Predator is one of the best action films ever made. In India it is also one the
most popular movies that ever played. The distributors regularly re-release the
movie and there is always an audience for it many years after it was first released
and also after it has been shown to death on cable TV. This popularity cannot be
explained only by the fact that it is a very exciting movie. People who do not even
know the language go in to see it many times over. There is something else at work
here and this essay is an attempt to uncover the subliminal context of the Predator
film. As more than one great commentator has said we must ask ourselves what things
mean, not just what they say.
I submit that the movie is subconsciously talking about something that has become
very popular today, the breakdown of consciousness that constitutes the call of
the shaman. The film deals with an interior collapse of the psyche, which then reintegrates
itself into a new man, healed of traumas. In Jungian terms the film is about
how man has to confront and transcend (not conquer) his Shadow side if he ever hopes
to become an integrated person. I do not mean that the director or scriptwriter
consciously planned to do so. They unconsciously accessed an archetype called the
Shaman's Journey in New Age literature.
This was easy because the director John McTiernan is well versed in the tradition
of dramatic structure in classical narrative as witnessed by his other great film,
Die Hard. The stages of dramatic structure parallel the Shaman's Journey to an eerie
The five stages (sometimes six stages) of Dramatic Structure are
Epilogue(this is rare).
In the Shaman's Journey the stages are:
These stages overlap each other quite extraordinarily and may explain why all shamans
all over the world have such a remarkable flair for the Dramatic.
The exposition or darkness stage of the film is when the team of commandos
lead by major Dutch Schultz prepare to rescue a bunch of hostages in a tropical
rain forest somewhere in South America. The forest has always represented subconscious
fears of mankind, the unraveling of the mind because of the terrors that lurk in
the gloom (a word that represents both darkness as well as depression incidentally)
of the unconscious. The plot details are really irrelevant. The country
they are going to invade is their mind and what they are going to confront is their
They are ripe for a deep psychological crisis to come upon them. All of them are
in the prime of life, robust physical specimens, the living epitome of Andros
- man as a physical being. They are the best at what they do, but what they do isn't
very nice. They kill and destroy to rescue people and the contradictions inherent
in such behavior have been festering for a long time in the mind. All of them are
elite professionals but they have chosen to become supreme in something that is
essentially a very unhealthy way to be. Rudimentary aspirations to good prevent
them from becoming outright assassins, they have just refused to assassinate Libya's
leader when the film begins, but they are stone cold killers when the need arises.
So the distinction is really superfluous and seems contrived to convince themselves
that they are still good guys.
So merged are they in a group consciousness that they really seem to have no role
and no life beyond that of their respective combat roles. One guy is the scout,
the other operates the radio, a third is the NCO keeping the unit in order, while
yet another operates the mother of all light machine guns, chillingly nicknamed
"Painless". They are what the elite Ninja strike teams would call a Dantai>
- a team that has become so welded together that they literally have a single consciousness
and all of them are aware at all times of the others as well as what they are experiencing.
This extends to feelings and physical sensations like pain too. They are in a grim
way the ultimate Modern Men, successful at manipulating technology in a manner that
guarantees success and at the top of their profession. In other words they are just
ripe for a mental breakdown. The emotions and issues they have carefully
locked away, the Shadow they have systematically denied in the climb up the greasy
pole, is now waiting to unleash itself upon them. That Shadow is the Predator.
They descend into the jungle with the cocky assurance of professionals in
mid-season form. However there is a warning that the rules are changing. The intelligence
man is a bit rusty and makes noise in sliding about. Whereupon the sergeant tells
him, " I don't care who you were back in the real world (emphasis mine). Do that
again and I will kill you." They come upon murdered and literally skinned bodies
of another crew of elite soldiers like them, the standard warning posts that litter
the shaman's descent. Much speculation follows but they shrug and get on with it.
They are not going to get caught napping like that. Their belief in training and
equipment and skill is unshakable. Nothing exemplifies this attitude better than
the famous line spoken by Jesse Ventura when it is pointed out that he is bleeding.
"I ain't got time to bleed." Elite professionals have no weaknesses, none that can
be publicly acknowledged, any limitations, or so they fondly hope. They are about
to realize the extent of their delusions.
At first their self-belief seems justified. They attack the terrorist camp in the
sort of high-octane blast usually reserved for the climatic sequence. The terrorists
are blown away with ease, a literal walk in the park. This seems to be a game for
them and mythologically a game has different connotations from that of mythic combat.
In a game both parties start from a state of artificial equilibrium, and the contest
ends with one clear winner. The entire structure is thus artificial and designed
for specific purposes. The mythic combat however is more true to the structure of
the universe, beginning as it always does when the times are out of joint and it
never ends with a clear winner, but the universal harmony or equilibrium is restored
at the end of it. Psychologically speaking the mythic combat alone can heal you,
while games may lead you further down the path of self delusion or confirm and reinforce
your errors of behavior and thought. It is not by accident that we say people are
playing games with themselves.
At the moment of yet another inevitable success, their victory turns to ashes in
their mouth. For they had been set up by the intelligence man, and what they were
rescuing turned out to be military plans not hostages. The sense of betrayal deepens
when they are refused an airlift out of the combat zone as it is too dangerous.
Their world has suddenly turned out to be full of treachery and slimy mindsets,
not the clean-cut professionally motivated job-sphere they thought it was. Their
organizations and superiors deceive them, but they have actually been deceiving
themselves all the while that their mode of life was meaningful. All of their certitudes
have suddenly come under attack and it is a full-scale crisis of not only conscience
but also of consciousness. The intelligence operative laughs at them, he has cynically
accepted this reality. But cynicism is a crumbling defense at best against the imperatives
of a psychological crisis as will be proved later. They cannot continue to function
in the old way, but it is the only way they know. At this point, their collective
Shadow, personified by the Predator, pounces on them and literally proceeds to tear
The team enters the death and dismemberment stage but they have a
Shaman's Assistant in the only survivor of the attack on the camp, a young native
girl. The Shaman's Assistant has useful advice on the terrors to be overcome, but
he/she cannot participate with you or accompany you to the conclusion of your journey.
The script casts the girl's role in classical fashion. Death, or the psychological
disintegration, comes suddenly to them one at a time and the team is increasingly
traumatized. Combined with the bewilderment is the unspoken humiliation of being
so easily defeated. They are the best, and they are getting torn apart at will.
They continue to view the Shadow attack as a competition, a game to be won and offence
to be retaliated against, without realizing that they desperately need to move into
Mythic combat mode.