mingled with explosive popcorn action. There was Star Wars, of course. But there were also other genre hybrids like Escape From New York (1981), Tron (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Aliens (1986), all proving that not every sci-fi flick had to be cerebral like 2001.

But Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch in his most complex “Tough Guy Who Is Hard to Kill” role yet, has sustained relevancy almost 40 years later in ways not even those who made the movie could have predicted. For one thing, it’s a capital-F franchise now. The unmistakable silhouette of a vicious trophy hunter with bug-like mandibles and dreadlocks is precious intellectual property for, of all companies, Walt Disney.

But it isn’t Mickey Mouse who’s made sure Predator is remembered. It’s been people, often through memes. First it was “Get To The Choppa,” a line Schwarzenegger yells a little more than halfway through the movie. In a more primitive era of the web, when sketchy YTMND pages cured young millennial boredom, the line was used everywhere, from World of Warcraft to Eminem singles to the Library of Congress.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star of 1987’s Predator, in which a squad of human commandos find themselves standing against an advanced alien hunter.20th Century Fox

But Predator’s most enduring memetic element is the movie’s hearty, meaty symbol of friendship masquerading as testosterone-fueled competition. At exactly 4:59 from when you press play, Schwarzenegger and co-star Carl Weathers (He’s the Dillon of “Dillon! You son of a...”) lock arms in the manliest handshake cinema has ever seen. No wonder it’s now called the “Epic Handshake.”

Everything about it rules. The whip slapping of palms. The sound of swelling biceps. The fact that both arms look like slabs of meat seasoned with the Super Soldier serum.

But Predator is also Predator, one of the best beefcake action movies of its time. What’s remarkable is that its masculine façade disguises its efficient storytelling. The movie stands in bulk contrast to sci-fi now, which is all too ready to dump a Wiki’s worth of background exposition from the word go. Predator comfortably leans into its curt, lunkheaded sensibilities.

As scripted by brothers Jim and John Thomas, Predator is like its antagonist: Ruthlessly efficient. There’s no ominous expository text. No anthropologic mumbo jumbo. There’s no brainy dweeb in the ensemble whose job is to scientifically explain how the alien operates. All Predator needs is one line from Schwarzenegger: “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

But so much of Predator’s original magic goes back to its quiet conceit, a movie championing the unshakeable bond that can forge between men under hellish circumstances. While the gun-toting “heroes” of Predator are hard pills to swallow today thanks to their casual misogyny and homophobia, it still sucks when they get brutally killed one by one. When the odds are stacked against you, Predator posits that the best and worst thing you can have at your side are people you love.

Predator was a throwback to old ensemble war and Western movies, in which a special group of people face tough odds in a deadly situation. It’s since evolved into a sci-fi franchise revolving around where to drop the monster next.20th Century Fox

For obvious but boring reasons, the Predator aliens have become the franchise’s mascot, not the human characters who stood up to it. Subsequent movies have either changed the formula (1990’s Predator 2) or strove to recapture the original. 2010’s Predators is more or less the 1987 film reincarnated (with Adrien Brody, in a bizarre attempt at a career pivot), and mostly succeeds on its own merits, whilst 2018’s The Predator was the franchise tripping over its own feet. Prey, arriving this summer to Hulu, promises to be another compelling twist to 1987’s basic concept, this time dropping a Predator into 18th century America to face a Comanche warrior.

But all the sequels so far failed to match a moment Predator perfected in its first five minutes. Even if they don’t survive, it’s the bond of friendship that can outmatch a greater foe.

Director John McTiernan never put on airs about what he sought to make. “I wanted to do an old-fashioned popcorn movie, and that’s what this is,” he said in an interview included in If It Bleeds We Can Kill It, a 2004 documentary included as a bonus feature on the Predator DVD. Schwarzenegger similarly wanted to do something in the vein of an old school Western ensemble, “like The Wild Bunch or The Magnificent Seven.”

Schwarzenegger was the star, but he didn’t want to carry the entire load. He needed a friend.

Predator is currently streaming on Hulu.

Share: