Few film franchises feel as much of a missed opportunity as Predator. John McTiernan’s 1987 original turns a simple B-movie premise — a highly skilled alien warrior makes Earth its new hunting ground — into genre magic delivering stellar action, stunning makeup effects, a sharply quotable script, and an outsized cast. The three films that followed (five if you count two Aliens vs Predator misfires) all fail to capture anything close to that same degree of awe and ingenuity, but that ends now. It took thirty-five years and the wise decision to move the story backward in time instead of forward, but even with some unfortunate stumbles, Prey brings a breath of fresh air to the formula with its setting, characters, and execution.
It’s 1719, and the Northern Great Plains are a world of predators, prey, and observers. Naru (Amber Midthunder) isn’t quite comfortable with her place in the Comanche nation as expectations for women don’t jibe with her own interests and skill set — she wants to be a hunter, but while her tracking skills are acknowledged it’s her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) who garners the tribe’s respect. She gets the chance to prove herself, though, when their hunting party is attacked by a being they’ve never seen before leaving Naru the only hope of stopping the slaughter.
Prey is a return to basics for the Predator franchise as advanced weaponry and science fiction trappings are left behind in favor of mud, grit, and the simple will to survive. Its first hour is something of a mixed bag with highs and lows, but director Dan Trachtenberg kicks things into overdrive for a thrilling and terrifically entertaining third act as predator and prey go to war with room for only one survivor.
Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter deliver a gorgeous film that takes full advantage of its Alberta, Canada filming locales, and there’s an immediate power to the landscapes. They twist that expansive beauty with brief glimpses of the horror simmering just beneath the surface — the ease with which various animals succumb to predators, a haunted field littered with skinned buffaloes — but the overwhelming feeling of a wide open world remains filled with pastures, forests, and smoking trees. You can’t help but feel a part of this world they’re creating, but it’s not a feeling that lasts.
Prey‘s natural beauty is disrupted more than a few times by the appearance of some woefully unconvincing CG animals. It’s one thing to create fictional beings with zeroes and ones, but real-life creatures almost always stand out like CG blood (which we also get some of here alongside a CG’d Predator face). The atmosphere is also tempered by early and frequent sightings of the Predator (Dane DiLiegro) itself. Rather than build this world and then smash an alien being into it, viewers see the being at work a few times before it even crosses paths with Naru. It takes the wind out of their eventual first encounter, but happily their clash escalates in tension and thrills from there.
Keep in mind, this Predator is nearly three centuries older than the one that stalked Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1987, and while it’s still technically savvy enough to traverse the universe, its weaponry and appearance are a bit more “old school.” Its mask is made from a strange creature’s skull, its projectiles are less like laser blasts and more like darts, and it’s more than happy to fight up close with its hands and blades. The being still has a technological advantage over 18th century humans, but as with the original film it’s not always about who has the biggest and brightest weaponry.
“I’m smarter than a beaver,” says Naru at one point, and she ain’t lying. The character is a ball of ingenuity and willpower, smart on her feet and quick to act while others fumble, and Midthunder is wonderfully fierce and charismatic in the role. She may be the complete opposite of Schwarzenegger’s Dutch when it comes to physical size and strength, but she delivers that same steely eyed determination in Prey delivering a character worth cheering for again and again. Her fellow tribesman deride her, a group of French trappers enrage her, and the Predator itself sorely undervalues her as a warrior, but determination and drive go a long way in life (and in battles with intergalactic killers).
Speaking of those French trappers, their arrival offers a brief commentary on the impending ruination caused by white settlers, but they also draw attention to the film’s language choices. Prey was filmed with the Comanche characters speaking English, and they only break from that for “important” words in their native tongue. It’s a distracting choice made all the more so when the French-speaking trapper switches to English as proof that he knows how to speak Comanche. Thankfully, Trachtenberg assembled his entire cast in post-production to ADR a Comanche dub for the film, and it will be a language option when the film hits Hulu. I suspect it will be the preferred way to watch, and kudos to the filmmakers and Hulu for making it available.
Any issues Prey has rear their head in the first hour, but you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with its last thirty minutes. Distractions fade, wobbly script issues disappear, and we’re left only with an alien hunter and the woman determined to end its reign. The film delivers some visually stunning visuals, a well-crafted action one-shot, and a highly satisfying mix of ingenuity and brutality. Here’s hoping the franchise continues with more time-hopping adventures, and maybe, if they’re lucky, these Predator beings can actually win one sometime.
Related Topics: Predator