Predators and Prey
The international relations of the Predator franchise
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of the Predator franchise—how it uses and argues about international relations and theories about international relations.
Predators and Prey
I’d avoided seeing the Predator movie until Prey came out, and suddenly it was clear that if I wanted to see Prey I needed to catch up with my 80s science fiction slash action oeuvre.
I was expecting—well, what was I expecting? There’s something about 1980s cinema that’s distinct. A little formulaic, a little high concept; a little bit auteur, a little bit commercial. Traveling from an era dominated by the MCU’s success and the failure of rival universes killed by the Kryptonite of consultants’ PowerPoints, there’s something refreshing about films that build a world that you could expand upon, but which studio IRR calculations don’t require you to do so.
I liked the movies, in other words. They were fun and anchored by an intriguing but protean concept—that humans are prey hunted for sport by for mysterious, technologically advanced aliens. The concept invites a surprising amount of empathy with the terrestrial species that humans kill for sport, but the concept goes also goes beyond that form of inter-species relationships.
International relations is the medium of the Predator franchise. It is the stuff the films are made from; it is their means of communication with the audience; it is the core of their message. The four core movies (that is, excluding the Aliens vs. Predator excrescences) do not merely reference international relations—although they certainly do that!—but build upon intuitive and emotive theories about how international relations works to deliver their message. Superficially, to translate these concepts into the tedious reductionism of introductory IR courses, they’re about realism, and the necessity of force. At any other level, they’re about the complexity of interactions even when only force appears to be the medium of expression.
The core of the Predator concept is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. The formula always concerns the inversion of this formula—as the hunted learn and adapt, they can fight back by stalking, trapping, and killing the alien. The alien does not speak, except through excited chittering, roaring pridefully, and using mimicry to repeat back words it’s recorded from the prey (an electronic form of a duck call). Almost all contact between the humans and the extraterrestrials, then, is flattened into the medium of force: kill, or be killed.
The films are knowing about how this relates to intra-human relations. Predator, for instance, is the story of a team of hardened U.S. special forces operators who now do hostage rescue. Vietnam veterans to a man (and the gendered nature of the films, especially the first one, is … remarkable), they have all been killers—sometimes honorably, and sometimes not, as with the initial raid in the Latin American jungle in the first film, when they are tricked by a CIA officer into destroying a Soviet-backed insurgency. To the insurgents, Schwarzenegger and his crew are the Predator: silent, deadly, technologically advanced, and relentless killers who take hardly a scratch.
To anyone with a passing level of familiarity with U.S. foreign policy history, of course, this is immensely recognizable. This is the story of the U.S. military going out into the bush, into “Indian country” in military slang, backed by all the electronic wizardry and gear that money can buy but ultimately resting on the ability of that logistical, technological shaft to support the warfighters at the tip of the spear. But the jungle, like the “human terrain” of Afghanistan or the urban jungles of Iraq, proves to be the undoing of even these skilled warriors, who are picked off one by one by the Predator. As with the Viet Cong, the enemy in the jungle proves an overmatch even for these warriors—until, of course, the Hollywood ending, in which Schwarzenegger can only prevail once he has discarded all his kit and learned to fight with the materials of the jungle.
The semiotics of an American film showing the good guy only winning when he fights like a native in the context of post-Vietnam trauma is … well, it’s both trauma and a trope, redolent as it is of the same inversion in Return of the Jedi and Rambo: First Blood.
What’s core in the first movie, though, is the notion that irregular warfare requires transformation, and also that the Americans have already been transformed. They are already skilled jungle warriors who move swiftly and silently and kill with ease, even if they would prefer not to. The film takes for granted both the hardening, valuable experiences of battlefield experience in Vietnam and the cynical realities of Cold War proxy wars. The opening scenes of the film, in which helicopters deploy the team in a remote beach filled with supplies and regular troops, remind one of Vietnam mixed with Normandy—the projection of American power into an untamed and threatening world.
That the team is there only because its code of honor will let it undertake a hostage rescue mission (which the CIA officer says this is) rather than raids to further geopolitical objectives (which is what the opening mission turns out to be) is the first hint that there’s more than force in the moral logic of how the world of Predator works. The alien itself has its own code: it fights honorably (using lower-tech weapons against lower-tech adversaries), refuses to kill noncombatants, and is ultimately interested in proving its individual valor to members of its own (unseen) community through trophy-taking.
