I kind of went back and forth on how to start off this review, but...y'know, I'll just come right out and say it: Predator is flat-out the best action flick ever made. It's the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name. Perfect cast. Ridiculously quotable script. Breakneck pace. Still inhumanly tense even my thirtieth or fortieth time through. Up there with Alien and its first sequel as the best realized kill-happy critter from another world.
Yeah, I know you've already watched Predator a couple hundred times, but I'll rattle off the plot anyway. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite rescue squad swoop into the heart of a steaming South American jungle to grab a kidnapped cabinet minister, or at least, that's the story he's handed by his old Army buddy Dillon (Carl Weathers). Nothing seems right from word one -- too many holes in Dillon's cover story, a rack of U.S. soldiers' skinned corpses strung up from a tree -- but Dutch and his men charge ahead anyway and slaughter an entire guerilla camp. The mission's as much of a success as it could be, but as Dutch and company trudge through the jungle to their extraction point, some invisible force starts picking off his men one by one. They're on the receiving end of some sort of intergalactic safari, and this unseen hunter has a taste for armed-to-the-teeth soldier types. All of the heavy artillery they're packing is useless, and when there's just one man left standing, his only hope of staying alive is to become as primal as the untamed jungle around him.
Not that I've kept a running tally or anything, but I've probably watched Predator more than any other movie over the past twenty years, and it still seems absolutely perfect to me. A huge part of what makes Predator such a flawless action flick is how it never stops charging ahead. There are no sprawling backstories or rambling, fist-sized chunks of exposition to drag the movie down. Dutch and his men have a hell of a lot of personality -- kinda goes without saying with guys like Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, and Shane Black on the payroll -- and the script doles that out without stopping to catch its breath. There are lulls in the action, but Predator always fills those down moments with something: mistrust, pig-sticking, pussy jokes, the nagging sense that something's not quite right... The pacing never has a chance to drag, from a gun-toting first act that's knee-deep in spent shell casings to the brutal, feral action/sci-fi/horror melding of Predator's climax. I'm still impressed by how lean and efficient the script is, especially compared to the bloated action flicks Hollywood's churning out these days, and it's about as endlessly quotable as they come: "If it bleeds, we can kill it"; "Run! Go! Get to the choppaaah!"; "You're one ugly motherfucker"; "I ain't got time to bleed". I could keep going, but you get the idea.
...and then there's the alien itself. The predator is a completely different beast from the biomechanical insects of the Alien movies, but it does have a similar blend of intelligence, ferocity, and a brilliant creature design. There's something unsettling about the fact that the alien has no voice of its own. It can't be reasoned with. It can't spout off any backstory to Dutch in the climax. It's a hunter, pure and simple, slaughtering the major's men because it wants to. To make another movie analogy, I'm even reminded a bit of Jaws; both movies hold off on showing their unstoppable killing machines, alternating between POV shots and fleeting, half-obscured glimpses until well over an hour into the film. The alien is as elusive to the audience as it is to Dutch and his men, making the creature that much more menacing. The alien's obvious frustration in the climax when his elaborate arsenal of weaponry proves useless, the frequent shifts into its infrared point of view, its deciphering of muddled, distant chatter that it gradually learns to mimic, and the truly outstanding design of the creature and its armor make it feel both otherworldly while still grounded in some sort of reality.
So, that's what...five or six paragraphs straight of me rambling about how Predator is the best action movie ever made? That'd seem to lead up to me saying why you need to fork over your credit card and pick up this Blu-ray disc, and I would've if Fox had bothered to put forth any real effort this go-around. The technical specs are pretty underwhelming -- a single layer disc with a notoriously inefficient video codec and no extras to speak of -- and packing a bloated $39.99 sticker price to boot. Fox really shouldn't be charging such a premium for this indifferent shrug of an effort, and even though I love the living hell out of Predator, I really can't recommend picking up this disc right now. Hold out for the inevitable special edition re-release or wait for Predator to hit the bargain bins. Until then...? Rent It.
