Directed By: Dan Trachtenberg
Release Date: August 5, 2022
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Another Predator
It's hard to believe that it's only been four years since Shane Black's The Predator arrived and kneecapped the very franchise it was trying to reinvigorate. Thanks to the pandemic, it feels instead that that film released a lifetime ago, and though my initial thoughts on it back in 2018 were that it wasn't completely terrible, revisiting the film again during the pandemic actually strengthened my dislike of it -- were I to review it now, you'd undoubtedly find a much more unforgiving take from me. That said, ironically, without its failure, we likely wouldn't have the latest film, Prey, Dan Trachtenberg's prequel that strips away all of the excess The Predator reveled in and takes the series back to formula in a way that reinforces the idea that, with this franchise, less will always be more.
Set in 1719, nearly 300 years before the events of the original Predator, Prey follows a young Comanche woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder) as she strives to prove herself as a hunter in a culture of strict gender roles where she's expected to be a healer. In the shadow of her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), Naru sets out to break the mold by hunting and taking down a cougar, just as a Predator has arrived in the area on a hunt of its own. Inevitably, of course, the two wannabe hunters' paths cross, with both of their skills put to the test to see who comes out on top, predator or prey. (See what I did there?)
Just as in the original film and, I'd argue, Predator 2, which I've happily defended, Prey benefits from an incredibly streamlined story. Like the elite squad of burly soldiers led by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) or the world-weary cop Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) trying to solve a case in the urban jungle of Los Angeles before her - well, technically, after her - Naru is a protagonist out of her depth against the Predator, both physically and in time; where the protagonists of the original films at least had the luxury of modern weaponry (even if having guns amounted to little benefit), Naru has little more than a bow and arrow, a hatchet, and a very loyal, scene-stealing dog named Sarii (Coco) to rely on, and ultimately the film stays on target in focusing on how Naru observes the strengths and weaknesses of others, including the Predator, and learns from them to improve upon herself. There's no love interest, no needless subplots about personal strife with others... The film lays out from the get-go who Naru is and who she wants to become and never strays from her arc, the Predator the ultimate catalyst to help her grow.
Midthunder, who I liked on all three seasons of Legion despite, admittedly, being overshadowed by powerhouses like Dan Stevens, Jean Smart, and Aubrey Plaza, has to practically carry this film entirely on her shoulders, an unenviable task that she pulls off so effortlessly. Though she has great rapport with first-time actor Dakota Beavers - whose Taabe is a stand-up guy and brother, wonderfully subverting certain gender tropes in a way I didn't expect - much of the film is Midthunder left on her own to utilize wordless physicality and expressions, something she excels at, and the film's active avoidance of feeling the need to have Naru perpetually talk to herself to relay her feelings to the audience serves to emphasize the film's aforementioned less is more policy, trusting the strength of Midthunder's performance and the audience to get it all without a line of dialogue having to be spoken.
As a protagonist, too, Naru is delightfully well-rounded. She's fun without being wisecracky, for instance, and every failure - and she fails quite a few times - is followed up by her learning from the experience in a way that pays off. Early on, she finds that throwing her hatchet in pursuit of a deer is a detriment to the hunt, as each miss leads to a retrieval period that costs precious time; in turn, she tethers the hatchet to a rope, allowing her to throw the weapon and immediately retrieve it on the spot. As a development on its own, it's quite cool, but as part of a series of failures and lessons learned throughout the film, it becomes part of a whole that all comes together in the end in an immensely rewarding way when she at last goes head to head with the Predator; like Dutch in the original film, brawn ultimately means little, and Naru's patience with observation and willingness to adapt is her true leverage against the Predator.
