Predator (John McTiernan, 1987, 107 min.)
John McTiernan’s Predator is one of the best sci-fi/action films ever made. It’s got a no-frills plot, a great leading actor (yes, the Governator could be great in the right role), a colorful supporting cast (even if they are all just a collection of character traits with machine guns), phenomenal location photography courtesy of Donald McAlpine, perfectly integrated special effects, and one of the best monsters in sci-fi history. And then there’s John McTiernan, who, when he was on (as he was in Die Hard and here), was the best action-movie director in the business. I’m not going to defend it for any other reasons; if you’re looking for high art, you already skipped it and I’m not going to convince you. Instead, I’m going to make a case for a brilliantly written character, a forgettable guy who, for reasons detailed below, is essential to the film’s success.
I would like to draw your attention to the helicopter ride that transports Arnold Schwarzenegger’s crack team of hardened soldiers to the depths of the jungle, shortly after the beginning the film. Its prime reason for existing is to introduce us to each character’s identifying traits. It is the most efficient scene of its kind in any action movie I’ve seen. In action movies, most characters don’t get developed, because there’s not enough time. They usually get one trait—the tall guy, the guy with the glasses, the black guy, etc. If a character is lucky, he or she might get more than one trait—the tall guy with glasses, the black guy who tells jokes, etc. On that helicopter ride, we get to know these soldiers. There’s Hawkins, played by the action-movie writer Shane Black, who wears geeky glasses, tells bad jokes, and has lightning-fast reflexes. There’s Billy (Sonny Landham), who is a gigantic, laconic Native American who doesn’t get the jokes. There’s Mac (Bill Duke), a black man who shaves constantly and is incredibly, almost scarily, intense. Blain (Jesse Ventura) is an arrogant loudmouth who chews tobacco and wears one of those Australian Outback hats. Dillon (Carl Weathers), the newcomer to the group, is eager to fit in, clumsy in his attempts, and disliked by everyone. After this three-minute scene, we know everything we need to know about all of the characters, in addition to learning a little more about Dutch (Schwarzenegger). Other action-movie screenwriters should look to it for guidance. It should be taught in seminars.
But then there’s Poncho, played by Richard Chaves. What’s he doing in that helicopter? At 5’10”, he is three inches shorter than the next tallest commando. He doesn’t have hypertrophied biceps or a 30-inch neck. He doesn’t wear an extravagant hat or huge glasses. He doesn’t dry-shave with a disposable razor, tell lame jokes, or chew tobacco. He doesn’t carry a battery-powered machine cannon or a foot-long machete. Compared to the virtual superheroes surrounding him, he’s pretty ordinary, almost a nobody. But he’s not a nobody—he’s us.
In literature, an audience surrogate is someone who essentially stands in for the reader, asking questions or making observations that prompt exposition or explanation. It’s often a tool of mystery writers and comic-book writers (Jimmy Olson in Superman is a good example). The audience surrogate is an average person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Chaves’s Poncho is one of the most craftily written audience surrogates in film. He’s not just our window into the film’s mysteries; he’s the the guinea pig, the canary in the coal mine, the workhorse, the prompter of catch-phrases, and, significantly, the last commando aside from Arnold to die and the first to be listed in the end credits. Poncho, he of the terminal ordinariness, is one of the most important characters in the film, and the filmmakers knew it.
Much of the rest of Poncho’s dialogue is traditional audience surrogate questions and statements, some of which frankly states the obvious, as if he’s speaking for us. When the team starts finding skinned human bodies, he asks incredulously, “The guerrillas skinned them?” And later, “Why did they skin them?” Why, indeed? Hmm. Maybe it’s not guerrillas. After Bill Duke kills a wild boar, thinking it’s the creature stalking them, Poncho points out, “You killed a pig.” When the Predator manages to sneak in through a series of tripwires and steal a dead commando’s body, Poncho observes, “It came in through the tripwires.” But sometimes his observations clear up potential audience questions: we’re wondering why they don’t just have the chopper fly to where they are, and he immediately says “Shitload of good a chopper’s gonna do us in here anyhow,” referring to the thick jungle they’re fighting through. Finally, he’s the most human in his reactions, giving us someone to identify with. He reacts to the skinned bodies with “Holy mother of God”; when Arnold asks him if he’s found a missing character, he groans “I can’t tell,” referring to the pile of intestines he’s been asked to identify.
But let’s not forget one of his dialogue’s most important functions: because this is a 1980s action film, someone needs to facilitate the one-liners, and that duty falls to Pancho. Were it not for his “You’re bleeding,” Jesse Ventura would have no reason to utter the film’s best one-liner, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” He’s also willing to sacrifice grammar to help his comrades-in-arms. In an exchange with Sonny Landham, after learning that the taciturn Indian is scared, he has an awkward line: “You ain’t afraid of no man.” The reason for the phrasing becomes apparent when Landham replies, “There’s something out there, and it ain’t no man.”
Because we’re discovering the alien creature’s mysteries at the same rate as the characters, it’s no coincidence that our stand-in is usually the one sent out to figure out what’s going on. He climbs the tree to inspect the downed helicopter. He leads the soldiers out of the rebel camp. He’s the first to walk into the valley of death. He discovers Hawkins’s body. He’s sent out after the huge firefight to discover that they didn’t hit anything. He believes their attractive rebel captive when she talks about the jungle coming alive; he’s the only one who can speak Spanish enough to communicate with her (at least until she reveals that she can speak English). His role as trailblazer is crucial: because the film is so careful about what it reveals and when, we’re often kept in the dark. When the script requires us to learn something, it’s usually Poncho who does the learning for us.
It’s not surprising that he tends to disappear during the big firefights: we came to watch bigger-than-life, musclebound superbeings doing their thing, and we don’t want to watch some guy who looks like the UPS driver. It’s also no mistake that he’s the last commando to die: he’s our witness to everything that happens in the film, and he holds on until there’s nothing new for us to learn and the film passes out of the realm of ordinary people like us and into Schwarzenegger vs. alien killing machine territory. The facts that he’s nearly killed by wandering into one of his own booby traps and then becomes a burden to Schwarzenegger until he’s rather ignominiously offed by the space monster just adds to the connection: if I were in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, I’d probably wander into a booby trap too.
In the single best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Zeppo,” Buffy‘s audience surrogate, Xander Harris, saves the world without any of his more talented friends noticing. The reference is to the fourth Marx brother—the straight man, the normal guy who doesn’t get any routines of his own. The Zeppo here, Richard Chaves’s Poncho, is essential to Predator‘s success, but nobody notices him—including me, until I rewatched the film for this essay. He stands out by resolutely not standing out; he’s central to the film by being peripheral to the superhero goings-on.
I will register one complaint with the film. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another nearly perfect sci-fi/thriller, Predator front-loads its biggest—perhaps its only—mistake, and it’s the same mistake in both films. The first shot is of a spaceship entering Earth’s atmosphere, which sort of completely ruins what should be a big surprise later on. In The Thing, the big reveal of the huge hole in the ice should be the first confirmation we get that we’re dealing with something otherworldly; here, the origin of the invisible attacker should be a complete mystery to us. Sure, we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with, but we know it’s an alien, and that’s one surprise I’d rather be surprised by. But that’s a quibble. Once we get Dutch and company into the jungle, it’s all tension all the time.