It is perhaps because humans are the most dangerous predators on earth that they are so afraid of being hunted themselves. Nearly every culture makes some sort of bogeyman or ogre whose main goal is to capture and devour humans. This isn’t just an obvious threat to individual humans, this is a threat to humanity’s position at the top of the food chain. With our ability to wipe entire species extinct with our insatiable gluttony, just imagine what a superior hunter would do to us?
Beginning in 1987, the Predator series has found success for 3 decades now exploring this subject, and with a new entry coming out, the time is right to examine this monster, and in particular, how each film in the series explores different facets of its nature (or doesn’t, as the case may be). In this article, I will only be tackling the mainline movies: The original Predator, Predator 2, Predators, and The Predator. Crossovers with Alien are as much about that series as they are about Predator, and the comics are just way too extensive to get into. Also, throughout this article I will refer to the species as “Predators” rather than “Yautja”, because the latter name is never used in the films.
The first Predator movie is a masterpiece at establishing a monster, both its powers and its personality. We learn a shocking amount about this creature in an hour and 40 minutes. Biologically, this first Predator displays some strange alien physiology on top of the expected superior strength and agility they use to hunt. They see heat signatures rather than visible light, and their blood glows green. On top of that, they can mimic sounds they hear, which is portrayed as a technological trick sometimes but is actually a natural ability. They are also from a civilization more technologically advanced than ours, capable of space flight, invisibility tech, and plasma weaponry, and they are individually intelligent as well, making the most of their abilities and outwitting their human prey multiple times. We are told by Anna, a local guerilla, that it only appears during the hottest of summers, a cool bit of lore that tells us their preferred climate is tropical. This is the baseline threat of the monster, but none of these are what it is.
The most important aspect of the Predator is that it doesn’t hunt for food, but for fun and trophies. It hunts humans because they are more dangerous than any other animal on the planet, and at one point risks its life not to kill a target, but to steal the body of somebody it already killed so it can claim their skull. The scene that I think says the most about the Predator is when it finally has the lead, a special forces member it has been hunting through the whole film, cornered, it drops its mask and shoulder cannon to fight him with only its built-in claws.
There’s a lot you can take from this, and most people (and later media) have gone with the take that these creatures are honorable, that it saw him as a worthy opponent and wanted to face him without any tricks. My personal read is that this is an act of pride, the creature angrily lashing out because its ego has been wounded by this difficult prey. I present as evidence how the Predator violently beats Dutch without using its claws to finish him off. Further pushing this spiteful bastard theory is how when it is fatally injured, the Predator uses a recorded laugh as it self-destructs, gleefully trying to take the victor with it. What a sore loser! At this point, we don’t know much about the Predators as a species, and for all we know this guy was just actually a rich alien who likes shooting people on the weekends. Later entries will change this perspective as we learn more about what makes this species tick.
Predator 2, in addition to mistaking Jamaicans for Hatians, provides us with some fascinating tidbits of Predator behavior. The Predator of the movie gives up opportunities to kill a child with a fake gun and a pregnant woman, emphasizing their lack of interest in “unworthy” targets. Most of our new insights into the species, however, come at the very end of the movie. After killing the individual that has been tormenting Los Angeles, the main character is confronted by several other members of their group who had been invisibly lurking and watching the confrontation. What this establishes is that this isn’t some random hobby, this is a way of life, with tribes of the species using hunting not just for recreation, but to prove themselves. This movie also thoroughly establishes that one of the prime directives of their society is to never allow their technology to end up in the hands of prey species like us. Notably, all Predators we see on the ship present as masculine. It’s unclear if there are no female predators, whether they simply have no significant sexual dimorphism, or if females don’t come on these missions. Whatever the in-universe reason, the thematic implication is that Predators are inherently masculine and represent a vicious form of masculinity, committing acts of violence to gain status more than anything else.
As another side note on biology, one of the Predators rewards the main character with a flintlock pistol from the late 1700s, suggesting that the species may be effectively immortal if not killed directly, or at least extremely long-lived.
