When a friend admitted at a July 4th barbecue that she'd just seen Predator for the first time, I felt happier that she thought it was awesome than disappointed that it took her 23 years to discover it. It's a recurring phenomenon for most cinephiles that those formative childhood and adolescent films to endure a less than glorious longevity, but John McTiernan's sci-fi jungle adventure is as engaging as it ever was, and thankfully not only to folks like yours truly who have celebrated it for decades.
Newly released on Blu-ray in an Ultimate Hunter Edition that thankfully resolves some of a previous version's high-definition offenses and yet commits others, Predator manages to be one of the few 80s' action movies that remains as great now as when it was first released.
The details of the story are the same as they were in 1987: a team of top-notch soldiers are sent into the jungle to recover a Peruvian cabinet minister and his aide, only to discover that they are being stalked by an interstellar hunter with the ability to disappear completely into his environment. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Dutch Schaefer, whose name provided one of many subtle attempts in the 1980s to justify his Austrian accent without actually explaining it, and here he gives one of the best performances of his non-political career.
Having revisited the movie dozens of times between its initial release and now, I continue to be surprised at how much of the movie feels almost ageless, and how streamlined and effective its drama plays. The bifurcated script, by Jim and John Thomas, employs science-fiction to fuse a military man-on-a-mission procedural with a when-the-hunters-become-the-hunted thriller, and it expertly navigates the conventions of both without succumbing to empty clichés. Further, the duo assembles an entertaining, believable cast of characters who elevate that familiar story beyond the limits of either a faceless phalanx of gun-toting military types or an ensemble of future victims better known for the way they die than who they were.
In terms of the film's presentation, a new, high-definition transfer often does a terrific job of protecting the glorious greens of McTiernan's jungle universe, but the use of dreaded Digital Noise Reduction eliminates detail/ enhances an unreal smoothness in several shots, many of which involving Carl Weathers' constantly-glistening face. I'm neither a diehard purist or a viewer who wants films to reflect as cutting-edge presentation as possible, so my feelings about the use of DNR are mixed; and having recently blew up some childhood photos I can appreciate the merits and criticisms of muting the natural grain detail that becomes enhanced when original negatives are processed digitally in high definition.
But in spite of some fairly egregious gloss on shots of the actors (a buddy who watched the disc with me wondered where all of the features were on Weathers' face), the collective universe of Predator is brightly and brilliantly rendered on this disc, and as a whole its artistic integrity was not compromised via this presentation. As well-directed as McTiernan's film is, the shot construction is more important than much of the visual texture (this wasn't meant to be a gritty, 16mm guerilla project), in which case not that much of what's lost should be missed by folks who simply want to see it as vividly as possible.
Meanwhile, the disc features all of the bonus content on the 2004 Special Edition, including a commentary track by McTiernan, a text commentary with trivia and info by film scholar Eric Lichtenfield, multiple featurettes, galleries, deleted scenes and a bunch of other stuff. Unfortunately, the only new material that is included is a "sneak peek" featurette for Nimrod Antal's Predators, and the hilariously-titled new featurette Hunters of Extreme Perfection, which compiles footage from interviews with Antal and Predators producer Robert Rodriguez as they wax poetic on what made the original movie so special.
I won't completely call bullsh*t on Rodriguez' claim that he was inspired by Predator when he made his own half-and-half opus From Dusk Till Dawn, but his insights are otherwise relatively modest, especially given the volume of content that has been available for six years, and from key members of the cast and crew, no less. Meanwhile, I suspect I'm not the only person who would have loved a commentary track by Schwarzenegger himself, which is probably the only "missing" extra people would consciously request, but I suppose I understand why he was unavailable.
That said, it's disappointing that Schwarzenegger did not participate in either this or the '04 DVD release, except via canned footage in the behind the scenes shorts. Especially since through both the interview footage and his performance, Schwarzenegger proves himself both a generous collaborator and a hyper-ambitious performer, captured at a moment in time when his emergence as an international star was palpable.
Hopefully it isn't a spoiler to reveal that Antal and Rodriguez' sequel is meant to be an intended, direct companion piece for the 1987 original, which is testament to the fact that the first film, and not necessarily the franchise, is still beloved today. And despite the bells and whistles of the Ultimate Hunter Edition, you may prefer to keep the original, extra-free Blu-ray Fox released two years ago since its transfer is different, or even just hold onto that '04 DVD since HD upscaling does a more than serviceable job otherwise supporting its direction and cinematography.
But as the sort of groundbreaker that scarcely needs follow-ups to fulfill or even just sustain its legacy, Predator is a great movie, and it's a must-have in any format. And even if this Blu-ray isn't the best the movie will ever look, for most it's probably the best it will need to, especially since what works ultimately has little to do with the color and clarity and contrast of the frame itself, and everything to do with what's going on inside it.