And lest I forget to talk about the Predator, Prey handles the alien hunter pretty well, reminding us why the monster became so iconic in the first place before it devolved into a parody of itself that holds up severed hands with a thumbs-up to get the audience to laugh. Unlike the Predator in the original film, which almost seemed to enjoy toying with its prey, even laughing in its final moments before blowing itself up, the Predator in Prey feels like it has something to prove, never letting up from hunting something, be it wolves, bears, or humans, and a stellar sequence involving a troop of French trappers misguidedly going up against it is a highlight of the film showcasing just how eager it is for a fight. It's relentless and brutal, though not without honor - it leaves a character caught in a bear trap late in the film - and has a slick arsenal that feels appropriately out of place in comparison to the humans of 1719 while also dated compared to that of its successors several hundred years later, including a version of the unforgettable shoulder mounted cannon, which fires arrows this time around instead of balls of plasma.
Part of the fun of the film is watching the juxtaposition between both Naru and the Predator and how similarly they each operate despite their obvious superficial differences. At one point, we see the Predator square off against a wolf and get by by cheating a bit, while Naru hunts, fails, and adapts by cheating in her own way, only in the sense of breaking a norm that simply isn't working for her (that another character mocks her for, even though her way of doing it ultimately works). At another, we see how they both treat a similar gash in their skin, the Predator using tech to heal itself while Naru has to rely on lining the wound with medicinal herbs. Said parallels work to underline the idea that the Predator represents what Naru wants to be while Naru represents everything the Predator strives not to be, leading up to an eventual role reversal.
On the surface, then, Prey plays into the conventions of the franchise in the end - like Dutch or Harrigan, the movie has to end with a one-on-one showdown - but in doing so, it shows that's not such a bad thing, so long as the road to that destination is a unique one. Had this same story been set in the modern day, say, with Midthunder playing a soldier trying to prove herself in a male-dominated squad being picked off one by one in a jungle, it might easily feel like a needless retread. We've seen that movie. What sets Prey apart is that it not just unpacks a cool "What if?" scenario - that is, "What if the Predator fought against [insert any group from history]?" - but does so in a way we haven't seen before in this type of movie period.
That it's set in the 1700s, following a female Comanche protagonist, and is done so in a way that never once feels cheap production-wise, as though executives thought the concept would only be good for a low budget, direct-to-video project shot on a shoestring budget, is amazing. While some of the special effects are slightly unfortunate - a CGI bear in particular doesn't look convincing at all - the overall production feels like more thought and care was put into every frame than any given second of the overwhelming, cloying bombast of The Predator. Jeff Cutter's cinematography lovingly lingers on the stunning vistas of Calgary as though the very nature itself is a character within the film, for example, and the costuming and set design from the Comanche home to the French trappers' camp is wonderful across the board.
Even further - and this could've been where the film easily lost its way - there's not an overreliance on trying to connect itself in every single way possible to the rest of the franchise. Aside from a slick connection to the flintlock pistol seen at the end of Predator 2 and an earned callback to one of the original film's most quotable lines, Prey really feels like it captures a singular event lost to time rather than striving to be some sort of pivotal, game-changing moment in Predator lore, if you will. Even the absence of Alan Silvestri's theme was initially surprising to me, just because it's so baked into the franchise's identity, and yet Sarah Schachner's score is so fulfilling and complimentary to the movie at hand that not once did I miss it. (And for the record, Naru's theme is beautiful; one I'll be listening to for years to come.)
It's that very willingness to step away from where the franchise has attempted to head on screen ever since Alien vs. Predator in 2004, one of over-explanation about the Predator culture and tangling itself up in needless layers of sci-fi that are ultimately irrelevant to the concept, that sets Prey apart from every entry since Predator 2. In distancing itself from the franchise it's a part of, Trachtenberg and company have crafted a film that gets what made the first two films so appealing in the first place, one that understands that this concept doesn't need to be - nor should be - a big spectacle. At almost 33 years old, I've waited my whole life since Predator 2 for another great Predator film, and Prey delivers in spades, giving the iconic monster some genuine tension back, feeling like everyone involved actually cares about what they've made, and anchoring itself with a solid lead performance and character.
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