Long have I been a fan of John McTiernan’s 1987 action/sci-fi mashup, Predator. Morphing an over-the-top Arnold Schwarzenegger film into a slasher movie/creature feature was an exciting idea made better by the iconic design of the titular Predator. Several sequels and spin-offs later, director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) has arguably made this high concept even simpler. Gone is the commentary on action films of the day and the inherent politics behind them. Prey is more of a survival thriller about a fierce Comanche warrior woman who happens to be dealing with a technologically advanced alien, in addition to wild animals and dangerous colonizers. Fortunately, the film is also the best Predator flick since the original.
Set in 1719, Amber Midthunder stars as Naru, a member of the Comanche tribe who is constantly underestimated and looking to prove herself. When news of a wild animal has Naru and the other male warriors searching the area, it doesn’t take long for her to realize there’s something strange about the tracks she’s finding. Soon enough, she’ll be on her own, facing down an otherworldly creature who appears deadest on taking down any armed individual that gets in their path.
At just over 90 minutes, there is next to no fat on the bone of this feature. For a movie like Prey, that’s a benefit. Sure, time is spent setting up Naru, her family, and the position of the tribe, but it’s time efficiently spent to give a viewer all they need to know. Nuance comes through in the actions taken by Naru and the careful observations the film chooses to focus on. It makes for a limiting experience in terms of getting to know some of these individuals better, but it’s not as though the latest Predator movie needs to be as dramatically deep as The Last of the Mohicans.
Trachtenberg and writer Patrick Aison have narrowed the vision for Prey in a highly effective way. Sure, there’s a lack of surprise in some ways, and it’s not the first time a back-to-basics approach has been attempted. 2010’s Predators literally threw multiple characters onto a jungle planet and let them have it out with the hunters. With that said, Prey relies on one main character, with very little support around her. This is a stripped-down approach in a period setting, which also means working with a more limited amount of resources.
In turn, this means raising the tension through the implication of possible dangers in a vulnerable setting. Whether or not one is fully aware of how these Predators operate, I was happy to see the film take a long time (much like the original) to reveal this outside threat. Instead, while not hiding the sci-fi element set to invade this Native American story, a lot of the film’s first half is spent investigating the area, finding other animals to deal with, and observing the forested mountain landscape the Predator has chosen for their hunt.
It’s also in these early segments that Midthunder has plenty of opportunities to shine. We quickly learn Naru is skilled with her weapons (a tomahawk attached to a rope is especially handy) and is not afraid to stand up against those proclaiming themselves to be stronger. She’s also crafty, which will come in handy against an alien like this. Using these qualities, along with the chemistry shared with (a very good) Dakota Beavers as her brother, Midthunder pulls off what’s needed to give a defining performance in a film like this, separated from what others have delivered in the past.
As for the Predator of it all, this latest trophy hunter is brutal! Performed by the 6 ft 9 in former basketball player Dane DiLiegro, the idea was to present a more hulking version than we’ve seen, complete with an incredibly intimidating skull mask to make it all the more threatening just based on visuals. Once it steps into action, this thing feels largely unbeatable. Most of the films in this series practically prided themselves on being very gory action movies, and Prey is no different. With the eventual introduction of other characters, this Predator has every opportunity to show off how battle-ready it is, using a variety of cool weapons to deliver some epic bloodshed.
It’s not exactly a stumble for a film like this to plant easter eggs and callbacks to the previous films, so it is fortunate to see clever (if a bit obvious) ways of incorporating those elements once the movie plunges full on into its violent action. Having some key lines of dialogue, let alone familiar Predator weapons appear, means seeing a filmmaker who knows how to balance the joy of making their own version of a film they grew up loving with being able to deliver a fresh take on the material.
Also, nostalgia-driven or not, it’s frankly cool to see some of these brawls go down. Sure, the Predator will make quick work of other Comanche and colonizers looking for a fight, but what about seeing this alien take on a grizzly bear? Part of what makes this creature interesting is how cocky they tend to be. The species’ whole thing is to go out stalking prey for the sake of collecting trophies and proving they are the ultimate hunter, but that’s always led to showing their weaknesses as well. Prey fully capitalizes on this, making way for some fun concepts for how Naru can outthink this monster.
Jeff Cutter’s cinematography is also worth noting, let alone the efforts handled by all the production designers and other crewmembers, as Prey looks great. Assuming this is a lower-budget film compared to other Predator efforts, there’s a sense of scale here that feels real. Even with some CG areas that elements that don’t always shine, Prey has the right feel to suggest a lone warrior is in a vast area where the Predator isn’t the only threat to watch out for. There’s even something to be said with that framing, given what others may intend to do with their encounter against this massive thing, let alone their effect on Comanche land.
Thanks to the choices in where to place emphasis, Prey works at being a compelling horror-adventure story using a familiar foe. Midthunder digs into the role well enough for one to hope future action roles can simply feature the actor, regardless of her Native American heritage. On top of all this, Prey’s ways of incorporating the fan-favorite creature are handled creatively and not without plenty of wild carnage. While it’s a shame the film will not be available for all to see in theaters (that said, I grew up enjoying Predator without ever seeing it in a cinema), the effort is clear in making the film work as a solid take on this franchise that fits right alongside its big screen efforts. So, enjoy the hunt.
[Note: this is a rare film to actually feature an alternate all-Comanche dub, which will also be available on Hulu.]