The Great Plains, 1719: Naru (Amber Midthunder), a member of the Comanche tribe, longs to break free of her expected role as a healer and become a hunter, like her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). When a mysterious series of signs and incidents point to some strange new creature prowling the nearby wilderness Naru sees her chance, but gets far more than she bargained for: the creature comes from another world, and it’s not here to be prey, but predator.
This is a franchise that has existed for 35 years at this point, and before Prey comprised seven separate films that were either about the Predator alone, or a mixture of Predators and Aliens. It’s a cultural touchstone in terms of this overall genre, but for all that it surprises me somewhat to see that my own opinion – that Prey is the best Predator movie since the very first one – is actually pretty common. It’s been a long history of false dawns and mediocrity for this franchise, if not outright awfulness, but finally, 35 years on, a cast and crew have come along that have managed to imbue new life into this tottering wreck.
At the very heart of it is Naru and Midthunder. Plug your ears about all of the predictable discussion about her gender in the context of the franchise – because this universe has never had a woman defeat an Alien creature before, right? – and instead enjoy one of the best performances in a sci-fi action thriller in some time, from a woman who is tasked with both carrying the load of the Arnie-esque hero, and being a representation for a very specific historical era and people. The setting, and the Comanches, are a perfect fit for this franchise, a people storied as hunters and explorers of great untamed wildernesses, who you can imagine going toe-to-toe with the kind of hunter and explorer that a Predator is. Midthunder, who effectively blends in themes of blurred gender roles into the story being told, is truly excellent, far from the kind of heedless bad-ass such roles are so easily turned into, but showcasing an appropriate vulnerability, recklessness and determination that makes the character compelling. This is a story about a woman getting back up every time that she falls and fulfilling her ambitions, and all in a drawn out single combat where she must grow in to the challenge: watching that journey unfold is a really mesmerising experience.
Director Dan Trachtenberg doesn’t beat around the bush here, to his credit. Prey is a tight 100 minutes, and there’s no ham-fisted effort to draw out the “surprise” that it is a Predator that has been dropped into the Great Plains wilderness (the original plan was for the franchise nature of the film to be a surprise alright, before details were leaked, but the film itself makes little effort to draw things out). We all know why we are here, and in many respects the Predator is not the point of the story: it’s just the achievement that Naru must advance to, her opposite in some ways, but very much a sort of unstoppable force of nature instead of an all-out antagonist. Predictably, the role of bad guy in the film is filled more by the braindead Europeans who stumble into the arena of combat in the second half, who are ignorant of what they face and liable to be fodder for Predator cannons. The Predator is really just that: a creature impossible to reason with, that is just here to kill or be killed.
Of course half the reason that we are here is for Predator-on-human action scenes, and Trachtenberg does a really good job with those. Through the identity of the Predator is given no shocking reveal at all, we do get a slow-and-patient build to the moment when it gets to fully unleash its powers, in a collection of scenes where the creature seeks out Earth’s greatest animal killers in a sliding scale of power, before finally coming upon humanity. The resulting fight scenes are a mishmash of appendages being lopped off, plenty of gore effects and a few pieces of CGI technology when the director really wants to mess with our heads. Prey is a bit more upfront with the bloodshed than the first Predator was, but I do feel like it was in proportion with the story: I wouldn’t describe Prey as a bloodfest, though all the same it is not a film for the faint-at-heart.
On a larger visual level, Trachtenberg succeeds admirably with Prey. The film captures the wildness and vastness of the Great Plains in a by-gone era, whether it is in the enormous wide-open spaces, or in the claustrophobic woods where lots of deadly perils lurk. I really liked some of the panning shots as Naru runs after a target or flees away from becoming one herself, creating a dynamism in the production that is at odds with previous techniques in this franchise. There is the time taken to explore the food chain of the area, between rats, snakes, rabbits and wolves, in the larger context of a story about hunters. Much has been made of the efforts to make sure that Prey is an historically accurate representation of the Comanche at the time, and this helps to give the film a really important visual sense of authenticity in clothing, language and customs, one that may be alien to modern society in some ways, but is still imminently graspable. And not enough can be said in praise of the design of the Predator itself, a sort of regress of the 1987 model. This one is armed with bolts instead of lasers, a shield instead of armour and some manner of bone helm instead of a scary helmet, but the effect is not to lessen the threat of the Predator, but to increase it: in Prey, it really does feel and look like a very primal threat, an otherworld monster whose ability to eviscerate you is never in doubt.
Prey is long past due. Predator is a film that can rightfully be dubbed as the apex of that particular time, place and genre: the perfect example of that masculine bravado focused sci-fi concept, which operated at the bleeding edge of effects and told a story that was simple but compelling. They’ve been trying for over 30 years to get back to that point, or anywhere near it. Prey finally succeeds. It does this through an adherence to the idea of a simple but compelling story – right down to a nostalgia-fuelled repeat of a famous line – but also by turning the paradigm on its head a little with its focus on a gender role swap in a very different culture than what most of the audience will be used to, with plenty of anti-colonial sentiment. Backed by that strong central performance from Midthunder and some well executed action, Prey breathes new life into a franchise that was veering close to setting off the self-destruct. For once, sequel set-up didn’t rankle with me, because I’ll buy tickets for #2 in advance. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Disney+).