Prey is a remarkable refresh of the old Predator franchise. For my money, this is the best action horror movie since The Descent, the best horror western since Ravenous, and could arguably be better than the original Predator. The movie has the best protagonist yet (Including Dutch), and the monster is better than ever. The movie is a transportive adventure, and who would have thought that this previously moribund series could find such fresh legs?
Prequels can be tricky things. By the time a prequel gets released, the general premise of the franchise is so ingrained that in order to generate a new perspective, the filmmakers feel like they have to dial back. It has felt like the surprises have all been played out.
Revealing the monster behind the camouflage is no longer a surprise. We know what the creature looks like and what its behavior is. We’ve seen them tackle a vast array of violent opponents, from commandos to drug dealers to xenomorphs to … more commandos. How does the franchise right itself?
For action horror films, what makes or breaks the film for me in determining if it is more horror than action is if there is a significant disparity in power between the protagonist and the villain/monster. For Prey, they decided to make what appears to be an unfair fight. Predator once again, is a horror movie.
The story is set in 1719, in a time and place completely stripped of technology. Put a young Comanche woman armed with an ax, a bow and arrow, and a trusty dog against THE PREDATOR. Get simple again. Really simple. No weird government cover-ups. No devious scientific villains. Just the hunter and the hunted, and look at that relationship from many perspectives. The idea worked brilliantly.
Not only does the premise hold up, but it delivers the best character in the entire franchise in Naru, played by Amber Midthunder (a GREAT name), who in her hunter/gatherer tribe desires to be a hunter and not a gatherer. She has the expert tracking skills and the courage to be a great one. Unfortunately, her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers,) and the other male hunters in the tribe hold her back. When Naru spots the alien ship, which she describes as a thunderbird, she knows that there is something ominous afoot. When she sees the tracks of the Yautja (Dane DiLiegro) (The predator for geeks in the know), she knows that the omen has landed.
There is a moment where Naru makes a decision and is decidedly going against the grain. Naru picks up her bow and walks past all the other women who are heading out to gather vegetables and medicinal herbs to go looking for the mysterious beast that has been causing so much trouble in the nearby woods.
Because the Yautja is now so familiar to audiences, it allows the film to concentrate on Naru’s coming-of-age story. It’s inherently an underdog story, but you see Naru training her skills to be a warrior, to be a protector of her tribe. Many have questioned the logic of such an uneven balance between monster and maiden, but this all unfolds with probable logic.
If it bleeds, we can kill it.
Taabu to Naru in Prey. (Also a Schwarzenegger Dutch call-back from Predator)
A key thing to remember is that though the predator is dangerous and powerful, it is not indestructible. It is, of course, Naru’s destiny to confront the creature. Still, this intruder will have to go the full ten rounds against all sorts of dangerous Earth combatants, including skilled Comanche Warriors, well-armed French Trappers, and all sorts of wildlife including a terrific battle with a bear.
Simple synopsis: Prey is a wondrous and exciting romp.
The look of the film is purely Western, shot in Alberta, with sweeping and majestic vistas worthy of big sky country. The Franchise tweaks the “Feral” predator a little bit, as in all of the franchise features. This fella has a bit more of a primordial feel as the mask has gone from a steel mask to a bone mask, giving him a more primal look and I applaud the new visage. Since you can’t see it in a theater, you should find somebody with a big screen and a great audio system. The sound editing on this movie is first class, full of crunchy and squishy sound effects, plus a moving original score.
After a century in Hollywood of Indigenous people being relegated to being noble savages or mystic “others”. The recent trend of native, indigenous representation took a big leap with this movie. Other recent offerings like Blood Quantum and Slash/Back have given a voice to First People through horror. But, neither of those laudable films has the broad reach of a Hulu/20th Century production. And, if you don’t trust the Asian American critic to deliver that news, you should watch Navajo media critic Elias Gold of Native Media Theory’s YouTube review. He also has some great perspectives about Native representation in Horror films.
Amber Midthunder carries the movie by acting with her eyes. Her work here should land her plenty of good roles to come. Marvel! Hint, hint! (Hulu and 20th Century are also part of the Disney family.) She has the stature and poise of a superhero and the charm and magnetism needed for a big action role. This was Dakota Beaver’s first acting job, but you’d never know it. He is handsome, convincing, and charismatic. There have been a scant few Native American leading men in Hollywood. Adam Beach. Graham Greene. Wes Studi. Perhaps Beavers can join that roster, and hopefully, he can get a breakout role or two.
Dan Trachtenberg proved his ability to bring the thrills with 10 Cloverfield Lane, but he upped his game with this film. This is still only his second feature film, but all signs point towards a possible long career in this genre. The editing and pacing were spot on. The cuts and transitions were timed just right, and you never got lost in the action sequences. Simple actions that happen in the background, hinting and suggesting what was coming… all great. The animal sequences, which are always hard to do with real animals, were expertly shot. Jhane Myers, the producer and a member of the Comanche tribe, ensured that all of the language, costumes, and production designs were as authentic as possible.
I wish the performers could have committed to speaking in Native tongues and would have been willing to sit with subtitles to nail the authenticity… but I get it. There was a moment when a French trapper was having a conversation with Naru, and I was confused as to whether they were both speaking in English or if they were supposed to be speaking in a tribal dialect. There were some uses of native languages, so that perhaps was a small criticism. The good news? The producers had so much confidence in this movie that they filmed a Comanche-spoken version. Very cool.
It may be hard to believe, but 20th Century Studios has breathed new life into a franchise that had grown a bit tedious. The two Alien vs. Predator films were rated PG, predictable, and boring. Shane Black’s The Predator spent more time developing quippy dialogue than working on a coherent story. Prey brought back the thrills. It catches your attention from the opening scene and it immerses you into the Comanche life of the 18th century. It matches the jungle exoticism of the original with a panoramic western from another age. Is it scary? It is as scary as the first one, so you can use that as a barometer.
I would root for Naru in a follow-up, should they decide to do this. But I think it would also be interesting to see an attempt with perhaps an African savannah version of this story. Or go back to the roots and make it a SE Asian jungle story with kick-ass martial artists, Ong Bak style. The playbook opens to a whole new world of opportunities.
Prey is rated R for gory violence (some of it really cool). A trigger warning to our animal lovers out there: This movie is rough on CG-generated wildlife. Side note: it has some of the best “does the dog make it” moments in recent memory. And I won’t spoil whether the adorable dog makes it to the finish line or not. Woof!
It is currently the big push on Hulu and is at the top of their marketing push. I suspect they know they have a winner on their hands. It is a crying shame that 20th Century didn’t have the courage to release this as a theatrical film.