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Why ‘Predator’ Was Such A Hit In The 80s

The original Predator is an undisputed sci-fi classic, spawning several sequels and spin-offs. But how did it manage this, especially in an era where sci-fi films could be very hit...
Credit: 20th Century Studios

The original Predator is an undisputed sci-fi classic, spawning several sequels and spin-offs. But how did it manage this, especially in an era where sci-fi films could be very hit and miss. You would have big blockbuster sci-fi hits like Back to the Future and E.T., but then you have box office bombs like Blade Runner and The Thing. These latter two films are critically acclaimed now and considered classics in the genre, but they didn’t resonate with 80s audiences. Predator managed to split the difference by combining genres and not leaning too heavily on its sci-fi aspect.

Sci-Fi in the 80s

It would be foolish to say that sci-fi wasn’t popular in the 1980s, that couldn’t be further from the truth (two Star Wars films were released in this time to box office success and acclaim). But it seems there was a particular type of sci-fi that people were into. For one thing, these films mostly had to be somewhat grounded in a world that felt familiar with simple good vs evil dynamics.

E.T. takes place in a Los Angeles suburb and doesn’t delve too deeply into high sci-fi concepts, the only reason it is sci-fi is because it involved an alien. Back to the Future’s only sci-fi element is the time travel between two familiar places, the 1950s and then-present day 1980s, without that it’s a familiar “fish out of water” scenario. The sci-fi element is there to add an extra flavour to an adventure that isn’t really about exploring high sci-fi concepts like the nature of man as seen in Blade Runner.

There are exceptions to this rule, like Robocop (1987) and Aliens, but in both of these instances there were heavy action scenes and violence. How many of you can say that you enjoy Blade Runner because of the action? Not many, but that’s okay because that isn’t where its strengths lie and it isn’t really what it is about.

Predator the Genre Blender

Credit: 20th Century Studios

Predator, in large part, owes its success to Aliens (a likely reason as to why the two franchises work so well together, for the most part). Think about it. The Thing was a sci-fi horror film in an era of slasher films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. It didn’t matter that it was a good horror movie, that wasn’t what audiences were interested in at the time. This is in stark contrast to what we saw in sci-fi movies of the 60s and 70s, just look at the original Alien and compare the differences with its sequel. 

Basically, if the good guys didn’t shoot up the bad guys/aliens in your sci-fi movie, 80s audiences were less likely to be interested.

Aliens’ premise was to send a bunch of 80s action tough guys (and girls) to LV-426 and have them completely outgunned by the aliens. It set up the aliens as a legitimate threat and got to lean into 80s action movie tropes and have fun with them. It had its cake and ate it too.  

Predator does the same thing, except instead of coming up against an impossible force of hundreds of aliens, it’s just one. A super badass alien to take on our super badass soldiers. Just look at the inclusion of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers. These two massive, ripped dudes who are established as incredibly effective soldiers in the vein of Commando, but when they meet the Predator, they are no match for it as the squad gets picked off one-by-one – much like a slasher film!

The film is an 80s action movie disguised as a sci-fi film. The only sci-fi element is the alien, again like E.T., but instead of being friendly, it’s a… predator.

Big action stars, big action scenes, but with a sci-fi element that makes it stand out from the rest of the action schlock. You have only to look at the first 20 minutes to half hour of the movie. If you took the scene of the assault on the guerrilla camp out of this movie and told someone this was a scene in Commando, they’d probably believe you.

There was a joke circling around Hollywood at the time Rocky IV was released, where Rocky Balboa had run out of opponents to fight on earth and so would have to fight E.T. Predator writers, Jim and John Thomas, took inspiration from this joke and wrote a screenplay around it. They got Commando producer, Joel Silver, on board and the rest is history. 

Even Schwarzenegger said that he “liked the idea of starting out with an action-adventure, but then coming in with some horror and science fiction.”

There was genuine intent to mix these genres to make an interesting film that would stand out. 

That’s why this film works. It isn’t a pure sci-fi film; it blends elements of action and slasher films to create something that a wide variety of audiences could enjoy. Not only were sci-fi geeks into it, but action and slasher fans as well. Had this movie taken Arnold and put him on the Predator planet or some such and went into how everything works and the lore, it may have alienated a solid section of the audience. By embracing the tropes of popular genres in the 80s, this film ensured its success.

For more like this, check out why Wanda is the best part of Doctor Strange 2


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