There’s no question that the 80s were good to the action film genre. For fans of testosterone-injected, hyper-masculine action flicks, nothing quite compares to the sweat-drenched output of the decade. With a fantastic lead-up thanks to 70s stars like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Clint Eastwood, a shift occurred in the 80s that kicked every aspect of the genre up a notch. The time was right and audiences were ready for a new batch of stories, filmmakers and stars.
Spearheaded by films like First Blood, Terminator and The Road Warrior, every bit of 80s studio action films were bigger, including their stars. Physical stature and chiseled physiques became literally huge visual and narrative focal points with actors like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger willing and able to oblige. And while there was most certainly a gluttonous amount of action films produced in the 80s thanks to the exploding home video market, nothing was quite like John McTiernan’s 1987 film Predator. As subversive as it was stereotypical, Predator expertly capitalized on the action genre boom while seamlessly evolving past it.
Along with the glorified machismo perpetuated by many of the decade’s action films, there was also an interesting development in terms of style and execution. Hybridization of genre coupled with visionary filmmakers led to many blurred lines between popular genres. Maximizing audience appeal, the blend also proved advantageous at box offices. Bigger risks and bigger budgets inevitably resulted and creatively benefited many films including Predator, Aliens, Terminator and Escape from New York. Not just action films, the mix of science fiction, fantasy, horror and action led to many remarkable opportunities for filmmakers to highlight skilled special effect artists, stunt choreographers, actors, production designers and of course, film composers. Beautifully embodying this idea, and every other 80s action trope in between, stands Predator with its pitch perfect Alan Silvestri score.
When the opportunity for Predator rolled around for Silvestri, he was a rapidly rising star in the world of film score composition. After catching the ear of Robert Zemeckis with his score for the TV show CHiPs, the two quickly forged an enduring creative bond. After collaborating together on hit films like Romancing the Stone (1984) and Back to the Future (1985), opportunities came fast and furious for the young composer. A versatile talent with a knack for melody, Silvestri’s skill was on full display through these films and others like Cat’s Eye, The Delta Force and Flight of the Navigator. Not just a hot commodity, Silvestri had proven more than capable of handling different genres with thoughtful creativity and prowess. This powerful combination of skill and industry appeal undoubtedly enticed young director John McTiernan, also looking to establish himself as a real player in the directing world.
The decision to bring Silvestri on board to score the big-budget man vs. alien flick was not just smart, it was strategic and crucial. Playing with genre stereotypes while simultaneously turning them on their heads is a tricky business. Thankfully, McTiernan and screenwriters Jim and John Thomas were well aware of the fine line they were walking. Every decision contributed to a successful end product, and each was made with care. For example, actors were cast strategically for meticulously curated and designed characters. When the Predator‘s original design failed to meet expectations, McTiernan quickly pivoted and hired the iconic Stan Winston Studio instead. And when it came to the film’s star Arnold Schwarzenegger as the bulging epitome of militaristic machismo Dutch, it was important that the film’s sonic foundation support his storyline and impressive on-screen presence.
Wasting no time establishing the film’s tone and intent, Silvestri lays it all out on the table with the film’s Main Theme. With a burst of brass, swelling strings and harp, the fantastical otherworldliness aspect of Predator is introduced as his ship dives towards Earth. Not long after, the militaristic tough-guy idea comes into play with Dutch‘s motif. Just like the film plays with genre stereotypes, so does Silvestri with sonic ones. For this defining motif, Silvestri utilizes a rapid, repetitive and rhythmic 6-note run pounded out on keyboard and alternated with perfectly precise percussion contributions. As low brass gets added into the mix, Silvestri accentuates the scenario, scene and characters as they become introduced for the very first time.
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Dutch and his squad of elite paramilitary soldiers are just that, soldiers. They are tactical in their methods, strategic in execution, physically impressive specimens and coordinated in their efforts. Mirroring this character dynamic while simultaneously tapping in to subconscious cultural associations, Silvestri utilizes brass, percussion and syncopated rhythms to create a character defining march. Like an extra shot of testosterone, these carefully placed musical elements heighten and accentuate the character traits being visually presented on screen. Dripping off Dutch‘s biceps like well-earned sweat, Silvestri’s Main Theme leaves all doubts of our character’s masculinity and competency behind in the hot, jungle dirt.
