In a year that was distinguished by big budget sequels – Die Hard 2, Child’s Play 2, RoboCop 2 – Predator 2 was arguably the most inspired, an utter reinvention of the first film that extends and revises its mythology at the same time. At first, however, this appears to be a stand-alone film, as the opening aerial shot over a stretch of jungle pans up to reveal that we are in Los Angeles, rather than the remote Central American highlands where the original film took place. Somehow, ten years later, the Predator has made its way to L.A., and arrived just in time to slot itself into the chaos and conflagration of the escalating race riots, leading to a combination of police procedural and science fiction that still feels striking and original some twenty-five years later.
Of course, there is a connection to the first film, but it is drawn out slowly and artfully, with the first act of Predator 2 telling a largely self-contained story about the clash between the LAPD and the warring Jamaican and Columbian drug cartels. From the very outset, then, the thorny issue of African-American riots is carefully elided, with Danny Glover heading the cast as Lieutenant Mike Harrigan, the officer assigned to investigate these two drug factions. In part, that seems to be because of how viscerally the film participates in the convulsive milieu that it is describing – from the very beginning it presents as a piece of reportage or a tabloid news broadcast as much as a theatrically released film – to the point where it feels as it it could have sparked further riots had it tackled the issue of African-American protest head on. Instead, African-American, Jamaican and Central/South American racial minorities are congealed into a single, quasi-magical sense of otherness that the Predator itself gradually embodies as it sets about preying on the carnage left by the escalating violence.
For the first part of the film, however, Harrigan and his team are unaware that the Predator is an extra player in this drama. After all, given that “Metro Command is a warzone” and the Columbian and Jamaican gangs practise a variety of exotic rituals – a dark voodoo and Mesoamerican presence in the very heart of the city – it’s easy for the Predator to slip under the radar for a while. Accordingly, when Harrigan first starts to apprehend the Predator, it’s as a new kind of powerful gang leader (“a new player in town”) – imposing, phallic, inscrutable, but also capable of somehow subsuming itself entirely into the cityscape in order to avoid detection. Similarly, the Predator itself seems to perceive gang leaders as the most pressing competitors, attacking them when their rituals most resemble its own, with the result that it takes Harriagan some time to discern what is exotic and what is truly alien in the various crime scenes – part gangland carnage, part Predator carnage – he has to decipher.
As a result, there is much more detailed attention to the Predator’s perceptual apparatus this time around, with far more point-of-view shots taking us inside his holographic heatmaps of the city, all of which seem capable of visualising some approaching apocalyptic conflagration more vividly than any human mechanism. Completely outdoing the LAPD in surveillance tactics, it’s presented as something of an apex predator, the top of the Los Angeles food chain and the pinnacle of its media ecology. Accordingly, Hopkins tends to present the Predator in panoptic positions, perching on the corner of buildings, almost like a parapet, gargoyle or exotic Aztec architectural accoutrement – a modernist ornament turned Mesoamerican, as evinced in a wonder sequence on the exterior of the Eastern Building. At the same time, the Predator doesn’t merely perceive the city in a heightened way but acts as a scanner, gathering up voices and refracting them back until we’re presented with something like an auditory map of Los Angeles. More meteorological than material, this is a creature that’s only really detectable through slight variations in ambient temperature, yet as omniscient as the front of a mild heat wave, moving through the city and collecting all its rhythms and perceptions up into its own summative perceptual gesture.
Of course, that invests the Central American characters in the film with a certain perceptual primacy as well, not least because it turns out that the Predator has been incorporated into Central American mythology and apocalyptism (especially the idea of “dread”), part of an incredible widening of the Predator mythos that comes into full swing in the third act. In one of the most incredible scenes, Harrigan and his team visit a crime scene in a drug lord’s apartment that we – as the audience – know results from the combination of a ritual drug slaying with the subsequent arrival of the Predator. Full of Mesoamerican décor styled with postmodern flair, this extraordinary space resembles nothing so much as the hull of a massive, metropolis-wide spaceship and often reminded me of the Aztec pyramids at the beginning of Blade Runner. By the time the police arrive to confront the various sacrificial victims of the drug cartel and the Predator, the windows are broken and open to the city after the final shootout, creating a sublime connection between the city and the cosmos that makes this momentarily feel like the tip of some great extraterrestrial launching pad (which, in a way, the entire Los Angeles cityscape turns out to be by the closing scene).
