Predator Ending Explained: Making Arnie The Underdog

The action movies of the '80s were dominated by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who developed an intense rivalry going back as far as the Golden Globes in 1977. The two actors found themselves seated at the same table and Arnie, the up-and-coming star who had already bagged an award for his role in "Stay Hungry," openly gloated as Sly's "Rocky" kept missing out on the big prizes. When Stallone's underdog tale finally came out of the envelope for Best Picture, he responded by throwing a bowl of flowers at the ungracious upstart.

Almost a decade later, the "Rocky" franchise unwittingly contributed to Schwarzenegger taking over for Stallone as Hollywood's biggest action hero. The story goes that, after "Rocky IV," a joke spread that the next logical step for the Italian Stallion would be for him to fight a visitor from outer space. That germ of an idea became the screenplay for "Predator," starring Stallone's rival and directed by John McTiernan, warming up for "Die Hard."

The result was a rollicking sci-fi action blockbuster that continued Schwarzenegger's ascent to superstardom and spawned a franchise that would go on to cross over with the "Alien" series. It isn't anywhere near as perfectly formed as McTiernan's alternative Christmas classic, with a little too much dead air as our heroes wander around a jungle looking apprehensive, but it still rocks when it hits its stride. The ending might seem fairly straightforward, but the film is very canny in the way it sets up the formidable Austrian Oak as an underdog for the finale.

The set up

After an alien spaceship launches a pod into Earth's atmosphere, Major "Dutch" Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his elite team are summoned for a secret mission. A helicopter carrying a foreign minister has gone down the wrong side of the border in Val Verde, a fictional South American country that first appeared in "Commando." His old Vietnam war buddy Al Dillion (Carl Weathers), now a CIA man, is assigned to oversee the covert operation despite Dutch's objections that his guys always work alone.

Dutch's team isn't pleased that Dillon is along for the ride. They're a roughneck band of misfits: you have self-declared "sexual Tyrannosaurus" Blain (Jesse Ventura) and his steely best friend Mac (Bill Duke), Indigenous scout Billy (Sonny Landham), explosives expert Poncho (Richard Chaves), and Radio Operator Hawkins (Shane Black), who has a dubious line of bad jokes about his girlfriend's vagina.

Dropped off in the jungle across the border, the team quickly finds the downed helicopter and surmises that the minister has been taken hostage by a group of rebel soldiers. They also discover the flayed corpses of three Green Berets that Dutch knew, leading him to suspect Dillon isn't telling them the true objective of the mission. As they soon find out, their true enemy is far more deadly than they ever imagined.

The screenplay isn't exactly Aaron Sorkin and the performances are broad, but I'll always go to bat for "Predator" due to its excellent economy in character building. Played by a colorful bunch of actors, each guy has his own distinctive traits and the script quickly establishes their camaraderie. By the time we board the chopper to Val Verde, we already feel like part of the rambunctious team.

A sign of things to come

From the moment the guys discover the flayed corpses, John McTiernan builds a menacing sense that gruesome death potentially lurks behind every palm frond, assisted by the mysterious score from Alan Silvestri ("Back to the Future"). In only his second directorial effort, McTiernan isn't above cribbing from the similarly themed "The Thing" to build the mood. Both films begin with a virtually identical outer space prologue with an alien spacecraft approaching the Earth's atmosphere. The main difference is that the craft in John Carpenter's movie crash lands over 100,000 years ago while the ship in "Predator" is just dropping off the titular hunter in the present.

Both films create an ominous foreboding feeling by giving us a glimpse of what's to come for our heroes. In "The Thing," helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) heads out to a neighboring Norwegian Antarctic research station to find evidence of murder, madness, and suicide. It sends a chilling message: this has happened before, and it's about to happen all over again at the American camp.

"Predator" also foreshadows the demise of Dutch's team with the discovery of the flayed bodies. It's an undignified way to go, skinned and strung up by their ankles for the vultures to feed on. The victims were evidently very tough guys but their prone corpses, stripped of their flesh, give the impression that they died horribly and helplessly. 

The implication is very clear; this grisly fate awaits our guys, too.

The rebel compound massacre

"Predator" inverts our expectations by starting out as a typical gung-ho '80s men-on-a-mission movie before totally stripping away the team's sense of invulnerability when the alien starts taking out the men one by one. At a first glance, the assault on the rebel compound where the minister is being held seems like a gratuitously violent set piece designed to sate the audience's bloodlust, in keeping with other action flicks of the era. A few years earlier, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) went back to Vietnam to take out hordes of Viet Cong single-handedly in "Rambo: First Blood Part II," as did Chuck Norris in "Missing in Action."

When Dutch and his team locate the rebel compound, they swing into action when the captive is killed. Dutch himself gets the ball rolling by flexing his muscles and sending a truck used to power a generator careening into one of the buildings before the rest of the men join in and lay waste to the camp. They're outnumbered by about 10 to one, but the rebels are no match at all. According to All Outta Bubblegum, over 70 goons are taken out, including a typical Arnie kiss-off line as he skewers one with a knife: "Stick around."

The scene shows that Dutch and his men are a formidable and deadly team, knowing each other's strengths and working together to decimate the bad guys. Even a small army is no problem for them. It's not a battle, it's a massacre, and this is where the film is clever. It wouldn't be so effective if they showed any signs of weakness before they encounter the alien; instead, it establishes them as an unstoppable force before flipping the script and turning them into the hunted.