As the film progresses, Dutch‘s motif reappears time and time again. However, just like the ill-fated group of commandos, this motif is not alone. One of the most beautifully effective aspects to Silvestri’s score is the way he conveys the Predator‘s presence, even when we… you know, can’t see him. One of the best and most obvious examples of this idea comes at the beginning of the track Something Else. Primal, churning bongo rhythms lurk in the background like a predatory alien on a branch, observing from a distance. As Dutch and Co. make their way through the thick, jungle foliage, the percussion ebbs and flows in conjunction with the expertly orchestrated team music. Not only does this alternation convey a sense that the team is being followed, it taps into the film’s setting and its natural atmosphere.
On multiple levels, Predator deals with the issue of primal nature. For one, there’s the Predator vs. prime male specimen idea. One creature challenging another creature for ultimate dominance and superiority. Another is the use of guns and technology versus cunning and wit. There’s the film itself, catering to societal ideas of masculinity and acceptable tolerances of male emotion. But perhaps most obvious, most innate is the idea of survival and the jungle as a character. By employing a variety of exotic percussion sounds throughout the score, Silvestri develops and connects the Predator to the environment itself. Regardless of their skill and experience, Dutch and his band of misfits are visitors in this ancient and foreboding place. For all their firepower, muscle and virility, they in no way can compete with the harsh environmental setting, thus making it part of the enemy itself.
Finally, after many unfortunate deaths and beautifully emotional songs to accompany them, the film reaches its pinnacle with Dutch and the Predator facing off in the ultimate mano-a-mano showdown. From a story standpoint, this moment is interesting as Dutch, the leader of his team has failed to protect his men. Despite his best efforts, the Predator has bested him over and over again. While many action films portray their lead characters as rather invincible and accentuate strength over all else, Predator shows these kinds of men failing miserably. It is only when Dutch re-centers, catches a lucky break and shifts his focus to basic survival skills that he starts to stand a chance against ‘The Demon Who Makes Trophies Of Man.’
Highlighting this important moment is the track Predator’s Death. Expertly staggering brass, piano and percussion Silvestri builds and heightens the tension and anticipation. Displaying his keen ability for scoring action sequences, Silvestri paces the score like the pro he is, consistently maintaining and strengthening the momentum. Low brass, piano and percussion set the tempo as the higher pitched instruments convey the anxiety and imminent threat. Gone is the confident, overbearing ferocity of Dutch‘s early motif. At this point, Dutch is just barely scraping by and the score reflects that. Hunting Dutch like a proper slasher, the Predator methodically and casually pursues his prey with determined resolve. Simple, alternating two-note patterns (reminiscent of Jaws) strengthen Dutch‘s impending doom as death creeps closer and closer. And then, with a well-timed booby trap and an upward melodic run, Dutch lives to crawl out of the mud another day.
A giant worldwide hit in 1987, Predator has remained an incredibly popular film for good reason. Embracing action genre tropes with muscled, sinewy arms allowed the film to capitalize on societal hunger for exaggerated masculinity while subtly subverting it all at the same time. It’s an idea that could have gone horribly awry, but thankfully didn’t. By involving truly talented professionals like Silvestri at every level of production, Predator was able to enter a class all its own.
Due to the film’s incredible popularity, it’s particularly shocking that the film score was unavailable for an uncomfortable amount of time. Although many bootlegs circulated for years, it wouldn’t be until 2003 that the score would be officially released on CD by Varèse Sarabande. Then, finally, the jungle trees parted and the sun shone down on all vinyl soundtrack enthusiasts in 2017 when Real Gone Music issued a beautiful 2xLP gatefold release of the score. Available in a variety of Predator themed colored releases, Silvestri’s amazing score is no longer an illusive beast lurking in the woods. In all reality, it’s likely only a record shop visit away.
What are some of your favorite Alan Silvestri scores? Want more scores? Check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month! Talk all things Predator with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!