To some extent, that connection to the drug cartels can make the Predator seem less inscrutable or remote than in the first film, but at the same time it’s somehow even more alien as well, if only because of the incongruity with its surroundings and the way in which Hopkins gradually expands its mythos. Still, there is much more hand-to-hand combat here than in the first film, as well as more recognisable “battle poses,” just as the Predator’s actions – drinking blood, displaying trophy skulls – start to become more comprehensible in human terms. By the same token, there is a much clearer distinction between the Predator and its suit – this time around, technology is much more dissociated from the Predator’s body, presented instead as a tool that it uses in a fairly intentional and “human” kind of way. In the beginning of the final act, for example, which takes place in an abattoir, the Predator uses a console on its wrist to toggled between different visibility settings, in a kind of pointed contrast to the organic rawness of the cadavers surrounding it. As a result, there’s also a much clearer sense of the Predator possessing an arsenal of weapons to drawn upon, along with the possibility of Harrigan drawing upon those weapons in turn and using them against the Predator. At moments, the Predator almost feels more like an avatar, or a superhero (or at least a superhero’s antagonist) – it’s not hard to see how Predator 2 prompted a video game – coming much closer to a character, or protagonist, than at any point in the original film.
Yet that just makes the Predator all the more horrifying when it finally takes off the mask, not least because the prosthetics still look great – and all the more visceral in contrast to the metallic costume and disembodied perception that has characterised its presence over the first part of the film. Whereas the first film was – understandably – content to let us just bask in the spectacle of the Predator’s face, here Hopkins foregrounds the Predator’s mandibles – and the proximity of those mandibles to all the fleshy, vulnerable parts of Harrigan’s own body and face – in an incredibly visceral and artful way, suffusing the film with the anticipation of some traumatic, torture-porn act of violence that never fully comes.
That sense of delayed violence is a great deal of what makes the film suspenseful, yet it’s not simply a matter of restraint, or tact, but seems to stem from Hopkins’ recognition that the relationship between the Predator and the Los Angeles cityscape is the real object of suspense here, and infinitely more unsettling than any single act of violence. In one of the very best scenes, the Predator attacks a group of commuters on the L.A. Metro, in what feels a bit like a microcosm of the aesthetic and atmosphere of the film as a whole. On the one hand, this extended sequence is clearly claustrophobic, full of all the horror of being trapped on a train in the midst of a crisis or catastrophe (let alone a subway system as dingy and dark as that of the L.A. Metro). At the same time, this claustrophobia is offset by a ballooning sense of space and permeability, thanks in part to Hopkins’ hand-held camera and thanks in part to the scattering of media interfaces throughout the train that continue to display footage of the key characters even as they are being stalked, attacked and – in some cases – killed by the Predator. In that shift between constriction and permeability, the sequence perfectly captures the odd, agoraphobic sense of confinement that is the central paradox of Los Angeles – the experience of being enclosed and entrapped by vast realms of space.
In that sense, the subway is a perfect venue for the Predator, and indeed turns out to be the first glimpse we get of the Predator’s spaceship concealed beneath the city. More specifically, as one of the most aborted and limited efforts to visualise or conceptualise Los Angeles, the Metro paints the Predator as a cipher for everything about the city that defies visualisation or conceptualisation. Appropriately, then, it’s in this Metro scene that the Predator first really channels the voices of the city (“Want some candy?”), but, strikingly, these ghostly voices – disseminated in the midst of its rampage – serve no immediate purpose as they did in the first film. Instead, they simply hang, free-floating, in the air, an unutterably haunting testament to the Predator’s integration into and identification with the cityscape above. Accordingly, from this point on, the Predator starts to alternate between subway and skyscrapers, stretching out vertical space until every street feels subterranean and every gaze soars up as if from underground.
