Synopsis: A skilled female warrior on the Great Plans fights to protect her tribe against one of the first highly-evolved Predators to land on Earth.
Stars: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush, Julian Black Antelope, Dane DiLiegro
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Running Length: 99 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: The release of the first Predator in 1987 came at the first surge in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as one of the number one action stars of the 20th century. Already established as The Terminator, he’d built a following as a dependable force at the box office who chose projects that capitalized on his brawn first and an indefatigable charisma second. While no tremendous thespian, it was always clear that Schwarzenegger took his job seriously, and that kept audiences coming back to see what new adventure he’d take them on. Teaming with soon-to-be hitmaker director John McTiernan on the jungle sci-fi thriller, Predator became a summer blockbuster and remained a stone-cold classic.
Efforts to replicate that success have yielded mixed results in the years following. A just-fine 1990 sequel took the deadly alien hunter out of the tropics and into the wilds of Los Angeles but didn’t have Schwarzenegger for balance. Interesting ideas were introduced in 2010’s Predators and, to a lesser (and maybe more disappointing) extent, in 2018’s The Predator, which brought back original screenwriter Shane Black to the director’s chair. Still, nothing could get back that initial success. Even pairing the franchise with Alien for two disheartening attempts didn’t catch on.
Continuing a recent trend of renewing a popular franchise by uncovering a “lost” early chapter in its history, 20th Century Studios and Hulu are releasing Prey, and it turns out that Arnie wasn’t the first to go one-on-one with an alien beast. Most of the subsequent entries have abided by the law of sequels that demand bigger (read: more) Predators for your buck, and while that can work for some franchises (Aliens being a great example), it didn’t work as well for this. By restoring the premise to its roots and casting a single enemy as the creature featured, writers Patrick Aison and Dan Trachtenberg (who also directed) allow for a collective unity onscreen and off. They’ve made the best and by far the most exciting sequel to the original, making it an essential part of the Predator universe.
Set on the Great Plains in 1719 among the Comanche people, the film opens with familiarity. Naru, a young woman, struggling to prove her worth in a tribe of elders and male dominance, wants to impress upon those within her family that she is ready for more responsibility. While her brother Taabe hunts and provides for the tribe, she is looked down upon even as she demonstrates more than once that she has learned over time and exceeded expectations at every turn. Accompanied by her dog, much time is spent in the neighboring woods, perfecting her skill with weapons and tracking.
While in the woods, she catches sight of something in the sky that is unexpected and unable to be explained. Though she doesn’t have words for it, we know it’s an alien ship that has landed close by with a passenger who begins to stir up trouble for the wildlife and, soon, Naru’s people. As the Predator (Dane DiLiegro) uses his advanced technical weaponry against the primitive tools of the Comanche people, they appear to be defenseless. That is until a warrior unwilling to let the beast decimate her community decides to take a stand against it.
Having directed the sparse and tense 10 Cloverfield Lane, Trachtenberg knows how to create a lot from a little. The expanse of the location setting (the film was shot in Alberta, Canada) gives the director and crew a broader space to play. Prey nevertheless feels breathless and immediate for much of its 99 minutes. Mostly, it’s due to a script that doesn’t waste much time in getting to the action, spending enough time on early essential character development to orient us with the area and people. Like the original Predator, we learn more about the characters as the movie progresses, when their strengths and weaknesses are truly revealed.
While she’s not making her debut onscreen, it might as well be our introduction of Amber Midthunder as Naru because the actress makes such a smashing showing as the heroine and all-around badass of the picture. Onscreen for most of the film, she’s quite a commanding presence throughout. While I would argue that most of the cast has a uniquely Hollywood look (flawless hair, flawless teeth, flawless skin), that’s not to downplay the overall importance of the representation on display here. Though it wasn’t available on my screener, I would have welcomed the opportunity to view Prey in Comanche, an available option for streaming customers. As it is, the movie nicely indicates the transition from the indigenous language of the Comanche people to the English dialogue spoken for most of the film.
Produced primarily in secret until a studio executive spilled the beans in advance, I think it would have been grand to see Prey arrive without any advance knowledge. We no longer exist in that age where surprises can still happen. We live in a time when a movie experience can be a real revelation, and Prey indeed is just that. The violence is severe and brutal, sure to please gore fans craving creative kills, and it’s coupled with action sequences that are intelligently staged so that you aren’t five steps ahead of the actors. File those nails down because you’ll bite them a few times. If all franchise renewals can be this innovative and inspired, I’m all for it.