When it comes to science fiction/horror, few franchises are both as beloved and spotty as the Predator series. Starting in 1987, the alien hunter has since made seven visits to the cinema, and none have garnered as much acclaim as the original suspenseful classic. By all accounts, the Predator franchise has been dead in the water for some time, so I was skeptical when a new film was announced, especially after the last offering, simply titled The Predator, proved to be another disappointment. When the premise was revealed to be a prequel titled Prey centred on a Comanche tribe, I was intrigued, but still skeptical. I remained skeptical until I hit play on Hulu.
Set in 1700s America, Prey follows Naru (Amber Midthunder) a Comanche warrior struggling to earn the respect of her tribe, especially her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). That opportunity comes when a series of strange occurrences begin to trouble her. First, she sees something in the sky she mistakes for the legendary Thunderbird. Then animals start turning up dead and skinned. Soon, Naru can’t help but notice an ominous lurking presence has invaded the area, leading to a confrontation with a foe the likes of which she’s never seen before.
The idea of a young warrior trying to prove themselves isn’t exactly original, but the character of Naru highlights an oft-missed truth of the series. In the original Predator, Dutch relies entirely on strength to carry himself, but when confronted with the Predator, he’s forced to adopt a new strategy of stealth and trickery to survive. In Prey, Naru is looked down on by her tribe due to her age and deceptively unassuming stature, but what she lacks in physical prowess, she makes up for in ingenuity. The character is repeatedly shown as apt in experimentation, such as where she crafts a string she uses to bring back her tomahawk like a boomerang. It’s these traits that make Naru a force to be reckoned with.
Amber Midthunder brings a lot to Naru. She’s eager to prove herself so the convention goes, but Midthunder takes a more subtle approach with the character. She does register hurt and frustration at being looked down upon, but more than that, she registers planning. During all the arguments and setbacks, you can’t help but get the feeling that the gears are turning, planning her next move so she’ll avoid the same mistakes. The result is a character less like a doe-eyed dreamer and more like someone in the middle of a chess match. Midthunder also injects some levity into the role. She’s serious, but still capable of having a little fun at the expense of older brother Taabe. Seeing the two invent new ways to drive each other crazy is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Prey and is just as genuine as Naru’s more serious moments.
Dakota Beavers also deserves a lot of credit for the role of Taabe. A weaker actor would have taken the material and played the character as condescending and dismissive. Instead, Beavers plays the role of an overprotective but genuinely caring older brother. When he’s dismissive of Naru, he’s also trying not to insult her, and his hesitation while speaking shows that he knows it’s not working. Such acting is never easy. As with Midthunder, Beavers deserves high marks for his work here.
Prey does something that hasn’t really been attempted since the underrated Predator 2. Most of the sequels attempted to replicate the original formula of blending monster movies with combat thrillers. Predator 2 was one of the few to take the monster out of a combat movie and drop it into a neo-noir police thriller. Prey also tries its hand at changing genres. This film is a Western, and a great one. Prey does an excellent job creating the feel of America’s unspoiled frontier and like the original, uses this setting to create mood. This is a world without modern technology, where the night is illuminated only by the faint light of the fire, forests cleared by flame are left as ashen landscapes, and monsters have plenty of places to hide. It’s a testament to the cinematography of Jeff Cutter.
Prey owes a lot to survival thrillers such as Deliverance and Southern Comfort, the latter of which was a major influence on the original Predator. Set in a time before Dutch and his rapid-fire machine guns, Prey trades those out for up close and personal skirmishes. Fights between characters and the monster are brief, bloody affairs of snapped bones and severed limbs, which really justifies the film’s R-rating. In these fights, even the Predator is forced to take some hits. There are a number of highly creative sequences here, such as Naru’s first encounter with the monster while being pursued by a bear, a tense scene of being stalked through a grassy field, and a bloody massacre in a burned-out forest. Out of all films in the series, Prey is the one that leans heaviest into the horror genre. This is director Dan Trachtenberg’s second feature film after 10 Cloverfield Lane, but it’s nice to see a young director take risks.
The film has some missed opportunities. One of the great joys of the series, even the bad ones, was the practical effects that went into bringing the titular monster to life. While there is still some great work on the part of Predator actor Dane DeLiegro, much of the animatronic and stunt work is supplemented with CGI, as is the gore. The film still packs a visceral punch during the film’s many elaborate deaths but seeing more of that, as well as the Predator’s face realized with practical magic, would have been most welcome and almost certainly would have heightened the impact.
Still, the performance we get from DeLiegro is very effective. DeLiegro’s Predator is cunning in how he hunts and creative in how he kills, and his imposing nature only adds to the character’s menace. There is a certain sadistic glee in the numerous fight scenes, which turns to shock, frustration and eventually outright fury when the monster is faced with a thinking opponent. Also, and I’m unsure if this is intentional, there are strong parallels between Naru and her enemy. Not only are both shown as skilled trackers, but certain mannerisms in how Naru handles her weapons like her tomahawk are recreated with DeLiegro’s own use of similar weapons. It’s a small touch, but an interesting one. There’s a real performance here, something that’s not easy to create under a latex suit, and this is perhaps the best we’ve seen since the late Kevin Peter Hall last played the character.
Add these elements together, and what you have is one of the best creature features we’ve seen in a long time, and a welcome return to form for the Predator series. What has always led to the Predator’s defeat is its underestimation of its quarry, and that’s really what the entire movie is about. Like everyone else in the film, the Predator underestimates Naru, trusting its weapons and strength to protect it. As the Predator is invisible to those it hunts, so is Naru invisible to it. As with Dutch in the original classic, she knows how to think her way out of danger, something the Predator doesn’t anticipate. When their confrontation inevitably comes, it’s as personal, primal, bloody and brilliant as the series has ever been.
I’ve been a massive fan of Predator since age twelve, but years of disappointments had left me not very hopeful that the series would find its footing. It says a lot that for the first time in years, I’m excited to see where the alien hunter will go next. Prey is the kind of movie that we haven’t seen in a long time, not just in this series but in general. It avoids a major problem with a lot of modern Hollywood films, one of excess. Many franchise films have become overblown messes with much spectacle and little substance. Prey is more akin to lower-budget classics like Evil Dead and The Terminator. It’s a moderately budgeted thriller that supplements epic scale with style and imagination.
Final Score – 9.5/10
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