Review: “Prey”

This weekend, I was really jonesing to watch “Prey,” director Dan Trachtenberg’s prequel to/reboot of the “Predator” franchise featuring a female Comanche warrior as the main protagonist that was released on Hulu last Friday. And then I realized something: I actually hadn’t seen a “Predator” movie before. Not any of the sequels or Alien team-ups, not the widely-panned 2018 film (the last installment in the series up to now), and not the now-classic 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that started it all. So I shifted gears a bit and watched “Predator” first and “Prey” later that same day, and was struck by how much these two movies feel like they go hand-in-hand. Both movies share the same straightforward and taut premise, brutal kills, and visceral fight scenes, but “Prey” manages to exist as both something that is a natural extension of the existing story, and something fresh and exciting.

“Prey” is set in 1719 in the Great Plains and follows Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman who has trained as a healer in accordance with her tribe’s traditional gender roles, but who wants to become a skilled hunter like her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). Naru begins to see signs of something strange: first an anomaly in the sky—which she fittingly interprets as a sign that now is the time for her to prove herself—and later as a burst of light in an incident that nearly prevents her and Taabe from killing a cougar who attacked a member of their tribe. Convinced that there is a greater threat to the tribe out there besides the wildlife, Naru and her dog Sarii set out to find it, and encounter the Predator (played here by former basketball player Dane DiLiegro), a massive alien warrior who uses advanced weapons to hunt other beings for sport.

Naru (Amber Midthunder) faces off against the Predator in “Prey”

As someone who prefers to have some context whenever possible, I’m glad I at least watched the first “Predator” movie before checking out “Prey,” but I didn’t really need to. There’s a lot here for longtime “Predator” fans to love, but a portion of the appeal of “Prey” is that it works so well as a standalone film, or an alternative entry point to the series for new fans. The name of the game is still survival, but while “Predator” followed a group of muscular military men centered around the determined Schwarzenegger trying to escape their situation and was punctuated with lots of quippy dialogue, the stakes in “Prey” are a lot more personal. Naru is not trying to extricate herself from a mission gone south; she’s trying to defend her homeland and her people from predators. And not just the Predator. “Prey” also includes the presence of white French fur trappers who first kill bison on the Comanche lands for their skin, and later capture Naru and Taabe. While perhaps the inclusion of human oppressors who are equally targeted by the Predator muddles the messaging somewhat, placing the Predator—a foreign being possessing much more advanced technology invading an indigenous group’s space—in this time period and this context prompts some consideration of the negative impact manifest destiny had on America’s native peoples. Comanche traditions and the people at large aren’t exactly plumbed deeply in “Prey,” but they are present throughout the film in a way that serves the story significantly more than just existing as ornamentation, from the thunderbird mythology and the warrior hierarchy to the historical accuracy of the props and costumes, due in large part to the participation of producer Jhane Myers, a member of both the Comanche and Blackfeet nations (there is also the option on Hulu to watch a Comanche dub of the movie).

Naru, while she kicks equal amounts of butt, is also a different hero compared with Schwarzenegger’s Dutch, and one given a much more clearly defined arc. She’s obviously skilled, but as we see at the beginning of the movie, she’s still learning. And many members of her tribe, particularly the young male hunters, mock her and don’t believe she has what it takes. This lends more of an underdog/female empowerment layer to the narrative that makes it even easier to become invested in Naru’s success. Midthunder’s star-making performance rooted in her physicality contributes to her character even further. Her desire to prove herself makes her relatable; she exhibits empathy and charisma; and, when called upon to fight for those she cares about, she’s resourceful and fierce. I always hesitate to throw phrases like “instantly iconic” around when it comes to describing new movies, but that’s exactly how the scene where Naru emerges from battle, glowing green blood of the Predator painted across her face, feels.

Amber Midthunder as Naru in “Prey”

“Prey” is a character-driven story first and foremost, but every element of the production comes together to contribute to one of the best and most beautiful action movies we’ve seen in quite some time. Patrick Aison’s screenplay and Trachtenberg’s direction—structured not unlike director John McTiernan’s original film—allow the story to unfold patiently, establishing the characters first (it’s some time before we actually glimpse the Predator) and gradually increasing the amount and complexity of the violence until we reach the action-packed, one-on-one climax in which the protagonist makes use of the surrounding environment and primitive methods to take on the Predator. Trachtenberg maintains a clarity of focus in the close combat action scenes, while using quieter moments to effectively build tension. This is only Trachtenberg’s second feature and his first in six years following 2016’s “10 Cloverfield Lane” (which I found to be one of the most unnerving movies of the last decade), and hopefully it won’t be another six years before we hear from him again, because he’s clearly quite skilled at crafting effective thrillers. The visual effects that enhance rather than distract, Sarah Schachner’s score, and Jeff Cutter’s cinematography, which creates almost painterly landscapes out of the vast plains, are all top-notch. It was exciting to watch “Predator” for the first time and enjoy it, and then watch this film, made some 35 years later, and excavate its similarities and differences while finding it every bit as thrilling. If there is one regret I have regarding “Prey,” it’s that it is receiving only a streaming releases. I’m happy that more people will be able to access it, but I would have jumped at the opportunity to watch this in the theater instead. Compared to this summer’s other action movies, “Prey” is the most exciting by a mile.

“Prey” is now streaming on Hulu. Runtime: 99 minutes. Rated R.

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