‘Prey’ Changes the ‘Predator’ Game With a Survivalist Adventure Set in the Comanche Nation
There is not much need for yet another “Predator” movie. Out of all the ongoing franchises continuously flooding the market, this one has defined the term derivative for years now. And yet, here we get “Prey,” a kind of prequel set in the Comanche Nation 300 years ago that stands on its own as an efficient, expectedly gory thriller. Director Dan Trachtenberg is doing something almost sly in his approach to this movie. If you walk in expecting a Predator film with another variation of the alien hunter landing on Earth and collecting a few skulls, then you will not be disappointed. But while delivering what the franchise requires, Trachtenberg strives to craft some memorable images and a genuine wilderness thriller with the groundbreaking use of an all-Native American cast.
Set in the Great Plains of 1719, the story follows Naru (Amber Midthunder) who tries to prove her prowess as a hunter-fighter within her community. She can throw a tomahawk with deadly precision and her crossbow isn’t that bad either. Her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers) is a bit annoyed by her efforts, or feels threatened by them. Something more urgent distracts the siblings when a fiery object streaks across the sky. As you can guess, it’s a ship carrying a Predator. Soon all the men in the tribe face the invisible alien threat as it slices and dices through unsuspecting victims. Naru decides to fight this alien intruder while also coming across a band of French trappers who have been killing and skinning local buffalo, an essential food and material source for the Comanche. Of course, they too face the bloody wrath of the Predator. It’s up to Naru to save everyone from its claws.
In some ways, “Prey” returns to a few of the basics of John McTiernan’s classic 1987 “Predator,” the original film in the franchise starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. What still makes that movie effective is its sense of atmosphere and environment. A large portion of the film keeps the Predator as a ghostly threat. Tension rises because we don’t know from what corner of the jungle it’s going to emerge, or what it even looks like until after the half-way point. “Prey” has some of that vibe despite soon giving in to the usual style of the five other movies in the series (including the “Alien vs. Predator” spinoffs). Trachtenberg has worked on shows like “The Boys,” “Black Mirror” and directed the engaging sci-fi puzzle “10 Cloverfield Lane.” He knows how to focus on substance and gives “Prey” enough time to establish the world of Naru’s people, their surroundings and some of their culture. His cinematographer, Jeff Cutter, makes sweeping pans over the Great Plains and lights campfire dances as if he yearns to someday make a Terrence Malick movie.
It’s with the Comanche emphasis that “Prey” is groundbreaking as a genre film. It’s not a serious drama or even cultural exploration like Salvador Carrasco’s “The Other Conquest,” or even “Dances with Wolves.” This is more of a small cousin to “Apocalypto,” in that the action (and by the middle it’s all action) takes place purely within a Native American world. It’s also a positive fact that the producers brought the cast back to record a language track for the film entirely in Comanche, which will reportedly be available as an option when “Prey” premieres on Hulu. When it comes to the story, once Naru figures out that what’s attacking her people is a physical enemy who walks on both legs and has spikes that snap out of its wrists, the rest of the movie is a typical “Predator” romp pulled off with some skillful visuals. The Predator (played by Dane DiLiegro of “American Horror Stories”), who must be a great, great, great grandfather of the later editions, is also given an eerie design for this semi-Western setting. He has a skull-like mask that makes him evoke a mutant deer. Although, must the Predator always have dreadlocks? Surely, fashion must have changed over three centuries.
Most “Predator” movies take place in big cities or outer space. Trachtenberg brings some new survivalist sights to the franchise for respectable popcorn suspense. Naru and others fall into quicksand or evade the Predator through trees. The Predator also battles such wilderness offerings like grizzly bears. One has to put aside some observations such as how the Comanche warriors quickly forget they are watching an alien become invisible, or aim lasers at their bodies, and summon the courage to come at the alien with their weapons. At least the screenplay avoids offensive clichés where they would assume it is some evil spirit. They’re just primed to kick ass in an action movie. By comparison to the other entries the stakes are also higher here. Nura has to keep the Predator from attacking her entire tribe and family, including mother Sumu (Stefany Mathias). There’s also much pulpy fun in Naru streaking her face with glowing green Predator blood. Aside from the other, admirably exhausting stunts through rivers and mountains, this moment alone should solidify Amber Midthunder as a new action star to watch out for. She has the strength and charm of Alicia Vikander in “Tomb Raider,” or Elpidia Carrillo in the first “Predator.”
It’s a curious choice to release “Prey” as a Hulu streaming release. This is the kind of action movie worth seeing on the big screen simply for the visual style. Few franchises make it into a sixth movie with a sense of sweeping widescreen images. This is not the breakthrough prequel that will snag Academy Awards, but it’s an excellent genre piece that also proves you can widen representation without losing what makes a particular franchise so popular. Sometimes that’s how we get used to better, more diverse action spectacles. We want our gory Predator romp complete with detached spinal cords and infrared vision from inside the alien’s helmet. Trachtenberg gives us all that but in a Comanche setting that proves bare-knuckled entertainment has no language except the collective desire to have a good time.
“Prey” begins streaming Aug. 5 on Hulu.