Video: This Blu-ray release is the best I've ever seen Predator look, although the movie's wildly uneven photography doesn't exactly make for a reference quality disc. The weight of film grain in particular can shift dramatically from shot to shot, and while there are plenty of moments that turn in the clarity and detail I'd hope for in a newly-minted Blu-ray disc, many more are flat and fairly soft. Anna's story about the demon who makes trophies of men looks like an upconverted DVD, for instance, and Dutch careening off a cliff after his first run-in with the creature practically comes off like a home movie shot on the old Super 8 Bell and Howell that's collecting dust upstairs. Black levels are often anemic and noisy.
Those sorts of inconsistencies are just inherent to the way Predator looks. It's been that way in every one of the transfers I've seen over the years, and even if it's never going to come close to showcase material, this 1.85:1, 1080p presentation is definitely an improvement over the past couple of DVD releases. Colors in particular are more robust, and there's a much stronger sense of clarity, particularly in the definition of the lush jungle foliage that looked like more of a smear in standard-def. No wear or speckling has crept in either. This Blu-ray disc is low on shots that really floored me, but it's a decent step up over the DVD.
Fox made the unconventional choice of opting for an MPEG-2 encode on a single layer Blu-ray disc, a bad habit I thought they'd dropped months ago. Even with as challenging as Predator's grainy visuals can be, I didn't spot any compression artifacting, but I can't help but wonder if a more efficient codec would've resulted in at least a marginally better looking presentation or freed up enough space to carry over all of the DVD's extras.
Audio: So much of what makes Predator such an intense action flick can be traced back to its sound design. Its pounding, instantly recognizable score, the thunderous low-frequency hum when the perspective shifts to the alien's infrared POV, the devastating artillery on both sides, an invisible creature skulking around a jungle in pursuit of the most dangerous game, the alien's haunting mimicry of his prey...this is a movie that demands a really outstanding soundtrack, and Fox has delivered with a lossless, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track. I was only able to listen to its lossy core for this review, but I was still impressed by how well the audio turned out.
The 5.1 remix does a solid job of immersing the room in sound. There's the obvious, of course -- massive explosions, unending streams of gunfire, whirring chopper blades, and blasts from the alien's shoulder-mounted cannon -- but there's plenty of stereo separation across the front channels as well, from radio chatter to buzzing flies. The mix is backed by a colossal low-end that keeps the subwoofer rattling throughout. Predator's clever enough to know when to use silence to eke out the most tension, and those moments aren't marred by any distracting hiss or distortion either. The only stumbling block is the dialogue, which often sounds flat and scratchy, worlds removed from the fidelity of the rest of the mix. Again, that's the way I've always heard Predator sound, so I wouldn't consider that a flaw with this Blu-ray release. Even its lossy core sounds fuller and punchier than the DVD.
An English 4.0 track, a French stereo mix, and a monaural Spanish dub have also been included, along with subtitles in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean. Predator also serves up support for D-Box rigs.
Extras: Fox has thrown out virtually all of the extras from the two-disc DVD edition. An hour's worth of featurettes have been tossed in the trash, along with an audio commentary, an outtake reel, a still gallery, a rundown of the alien's armor and arsenal, and a rough deleted scene.
The only extra Fox did bother with on this Blu-ray release is a pretty thoroughly awful trailer. This theatrical trailer looks like upconverted standard definition to my eyes, but the flipside of the case lists it as being in HD, for whatever that's worth. Trailers for Alien vs. Predator, Broken Arrow, Commando, Phone Booth, and the Planet of the Apes remake have also been tacked on.
Conclusion: Predator may be my all-time favorite action flick, but this Blu-ray disc feels like microwaved leftovers with a Ruth's Chris pricetag. A single layer disc with an MPEG-2 encode that's probably been collecting dust for ages, an entire DVD's worth of extras left on the shelf, and a $39.99 sticker price...? It goes without saying that the presentation on this Blu-ray disc is a marked step up over the DVD, but I'd doubt most casual fans of the movie would find Predator worth the upgrade.
Fox has repackaged and reissued Predator on DVD over and over again, and there's really not any doubt in my mind that a much more decked-out Blu-ray edition isn't any more than a couple of years off. As much as I love the movie, I'd recommend renting this initial Blu-ray release and shelling out for the inevitable special edition down the road. Rent It.
The images in this review are lifted from the two-disc DVD edition and aren't meant to reflect the quality of the Blu-ray release.