Dan Trachtenberg fashions a great Predator movie from a strong lead performance, sharp script, and under-represented backdrop.
It would be faint praise to call Prey one of the best Predator movies, low bar that is to cross. Really, the horror movie is second only to the original, delivering a refreshingly bold take on not just the long-suffering property but franchising in general that will hopefully be a trendsetter.
Technically a prequel, we’re in North America in the early 1700s, when Comanche were the dominant people. One of the otherworldly warriors descends from the heavens, armed to the teeth, and looking for an opponent. They find plenty of choices between the native tribes, wild animals, and European colonisers.
Naru (pronounced ‘Nah-doo’), a young Comanche woman played by Amber Midthunder, is vying for initiation to join hunting parties, a role generally bestowed only to men. During her first expedition, she starts to suspect something out of the ordinary is stalking the forests, gradually piecing together that it’s far more than wild cats she and her brethren need to be wary of.
Immediately, Prey separates itself from previous Predator instalments by embracing the simplicity of the first one. Some well-trained, versatile characters become unwitting combatants to an alien that’s just looking for a fight. Why is it here? Where is it from? Doesn’t matter because the cosmic pub crawl for someone to swing at has landed on Earth, and it’s kill or be killed.
Just like the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, it takes a while for everything to come together. Naru struggles to keep up with her brother, Taave (pronounced ‘Tah-bay’), and his friends, casting doubt on her aspirations. We watch her get creative in her approach to hunting, innovating to achieve her goals.
She tailors her tools for speed and ingenuity over strength. Sequences, frequently presented in riveting single-takes, give a sense of the increased efficiency in real-time. Prey is rooted in character, using Naru’s personal growth as its through-line to cultivate tension that cuts both ways.
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There’s the Predator, a fearsome anomaly who can gut a bear single-handedly, and Naru, whom we know is not to be underestimated. Anticipation for their meeting grows with each obstacle they overcome, begging the question of who the film’s title ultimately refers to.
Prey is bottled in a similar way to director Dan Trachtenberg’s previous monster movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Instead of a bunker that narrows the view, it’s the protagonist’s laser focus. Surrounded on all sides by trees and mountains, Prey derives perspective from the survival instincts necessary for anyone to live at this point in time.
We get glorious vistas – Prey is astonishingly well-shot, utilising the natural tapestry of Alberta to feel like a snapshot of a time before capitalism trampled so much green to grey – but they don’t linger because there’s too much danger. The film runs on a knife-edge, always ready to kick off, whether that be from another wild beast, gun-toting French colonists, or an extra-terrestrial that needs to prove how tough it is.
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In Prey, the Predator is interrupting an already great film. Naru’s arc to earning the respect of her peers is enthralling in and of itself, especially coupled with the intriguing Comanche backdrop, and terror of encroaching colonists.
Midthunder is perfectly cast in the role, an action star in the making who embodies Naru’s headstrong, capable nature. Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison seem to understand this is what made 1987’s Predator work too: Dutch and his men were fun to watch, and had they been part of a regular thriller movie, that would’ve been just fine.
It helps to be committed to cutthroat violence. When people die in Prey, and plenty do, it’s gruesome, yet shot with elegance. The Comanche were methodical and clever in their technique, and the cinematography in Prey reflects their ability to control a situation. A scene with Naru and Taave facing the Predator has them utilise each other and their surroundings as if performing an elaborate dance.
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The creature itself is given some distinct identity, wearing less armour, so we see more skin, with a smaller toolkit than the others we’re familiar with. It’s almost arrogant, marching around taking on whatever looks like a good scrap. Early European firearms clearly aren’t up to snuff, since the Predator ends one battle by laying a trap and then jumping away, bored of what these Frenchmen think makes them strong.
That punchline at their expense comes after it’s revealed a colony is already harming the ecosystem. What seemed like a sign of the Predator was a misdirect, throwing an eye towards how colonialism would brutalise this environment. The Predator is no anti-hero, but it’s hard not to cheer for them when xenophobic explorers are at the other end of their blades and explosives.
It’s every person for themselves, a tense, fiery melee of different forces colliding head-on for supremacy. Prey is edge-of-your-seat, exciting filmmaking that’s part of an established IP without drowning in nostalgia. It adds to the overall mythos while still being stand-alone, without being any kind of ‘requel’, doing what Predator really should’ve always done: putting each wannabe champion of space UFC into different scenarios to see what happens.
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The authentic Comanche representation – cast and producers are of Comanche descent – gives the film a distinct tone and feel. In a landmark first, Prey will be available in both English and Comanche on Disney Plus and Hulu, fully redubbed in the native language. All of which goes to show, that the problem has never been legacy sequels or reboots but uninspired choices that don’t embrace the potential of less-represented communities and perspectives.
Who knew Predator would be the one to break the mould? Perhaps more fool us for setting such low expectations, but then again, it takes a rare hero like Naru to truly reign supreme.
Prey will be available on Hulu in the US, and Disney Plus in the UK, on August 5.