It’s also about this point that Hopkins starts to build a connection to the previous film, as a collection of government operatives, headed by Special Agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey) takes Harrigan aside and informs him that there has been a considerable history of Predator incidents throughout the late twentieth century, of which the Central American encounter of the first film was merely one example. For the most part, the Predators seem to be drawn to war zones – “Iwo Jima, Cambodia, Beirut…drawn by heat and conflict, he’s on safari” – which they either ravage or further destroy, thanks to a self-destructive mechanism – an ability to “bend light” – that allows them to detonate when confronted or trapped. In a revision reminded me of David Fincher’s audacious opening to Alien 3, this is revealed to have destroyed roughly “300 city blocks” of Central American rainforest at the end of the first film, which is about the ambit of the nuclear bomb as well. While its meaning is somewhat overdetermined, then, I often felt as if the Predator was a cipher for nuclear destruction, turning Predator 2 into something of an immediate post-Cold War paranoid fantasy – namely, that the possibility of nuclear apocalyptism might persist as a product of the increasingly volatile and conflagrant Los Angeles cityscape, presented here as the next (or current) global war zone.
At the very least, I think it’s safe to say that Hopkins’ Predator draws upon the threat of nuclear annihilation as a way of trying to fathom Los Angeles’ role in the world as a whole. Indeed, the Predator often seems to capture the looming and lingering threat of the bomb in the way in which it directs our gaze to soaring heights and streets so deep that they might as well be covered in rubbled or underground, making for an unusually vertical, vertiginous depiction of this most sprawling and horizontal of American cities, with buildings always threatening to crash down and the horizon continually seeming to reorient itself around vertical co-ordinates. That’s all intensified, too, in the incredible final sequence, which plays as an escalating up-and-down chase as Harrigan pursues the Predator through multiple levels on the inside of the abattoir, then up and down a series of city buildings and then, finally, down a yawning elevator shaft that takes him deep into the bowels of the city only to be confronted by the Predator spaceship as it prepares to launch back into orbit.
This final set piece is an utter tour de force – a genuine third act in which a sustained chase sequence expands out to a complete reinvention of the Predator mythos. Apparently, Arnold Schwarzenegger only opted out of Predator 2 because of salary disputes, but this concluding sequence makes you glad since he did, since it’s its’ so original and individual that it would have been hampered by any direct connection to the first film. Constructed like some weird hallucination of the L.A. Metro, the Predator’s ship contains a collection of trophy skulls from different species – including H.R. Giger’s Alien – expanding the drama to truly cosmic proportions as well as providing the moment of genesis of the Alien v. Predator franchise, as well as a glimpse of what it might have been if dealt with as ingeniously as this final sequence (it’s also at this point that Bill Paxton’s presence as a carbon copy of his character in Aliens starts to make a bit more sense). At the same time, an odd chain of events leads to Harrigan receiving a 1715 pistol from the Predators as a trophy, expanding the historical ambit of the mythos as well and making it clear that the Predators have been visiting Earth for some time. As the Predator seems to change before our eyes – alongside the elder Predators, it looks more like a mummified, decaying corpse, or a sacrificial victim itself – the “otherness” of the Predators, the Jamaicans and the Columbians is subsumed into a more global and cosmic sense of difference that suddenly makes this feel like the most pointed satire possible – and at the very moment at which its aesthetic vision is most grand. In that sense, Hopkins really makes good on the tantalising image of the alien spacecraft in the opening credits of Predator – a possibility never fully explored in the first film (and explored fairly unimaginatively in the subsequent Predators reboot as well).
It’s an incredible final scene, then, that sees Harrigan bleached white by the departure of the alien spaceship, as if fighting the Predators has given him an honorary whiteness – or, more suggestively, as if the very experience of finally engaging with the Predators has deracinated him in some profound way, just as the Predators skin their victims, making it difficult for the police to ascertain any signs of race or cultural background. In a final image that has the poise and conviction of John Carpenter, Hopkins offers both a right-wing fantasy of a post-racial future – this is, after all, set in 1997 – and a parody of that right-wing fantasy, one of many reasons why Predator 2 remains one of the most elusive, elliptical and evocative of all the great action films, and one of the first great breaths of the action cinema of the 90s.