Old Painless comes up empty handed

Everything about "Predator" is supersized but nothing sums up its over-the-top nature better than Blain's weapon of choice, a minigun that he affectionately calls Old Painless. It has become an iconic firearm to rival the hand cannon in "Dirty Harry" or James Bond's Walther PPK.

The logistics of toting a beast like Old Painless around a jungle are totally unrealistic. The weapon's rate of fire was dialed back from the standard 6000 rounds per minute to around 1250 so the recoil would be manageable, which also made it so that the rotating barrel was visible on screen. To fire for the length of time it does, Blain would have needed to lug around a significant power source and more ammo than a guy, even of his size, could possibly carry. In short, it's a fantasy gun that only adds to the team's sense of overwhelming force.

Despite carrying the most badass gun in movie history, it doesn't do Blain much good when up against the alien. The Predator blows a hole through his chest with its shoulder cannon, much to the distress of his buddy Mac, who briefly sees the cloaked alien and opens fire before running dry and letting rip with Old Painless. The rest of the team catches up and cuts loose with their own weapons, cutting down a huge swathe of the jungle. 

Once they stop firing, they have killed nothing. It's a key scene for two reasons: taking out a hulking brute like Blain so early in the proceedings shows that even the strongest are easy pickings for the creature, and all their heavy firepower is next to useless against a hunter they can't even see.

The Predator doesn't exactly play fair

The extended universe of the "Predator" franchise has developed detailed lore surrounding the Predator race, called the Yautja, and a strict code of honor regarding their hunting practices. Hunts are ceremonial rites used to prove their worth as warriors against dangerous foes that will present the hunters with a significant mortal challenge. This is why the creature in John McTiernan's movie is hanging out in the jungles of Val Verde, targeting big burly men wielding lots of guns. 

This presents a contradiction that runs throughout the entire "Predator" franchise. While the Yautja are supposedly honorable creatures, they often use advanced technology to overpower their prey, even though they are significantly bigger and stronger than man-mountains like Dutch, Blaine, Dillon, Billy, and their friends. The seven-man team would no doubt present a threat to the alien if they could see it, but it doesn't take any chances until it has whittled them down to one.

The creature uses infrared vision to pick up the team's heat signatures in the jungle and its cloaking device allows it to stalk them from the trees undetected. Its shoulder-mounted Plasmacaster is devastatingly powerful and it is the least honorable method of killing its prey. That doesn't seem to bother our boy all that much, taking out three of the men with the weapon and also using it to blow off Dillon's shooting arm before finishing him with his wrist blades ... while cloaked, of course. Eventually, the alien decides to even the odds a little when he only has Dutch left.

Dutch goes old school

"Predator" sneakily subverts the gung-ho machismo of '80s action flicks by showing us that brute force isn't always the way to go. Between them, the team must have fired about 10,000 rounds trying to kill the alien hunter but only Mac managed to nick it, revealing it's not impervious to harm. After Billy and Poncho are killed and Dutch sends Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) ahead to the helicopter pick-up site, he is all alone against the creature that has wiped out his entire team.

After discovering that mud can help Dutch hide his heat signature and the Predator's cloaking device goes on the blink, the roles are reversed: Dutch can see it, but it can't see him. Now our hero has to rely on his wits and revert to a far older method of combat, using spears, arrows, and primal hunting skills where modern firearms have previously failed. After setting a devious spike trap, he heads out into the jungle to give the creature a taste of its own medicine, tracking it while remaining hidden from its infrared view by a heavy layer of mud.

His plan gets screwed up when he takes a dunk in the river, washing off his protective layer. He taunts the creature by telling it to kill him, which it interprets as a direct challenge to a little close-quarters combat. It ditches the shoulder cannon and helmet, going toe-to-toe with Dutch in a fistfight. Even without its tech, the creature is so ferocious and powerful that it makes the former Mr. Universe look like an ordinary bloke. Schwarzenegger has only played one human character who dies in a movie ("End of Days"), but this is where the careful setup really pays off. Dutch takes an absolute battering and it actually looks like the Predator might kill him.

An act of spite or mercy?

Dutch crawls into his spike trap and readies himself to set it off when the creature follows him in for the kill, but the predator is no mug. It rumbles his plan and goes around the top way instead, ready to finish him off. Dutch thinks fast and sets off the trap anyway, dropping the heavy log counterweight on its head.

The hunter is pretty much finished, spouting glow-stick blood from its maw. Dutch asks what the hell it is, and the creature responds in kind. He is about to crush its skull with a large rock but decides to show mercy. It thanks him by starting a countdown on its wrist-mounded nuke, laughing maniacally. In a practical sense, the detonation will also stop its tech from falling into human hands.

This seems like a final low-down dirty trick from the creature, which has been using its superior tech to stack the odds heavily in its favor for the entire movie. It is about to die, but it is going to take its adversary out in the process. Or is there something else at play here? It might seem like an act of spite, but an interesting fan theory suggests the creature uses the limited human language it has picked up to show Dutch mercy in kind, warning him that the bomb is about to go off. 

"Predator" remains a hugely satisfying movie because it's a rare Schwarzenegger flick that makes him flesh and blood. Unlike his rival Stallone, who started out playing underdogs in "Rocky" and "First Blood," part of Arnie's early aura was that of an indestructible superman. John McTiernan's movie pulled off the remarkable feat of making him an underdog we could root for.