SEPTEMBER 22, 2022
ANDER MONSON HAS WATCHED Predator 146 times. He was 12 years old when the movie came out in 1987, which partially accounts for his obsession. Predator is one of those loud, dumb movies that became a kind of lingua franca for American boys and man-children of a certain age. They loved recreating its most famous scenes on the playground (“Get to the choppa!”). But there were plenty of other loud, dumb action movies on offer in the 1980s — Commando, Raw Deal, Red Dawn, and countless others. What makes Predator such a prime object for Monson’s obsession?
It might be that Monson — essayist, short story writer, and poet — specializes in creating idiosyncratic forms: poems in the forms of lists, essays that literally run off the page. His new memoir is called, appropriately enough, Predator. In it, he recounts the history of the film and his own relationship to it, drawing on episodes from his own life as well as others affected by the movie. He begins to answer the question of why this movie, why this much, from the first chapter: “It’s about men and the way they relate to us, to themselves, and to each other more spectacularly than any other film I can think of, particularly any other film with a shitload of guns and an alien.”
Which is to say: Being a man, and perhaps especially an American man, entails banding together with other American men to confront an enemy you can’t quite see. And learning how to see that enemy, and how that enemy sees you, teaches you how to see yourself. Perhaps you’ll see that you, too, are just as much a predator as the one from outer space.
Predator is a genre movie that’s better, and smarter, than it has any right to be. Of the glut of 1980s action movies starring muscle-bound men playing war, some were rather serious, while others were jingoistic cash-ins. Perhaps no figure better illustrates this range than one John Rambo, portrayed so iconically by Sylvester Stallone. First Blood (1982) says something honest about the trauma Vietnam veterans experienced. Subsequent entries in the franchise became naked wish fulfillment, the impotence of Vietnam redeemed with machine guns. Part of what makes Predator effective is how it encapsulates this entire range in its own lean, 107-minute runtime. The movie starts as an action flick about American Übermenschen kicking ass, then becomes a horror movie about confronting the monstrous and coming up short.
A fleet of commandos led by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his testosteronal glory) is deployed to an unnamed Central American country. (Whether or not the filmmakers intended it, the name has a very 1980s resonance: Dutch was Ronald Reagan’s adolescent nickname, even serving as the title for Edmund Morris’s memoir of the 40th president.) Their objective is to eliminate a guerrilla camp deep in the jungle, and they achieve that aim easily, deploying the full might of their weaponry. But after that, the movie becomes something else entirely: a science fiction–inflected horror movie, essentially, where the “Predator” picks off the soldiers one by one, not unlike the Xenomorph from Alien or Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. By the end, Dutch is alone, all of his comrades having been killed in brutal fashion. He must face the Predator on his own.
As a boy growing up in Michigan’s sparsely populated, highly rural Upper Peninsula, Monson thrilled to the movie’s most, well, boyish aspects: the explosions, the tough guy talk, the unspoken camaraderie. Inspired by the film, he and his friends set off fireworks in the expansive wilderness, treating nature as a setting for play. It is to Monson’s credit that he doesn’t disavow these boyish pleasures in some ill-fated effort at virtue signaling. The pleasures are real, even today. He still loves setting off fireworks in the Arizona desert, where he now lives and works. Even after a childhood friend blows off several fingers during a firework mishap, Monson finds he can’t quit the visceral pleasure of blowing shit up.
This is a recurring theme of the book: how far are you supposed to take these fantasies of masculinity? Monson doesn’t want to ditch them entirely. They provide him with pleasure, and even purpose. But he also recognizes their potential danger. Monson lives in the congressional district represented by Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a disturbed young male with a gun in 2011. Monson writes, “Tucson has a lot of crazies I don’t identify with much of the time. But when confronted with an incident as shocking as this, I suddenly felt part of that we for the first time.” That we is not unlike the sense of camaraderie he finds on display in Predator, the sense that a threat has catalyzed a latent sense of solidarity into something active and constructive. That threat, of course, is none other than another man with a gun, one who likely watched the same movies and played the same video games that Monson loves. How does a man swerve away from that harmful, nihilistic strain of masculinity and into one that’s communal and protective?
The key, for Monson, involves seeing. The cinematic trope one could call Kill-O-Vision is, unsurprisingly, most often found in horror movies. The camera occupies the killer’s point of view as he stalks his victims, hiding behind a cabin or in the bushes. We see the world as he sees it, without seeing his face. Think of Jason Voorhees stalking teenagers at a summer camp. Think especially of Michael Myers, who, at the start of Halloween, is a young boy prowling around his house wearing a mask. Viewing through his eyes, we see him pick up a knife and kill his older sister, as if he is creating a real-life horror movie for his own amusement. There’s an uncomfortable resonance between young Michael Myers, viewers like the young Ander, and ourselves. Does the act of consuming violence lead to the desire to produce violence? Does one inevitably follow the other? Looking beyond the horror genre, the Terminator films aim the Kill-O-Vision trope in a sci-fi direction, framing the world through the Terminator’s robotic eyes, complete with data readouts on height and distance.
