By George Bate
Few franchises have the untapped potential that the Predator franchise has. The original 1987 film is a rare classic of the action, sci-fi, and horror genres, introducing audiences to one of cinema’s iconic creatures and some of the best one-liners to grade the hit screen (i.e. “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”). The success of Predator launched a sprawling, multi-media franchise that unfortunately has never hit the heights of the original. Fast forward 35 years and there is yet another Predator, yet another attempt to take full advantage of the unrealized potential the franchise has.
The newest Predator film comes from director Dan Trachtenberg, famous for his work on the excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane. Prey stars Amber Midthunder as a skilled hunter named Naru in the Comanche Nation in 1719. The peaceful existence of Naru and her tribe is disrupted by the appearance of a dangerous and unpredictable predator unlike anything they’ve faced before. It’s not long before Naru must fight for her survival and the survival of her tribe as she faces off against the threat from another planet.
A departure from the convoluted and messy recent installments of the franchise (see The Predator), Prey is refreshingly streamlined. It returns to the primal roots of the franchise in centering exclusively on a back-and-forth between predator and prey, completely disinterested in any world-building or mythology expansion. Amber Midthunder’s Naru features in nearly every scene in a narrative that is as simple as its title suggests. This makes for an immersive, less plot-heavy experience that is more reminiscent of the original Predator film than any of the other sequels. This also makes for an experience that is a tad too straightforward. It’s a raw narrative of survival that follows people in a jungle/forest-type environment trying to survive a deadly and intelligent predator who relentlessly hunts them. But it’s difficult to not want a bit more out of the film, especially given its overwhelming similarity to the original Predator.
Where Prey differs, and really stands out, is its setting. The decision to make a Predator film a period piece, setting it in a unique and unexplored era like the Comanche Nation in 1719, is extremely intelligent and sets Prey apart from so many other horror and action films. The filmmakers embrace Comanche culture wholeheartedly and make Prey far more than just ‘Predator set in the past.’ Through Amber Midthunder’s lead character Naru, Prey explores the intersectionality of gender roles and Comanche culture. Naru and her people face threats from outsiders, but Naru is also burdened by expectations of what it means to be a woman that differ from how she wishes to lead her life. Naru strongly wants to prove herself as a hunter to those who doubt her, which makes every instance of failure or hardship all the more powerful as she faces off against the all-powerful Predator. Prey expertly and simultaneously showcases universalities of the human experience and distinct features of Comanche living. The culture and people feel fully realized, and it’s clear attention and care has been given to the portrayal of the Comanche Nation. But, there’s also a universal relatability to Prey. At the end of the day, its a story of survival and perseverance – how does one face off against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle?
Much of Prey works as well as it does due to Amber Midthunder’s compelling lead performance. Midthunder features in nearly every scene of Prey and commands the screen from start to finish. This is unlike the first Predator film, which was more of an ensemble piece with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch at the forefront. Prey is more of a character piece, honing in on Naru, her place in the world, and the desperation and intelligence she relies upon to survive. Even when the film goes large stretches without dialogue, Midthunder is able to convey so much emotion and intimacy in her body language and facial expressions. It’s a star-making performance from an actress who will undoubtedly be on moviegoers’ radars moving forward.
Ultimately, many come to a Predator movie for the action and, in this department, Prey more than delivers. The Predator is leaner and meaner than ever, with a re-design that makes the creature more animalistic and raw than ever. Like its predecessors, much of Prey keeps the creature at a distant from the audience, which makes it all the more threatening and frightening as tension builds throughout. As the film progresses, the creature comes into the spotlight more often, which provides Trachtenberg with plenty of opportunities to pull off a series of grisly, well-crafted kills and fights. It isn’t the all-out action film that the Alien vs Predator films are, but, instead, attempts to return to the tension of the original Predator. Prey isn’t always as intense or suspenseful as one would expect, although its emphasis on horror over action makes it clear that this is the right direction for the franchise.
Prey is the best Predator film since the original. Although somewhat too straightforward, the streamlined narrative makes for an experience closer to the 1987 classic than any Predator sequel to date. Centered on the Comanche Nation in the 1700s, Prey takes full advantage of this change in era and setting, while embracing what makes Comanche culture so unique and beautiful. Amber Midthunder leads this largely one woman show as much of Prey’s success can be attributed to her compelling and commanding performance. Prey takes the Predator franchise in an exciting new direction that will hopefully encourage other filmmakers behind other classic franchises to take more risks and be more inclusive.
Prey is streaming August 5th on Hulu.