With film franchises, there is always a need to go bigger and better than the last installment. There is a need for more. Whether it’s to add more story, mythos, action scenes, etc., the emphasis on more can overcomplicate what made the franchise awesome to start with. Adding more elements also serves as a crutch in hiding flaws. In the case of Dan Trachtenberg’s PREY, the latest installment in The Predator franchise, there’s a return to simplicity in the storytelling that is bone-achingly refreshing that many will enjoy.
The film features a cast comprised almost entirely of Native and First Nation talent, including Amber Midthunder (The Ice Road, “Roswell, New Mexico”), newcomer Dakota Beavers, Stormee Kipp (Sooyii), Michelle Thrush (The Journey Home), and Julian Black Antelope (“Tribal”).
Serving as a prequel to The Predator (1987), viewers are taken back to 1719 in the Northern Great Plains where the Comanche Nation resides. We follow Naru (Amber Midthunder) who desires to be seen as a hunter like her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). Skilled in medicine and combat, she is constrained by gender roles enforced by the culture, with men being the hunters and women the healers and gatherers. But she doesn’t hesitate to keep pushing past the barriers her people place on her.
One day, Naru is pulled into a hunting group to track a vicious creature. This also serves as a rite of passage if she succeeds. However, here is where she picks up signs that something else is roaming their territory. Something new. While no one believes her, she is determined to find out what is out there. However, what she discovers in her tracking ends up being more than she bargained for. Face to face with a Yautja, a highly evolved alien predator with technology that literally blows people’s minds, she will be in for the battle of her life in PREY.
PREY returns to the roots of The Predator‘s story – the tug of war between predator and prey. It is cyclic and constantly changing as prey can become a predator if circumstances align. Such is the game of survival. By scaling back and getting to the bare bones of the hunt, screenwriter Patrick Aison is able to infuse the scenes on the page with a natural tension. Setting the story three hundred years in the past also lends itself well to facilitating the hunter/hunted dynamic, especially when it comes to the Comanche rite of passage seen onscreen. The hunt is the way of life and the hunt is what will get viewers hearts racing.
Tension on the page is one thing, but amplifying off the page is another. Here is where Trachtenberg’s direction really hits the sweet spot, and where all eyes should be on Amber Midthunder’s performance. As the main focus, Midthunder has a lot to handle. Even more so because there is the additional (albeit dumb) pressure as the female lead in a machismo-ridden franchise. There will be many who want justification for how her Naru can survive against a suped-up alien hunter. Needless to say, between her performance, Aison’s script, and Trachtenberg’s direction, the trio has built up a successful display that should shut haters up.
We see from the beginning Naru’s gradual build-up of skills alongside her trusty fur-baby companion. This is a coming-of-age tale. To become the hunter or the hunted, and as we watch her journey onscreen, there’s a natural trajectory here that should convince even the most negative Nancys that Naru is a deserving protagonist in this story. She’s not invulnerable. She does receive help from many around her, but she is learning along the way. One of the greatest payoffs is that we get to see how she accumulates everything she is learning with each new escalation, and it is oh-so-satisfying.
Most who have seen the film so far have mentioned in some way that PREY should have been played on a big screen, and I understand why. The cinematography alone is stunning. From aerial drone shots capturing the hunters navigating the trees to close-up shots of Naru’s ever-emotive face, nothing is spared by cinematographer Jeff Cutter’s camera. The fight scenes when they come are shot to amplify the ever-increasing tension, but also serve as a delight when we arrive upon overly confident French trappers. While it could be argued the fight scenes could have been more graphic, and that there are too many cutaways from the Predator itself, these scenes still read successfully.
There is a heavy leaning on CGI in the overall execution of the Predator. Sometimes it works but other times, not so much. This Predator creature makes great use of the invisibility cloaking device we’ve seen the species use in previous iterations. However, how it’s executed isn’t successful. It is heavy-handed in design. When the shielding device is off, viewers can see the fusion of both practical and VFX in this design. Dane DeLiegro’s physicality is fluid and primal, and wholly convincing as his Predator slashes through anything it deems as a threat. In the construction of the Predator’s face once revealed, there’s more abject terror induced rather than occasional laughter when those mandibles come out to play. 10/10 would not boop.
There’s also an awkward decision with the French trappers that might leave viewers scratching their heads. This is a multilingual film. It’s been advertised as such, but that won’t stop viewers from complaining. So the inclusion of a translator seems made for American audiences. In this case, we have the trappers speaking French, and someone acting as a surrogate translator to both Naru and the audience. While there is a plot advancement moment introduced later on with said translator, the translation portion was more distracting than anything else. It might have served the scene better if they leaned into the isolation languages bring, especially if the rest of the plot was kept the same.
PREY ranks higher than most Predator installments, and easily sits in the top three with The Predator (1989) and Predator 2. It’s difficult for anything to match up with the testosterone-seeping, machismo action energy of the first two films. They are products of a bygone era that still stand tall in the minds of many. However, PREY easily matches the heart-pounding energy and intensity that the first two films brought. The key to this is the simplicity of the storyline and its setting. It brings everything back to that principle of hunt or be hunted, something that many of us have forgotten along the way. With Amber Midthunder’s performance keeping us glued to the screen, you can’t help but cheer for her Naru to overcome everything thrown at her. There’s an earnestness from Naru that is so rewarding, and if viewers reposition themselves to think of it as a David vs Goliath situation, it is easier to imagine how she can succeed in the end.
PREY is now available to stream on Hulu entirely in Comanche as a language option, or with Comanche subtitles.
All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios. As a trigger warning, there is animal violence and general violence. Also, glowy blood.
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