The complexity builds in the second film in the franchise, Predator 2, which takes place in the literal urban jungle of a future, dystopic Los Angeles. The background conditions are in many ways the most interesting part of this film. The first film assumed American power; the second one shows a world in which Los Angeles has become a kind of open city, with its state subverted by the rise of illicit narco-trading networks that reflect a predatory logic of globalization. IR is even more explicit here: contending gangs (Colmobians and, in the most racist and bizarre part of the series, actual voodoo-using Jamaicans) contend for market superiority in the drugs trade. Like the East India Company or the Dutch VOC in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, they marry trade with violence, becoming the apex predators that the extraterrestrials are most interested in hunting.
The U.S. state exists, however: it is now oriented toward larger threats and willing to let its domestic constituents suffer as it pursues balancing against them. Aware of the existence of the Predator because of Schwarzenegger’s survival, it has founded a well-funded initiative to track and capture the alien when it shows up. Yet the team’s reliance on tech and disinterest in helping the community being predated upon by both an alien and alien drug dealers becomes the moral basis for its undoing. It’s only the local beat cop, who out-thinks the alien, who can defeat him. Further demonstrating that this isn’t a simple parable for realism, however, the victorious cop is confronted at the end of the film by several additional Predators, any one of which could defeat him easily—and yet they do not. Rather, in a show of apparent respect, they give him a trophy: a French pistol from 1715, apparently taken from an earlier hunt. There is, in other words, something beyond the capacity for violence that regulates the Predators—some form of norms.
In that regard, Prey is the consummation of the IR logic of the series. The film presents a three-cornered war between the Comanche, French explorers, and a Predator. The Comanches’ code is described as being close to what we are told (through the surmise of the characters) is that of the Predators: they hunt in part for honor, although—unlike the Predator—mostly for food and provision for their family and tribe.
The film neatly subverts most of the earlier logic and rules of the franchise: the Native warrior Naru, played by Amber Midthunder, wins not by abandoning technology but by appropriating the technology of the invaders. Yet if the Predator is the adversary, it is the Europeans who are the enemy: they torture their captive, slaughter entire herds of valuable buffalo for their furs but leave their meat behind (evoking earlier skinning of trophies by the Predator, but for a very different logic), and are ultimately interested not in valor but only in conquest and extraction. There is something worse than being prey, in other words: being colonized. And the film’s logic is a stout defense of resistance to colonization without valorizing imperialism—a neat trick for an action sci-fi flick.
Violence is one form of power in the Predator universe. It seems clear that the technologically advanced species, which in the third film is shown to operate entire planets as game preserves and to be travelers throughout the galaxy, could conquer Earth if they could. But it’s also clear that they don’t really care about conquering Earth. Their encounters with other species are secondary to the point of the hunt: impressing other members of their own species. We don’t even know if the Predators are all bound by the same code or if these aren’t wacko loner weirdos or rich jackasses on safari. It doesn’t matter to the humans, because they’re on the bad end of the asymmetry, but we can think of the fact that safari hunting is a rich jerk’s sport in this world and draw some conclusions.
In other words, force isn’t everything. And as in the real world, even the lopsided balance of power in favor of the Predator comes face to face with the fact that the lesser power often wins. Not always (we know the fate of the Comanches in this world, for instance), but sometimes (we know the fate of the U.S. military in Vietnam). Reading the world as a simple play between latent power is misreading the world. Even the violently powerful are driven by their own cultural logics. And the untamed world can be an uncertain space.
Some longer articles from elsewhere I think are worth your time:
“Why Gorbachev’s death feels like part of an alternate history,” Washington Post, by me
“The Lessons of Uzbekistan’s Lost Sea,” Washington Post Magazine, by Henry Wismayer
“You Have No Idea How Bad Europe’s Energy Crisis Is,” Foreign Policy, by Christina Lu
“How Countries Use Food to Win Friends and Influence People,” (about gastrodiplomacy, not strategic exports), Foreign Policy, by Fabio Parasecoli