In terms of diminishing returns, Predator might outdo the Terminator movies for blasé sequels. Schwarzenegger fronted two stone-cold classic action movies as the T-800, whereas his encounter with Predator’s extra-terrestrial warrior in the rainforests of Central America is the only instalment of that franchise that’s remained essential – until now.
Prey, from director Dan Trachtenberg, takes the Predator movies back to basics in a brilliant, tactile prequel that rejuvenates the property. Set in 1719, mini-guns are traded for tomahawks among the Comanche Nation, who have to contend with a visitor from another world in addition to hunting for food and fighting off European settlers.
Naru (pronounced ‘Nah-doo’), a young warrior played by Amber Midthunder, becomes the main adversary who has to protect her tribe from the new threat. As if prowling wild cats and Frenchmen armed with flintlocks didn’t make her initiation as gatherer enough of a horror movie, our space-hunter decides to drop by to test his mettle. On paper, this might sound stuffed, but such stacked thrills only embolden the film, and as Trachtenberg tells us, that was the point.
“I loved seeing Speed the first time, and it opens with that super intense elevator sequence, then you get to the bus,” he told The Digital Fix. “I remember The Rock had that crazy car chase through San Francisco, and then you get to the island. I love movies that even before the premise starts, you already have some intense set-pieces, so that was very much fuel for this movie as well.”
Facing a cougar provides the tension for Naru to start with, a rite of passage typically reserved for the Comanche men. Though you might expect the challenge to be interrupted by the cloaked alien in a super suit, it’s not. Instead, Trachtenberg explains that it’s intended to establish the picture’s horror language and demonstrate just how much of an ordeal this is going to be for Midthunder’s protagonist.
“We really wanted to make sure that she was up against it before she sets out on her journey,” he says. “That she already had something to prove among her peers, and to herself, before she even meets the Predator.”
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Early scenes demonstrate the power of the Comanche as well. These were incredible hunters who used well-made tools to live off the land that surrounded them. Not as physically strong as her brother, Taabe (pronounced ‘Tah-vay’), and his friends, Naru customises her single-handed axe to make a version that’s quicker and can be projectile if needed. This makes her methodology distinct from her brethren, tying how she handles herself to her core character.
“The Comanche were very innovative hunters, they developed a system for hunting buffalo that was very clever. They weren’t just mighty, though they were quite mighty,” Trachtenberg states. “We wanted to capture the spirit of that and showcase it in the design of that weapon that [Naru] makes with the tomahawk, and embrace the fun of using a weapon that we may have seen before, but in a new way, and seeing how her character tries to adapt and buck the trends that were pre-established.”
In doing so, avenues of mapping out scenes opened up that surprised even the filmmakers. How Naru and Taabe behave when cornered harnesses similar frenetic energy to great martial arts movies, where everything in the vicinity is a potential weapon. A couple even involve horseback, to show that aspect of Comanche culture, and cause more controlled chaos.
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“Both Naru’s big fight sequence and Taabe’s big fight sequence are them using the weapons that are around them creatively, which somewhat stems from a love of Jackie Chan movies, loving creativity inside fight choreography, and seeing characters be resourceful,” Trachtenberg tells us. “They’re both pulling weapons out of bodies, and then using them against new bodies. That wasn’t intentional, but clearly comes from the same resource in me.”
These set-pieces are explosive but also nerve-wracking because it’s all about survival. Finding the right level so the audience always believes Naru can get out but wonders if she will, was a recurring discussion between Midthunder and Trachtenberg.
“Dan and I had a lot of conversations in general about physicality because there’s not a lot of dialogue. We had a lot of conversations about when you first meet the character versus the process of going through things,” Midthunder told The Digital Fix. “I think what was most important that everything felt very real and different than, say, martial arts or weapons like that, which is very clean, and it’s very old and there is a specific system and art to that. This was more fighting for your life and on the fly.”
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The Predator itself is sculpted by this ethos. What is clearly a member of the same race that Schwarzenegger and Glover have stared down is less refined in its approach and toolkit. Trachtenberg and his crew weren’t too concerned about adhering to established lore, instead seeking to create a precursor to the iconic cinematic monster of the original.
“We wanted to feel way more feral and ferocious and more like an alien creature, not just in its look, but also in the way it it moved. We removed a lot of the armour so that you could see its form more, because we felt its skin quality and texture would make it feel much more alien,” Trachtenberg explains. “In doing so, it meant that we needed to solely rely on its weaponry to tell the story of it having advanced technology that also felt prior to what we had seen. So in some cases, you’re seeing weapons that look like those might be the prototypes for what we see later.”
There are moments where we see the creature learning in real-time, like when it takes out a ferocious bear. In some ways, Naru and the Predator are on parallel journeys, learning about what it takes to manoeuvre this habitat. That sometimes means failure and finding points where Naru’s in over her head and where we might be underestimating what she’s learned.
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“Per experience and per fight, we tried to figure out which fight catches her off her toes,” Midthunder says. “Which fight does she have to start with her guard down? Which fight is she very prepared for, and how does that look different?”
There’s plenty of opportunity for that in Prey before any aliens become involved. Terror is easily generated from the day-to-day life of the Comanche, who got their food, clothing, and other materials from wildlife. At this point, they were contending with increased European colonies as well, something that Prey confronts plainly. Authenticity is core to the film, both in front of, and behind the camera.
“I grew up with this, we have oral history that tells us our histories; our battle histories, our fight styles, our dress styles, our warpaint styles, everything,” Jhane Myers, producer on Prey, tells The Digital Fix. “So I was really thrilled to be able to bring this because most of the time when I get hired as a producer, it’s for native content, but it’s like 20% native content, or 25%. This was like 110% native content, Comanche content.”
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Legitimacy is captured in the lens. The Alberta landscapes look like they could stretch right out of your screen and around the room. They’re so vivid and beautiful. Natural light was used everywhere possible, complemented by Sarah Schachner’s foreboding yet fantastical soundtrack, in order to truly take us back in time.
“We were shooting in the prettiest hours of the day, dawn and dusk. Just make sure we were making a real beautiful, giant epic,” Trachtenberg states. “That’s one of the differences between this and the first Predator. I think the original is more of an action movie meets horror and sci-fi, and this, I think, is much more of an adventure movie. Even sonically, our score is very reminiscent of the old big fantasy or epic themes that I grew up listening to and watching. I love that we could recapture that old big screen magic, from before everything in theatres was more superhero films.”
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Prey isn’t just a new beginning for Predator but a standard-setting push for Native American representation within Hollywood. This is a franchise film, part of a beloved IP, that’s been lovingly crafted by people who know this culture and want more to understand its legacy. In a historic first, Prey will offer a full Comanche dub when it’s available on Disney Plus and Hulu. The entire cast returned mid-post-production, and it was something that made the process that much more fulfilling.
“To go back, after the movie was done, and get to do the whole thing over in Comanche – I am not a fluent speaker of my language, but I am familiar with it,” Midthunder beams, “I grew up with it in my house, so get to know Comanche language, to familiarise myself with it and be working with real Comanche language speakers and people who devote their lives to the preservation of their own language, to me was the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m so proud to be involved with that.”
As Myers adds, a gauntlet has been thrown down here: “A lot of times when you’re trying to encourage people to use the right representation, they’re like, ‘We don’t have the budget for that, we can’t do that. This project proves that it can be done, and it can be done with a Predator.”
Prey will be streaming on Hulu in the US and Disney Plus in the UK on August 5.