Predators does a lot with our favorite murderous bastards. This movie is not set on earth but instead takes place on a planet used by the Predators as a game preserve. This and several other factors suggest a surprisingly high level of organization among Predators. The death of a Predator will trigger a new group to come down, changing their tactics and weaponry in a constantly evolving struggle. This is the most dynamic we have seen the Predators, with each member of the trio we see using different gear. We also gain a look at internal conflict within the species, it being revealed that larger, stronger Predators hunt smaller members of their own kind. They are supposed to be some sort of subrace of “super Predators” but this never really comes into play and they die easier than the Predators of the first two movies.
We also get an interesting take on the humans of this entry as well. In Predators 1 and 2, the protagonists were “just” users of violence, as a special forces agent and a cop. The special agent kills with the aplomb and lack of empathy expected of an 80s action hero (it’s pretty messed up to quip after impaling somebody) and the police officer has an apparent history of unnecessary violence. Neither of these traits is ever really treated narratively as bad or something that reflects on how the Predator sees violence against us as justified by its own ends. Predators never goes into detail, but it seems to have more thoughts on the violent backgrounds of its characters. Even the most sympathetic members of the group are less heroic superhumans than the protagonists of the former movies, and there is a brief moment of introspection by one of the most conventionally moral members of the group that they are collectively the monsters of earth.
The Predator, the confusingly titled sequel of 2018, is on the other hand the film that most lionizes soldiery out of this series. We see a repeat of a story thread from the original movie where the soldiers are trustworthy and good while CIA agents and other branches of government are manipulative and dangerous. The son of the main character (a military sniper) declares to a postman that his father works as a soldier so that they can be a postman, and this statement, that military action in other countries is necessary to American freedom, is never contradicted by the narrative.
This is enforced most powerfully by the narrative. The Predator’s basic narrative is that because climate change is making our world slowly uninhabitable, the Predators are hunting us more intensely, collecting our DNA before we are driven extinct. There’s a lot about Predators upgrading themselves with DNA from species they hunt, but it factors into surprisingly little besides the oversized “super Predator” that serves as the main villain, who functions little different to a regular predator anyway. More important is that one member of the species has defected, coming to earth to give us a tool to avoid extinction. This is not a power source to prevent us from destroying our own planet, but a weapon for our soldier hero to use against Predators who come to hunt us. While self-defense is nice, this is treated as a solution; fixing the planet’s problems has been entirely forgotten, warfare and violence will solve everything. Perhaps it’s fitting that this is the first film in the mainline series to present a predator who is on “our side”. The main character says that what separates his just killing from the acts of the Predators is that they enjoy it… then later admits that he enjoys killing.
The film also has a strange thread about autism, and I should be upfront here that I am personally autistic, so when I say what the FUCK, I say it with a lot of personal experience. The main character’s son is portrayed much the same as most autistic characters, a sensitive savant that seems more like an adult stuck in a kid’s body than an actual autistic child. The kid is baffling in how immune to emotion he seems, remaining as chill as the trained soldiers even in dire situations. Autistic folks can have trouble expressing their emotions, but we aren’t robots, and kids especially will quickly melt down if too much is going on. Of course, this is because he is more a prop than a real character. Nearly being killed by aliens and kidnapped by government agents is “too much”. The worst element of the film’s treatment of autism is the unchallenged assertion that autism is some sort of next step in evolution. On a scientific level, that’s not a thing, and it’s hard for me to put into words how bad this is as autistic representation.
The Predator is a grim note to end the series on, somehow more jingoistic than an original made in the depths of the cold war. The Predators have always hunted violent people, with some hints at blurring the edges between themselves and their victims, but here, I’m not sure there is one. Despite the complete loss of horror elements in the series by this point, this movie may be the most disturbing of them all. Even with that in mind, I do have some hope for Prey. The historical setting is a nice change of pace for the series, and the name alone suggests a return to horror. Will it deliver? That’s impossible to say, so far. But I hope it can breathe life into a franchise that has languished for a while now on a sour note.