Predator deploys one of the most innovative, unnerving examples of Kill-O-Vision. It’s more than just atmosphere; it’s a crucial part of the story. Viewing through the Predator’s eyes, we see that its vision uses infrared thermal imaging, detecting the heat signatures of the living creatures in the jungle, from rats climbing trees to soldiers lugging their weapons. This ability, along with its superior weapons technology, allows the Predator to pick off the soldiers one by one. In terms of sheer firepower, Dutch and the other soldiers are no match for the Predator. It’s only after Dutch flees the Predator and slides into mud that he puts two and two together: the mud covers up his body heat, rendering him invisible to the Predator. In real life, this effect would wear off after about a minute — but hey, this is a movie.
“That’s the hopeful message of the film,” Monson writes. “That once we see what our adversary can and cannot see, we can start to fight it.” The movie makes clear that many of the conventional weapons of masculinity are ineffective against this particular enemy. There are countless guns on display in the movie, perhaps the most fetishized being the minigun, a kind of supercharged Gatling gun that fires thousands of rounds per minute. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a former wrestler who would go on to become governor of Minnesota, totes it lovingly, nicknaming it “ol’ painless.” The minigun is fearsome, vicious, bombastic — and, as it turns out, useless. When Ventura is killed by the Predator, one of his comrades takes up the minigun. He empties the entire clip, destroying the foliage of the jungle, but it’s all for naught. The Predator, camouflaged to blend in with the trees, escapes.
This insight — that your big phallus of a machine gun won’t protect you — is one that many Predator fans don’t seem to want to take to heart. Monson, brave soul that he is, spends many hours lurking in the comments sections of YouTube videos, tracking the reactions of fans to their favorite moments. The minigun scene ranks high in their estimation. The plume of flame erupting from the barrel is awesome: it rules; it kicks ass. But trying to point out the seeming futility of the gunfire, Monson gets rebuffed, as if he were accusing them of impotence — which, in a way, he is. He writes, “What the fuck, men? What the fuck, us? I want us at least to see ourselves. I want to see that if the bad part of us can bleed, maybe we can kill it.”
“If it bleeds, we can kill it.” This is one of the movie’s killer one-liners, intoned by Schwarzenegger with halting gravitas. It seems that the minigun didn’t miss the Predator entirely. His leg is wounded, and he leaves a small trail of blood on a leaf. (In a perfect 1980s touch, the blood is Day-Glo green. The production staff snapped a glowstick in half and dribbled its contents on the foliage.) None of the soldiers notice right away; Anna, a captured guerrilla and the only woman in the movie, points it out. Perhaps, for a man to learn how to see himself and his environment, he must listen to a woman.
Predator recalls Alien in several ways. You’ve got a murderous extraterrestrial causing mayhem in an isolated locale. (It’s no wonder that movie producers brought them together in the Alien vs. Predator films.) But one telling difference is that the Xenomorph is, well, alien to a degree that the Predator isn’t exactly. We don’t get Kill-O-Vision there. Dutch and the Predator are on far more equal footing to an uncomfortable degree. They are both male, whether in a literal or an affective sense. They shoot guns and stalk prey. Seeing the Predator, seeing how the Predator sees, enables Dutch to see himself for what he truly is.
In theory, at least. The movie can only take this insight so far. It remains a loud, dumb action movie, after all. Simply watching it, over and over, doesn’t mean you’re really seeing it, really seeing yourself as the movie sees you. Monson writes:
I feel this way about the wildly out-of-control strain of internet so-called masculinity I’ve been talking about here. If it bleeds, we can kill it, even if I’m not sure how. Step one is seeing the thing clearly, even if it means using an alien’s eyes to see what else it is we’re seeing when we watch this movie over and over.
Monson doesn’t exactly say this, but I find that the insight Predator offers, in terms of killing this toxic masculinity, is that the masculine must incorporate the feminine to survive the hit. If Predator is a horror movie, and Dutch is the one who defeats the monster and makes it out alive, then he does so by becoming something other than a man. He becomes, in effect, a “final girl.”
Named by critic Carol Clover in her groundbreaking work Men, Women and Chain Saws, the final girl is the supreme figure of 1980s horror. She is Laurie Strode in Halloween; she is Ripley in Alien; she is Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The final girl confronts the monster and defeats him by drawing on her own inner strength and cunning, rather than strapping on the largest weapon available. This is precisely what Dutch does in the film’s climax. He eschews his guns to construct a series of obstacles to ensnare the Predator. The Predator ultimately is felled not by a speeding bullet but by a falling rock that Dutch has rigged on a cliff face. But perhaps the most telling example of Dutch’s feminization, his taking on of the final girl mantle, comes just before the climax. Dutch must reapply mud to his skin to keep the Predator from seeing him. Music comes on, and the scene goes into slow motion. Tenderly, painstakingly, Dutch applies the mud to his face. He is putting on makeup — embracing the feminine, becoming the final girl, as only that will allow him to go unseen by the Predator’s technologically augmented male gaze.
Good luck pointing that out on the YouTube comments. The internet bros will downvote you in a heartbeat. Better to grease yourself up, go unseen, and plot their downfall.