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Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Dan Trachtenberg, Patrick Aison
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro
Review: David Stephens
It's odd to think that a 1987 action movie that was destined to be purely a Schwarzenegger star vehicle ended up becoming a major franchise that was entirely separate from its original. And like any action/horror franchise, it's had its fair share of ups and downs, from the underrated Predator 2 (1992) to the car crash that was The Predator (2018), and not to mention the AvP films. However, director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) has been quietly working on this project for at least five years. It went into stealth production as "Skull" until the cat ripped its way out of the bag and its heritage was revealed. Either a prequel to the original or the fifth sequel in the franchise (or seventh if you include AvP… Jesus, movie franchises are complicated!), this has just gone straight to Hulu in the States and Disney Plus in the UK. So we've gone back in time with our flexi-jawed extra-terrestrial "chum" to take a look at its shenanigans back then.
In 18th Century colonial America, a young Comanche woman called Naru (an impressive Amber Midthunder) is becoming frustrated by the expectations of her tribe. They expect her to participate in early morning foraging parties and attempt to exclude her from hunting rituals. Along with some prowess with medicinal herbs, she has skills with an axe and can track you like Scooby-Doo! So she shadows her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and discovers that something deadly is in the forest that is not of this world. Something that underestimates her, like her Comanche family, and she's going to stop it…
If we can take only one thing away from Prey, it's that the other sequels have been going about it all wrong! They have been focusing on the (admittedly) interesting mythos of the Predator (or "Yautja" as their race is called in canon literature, for fact fans!). Instead, this plot brings it back to basics and focuses on one Earth warrior facing off against the otherworldly tourists. As Predators and The Predator threw alien dogs, exosuits, rebels, steroids, genetic engineering, government conspiracies, and alien kitchen-sinks into the mixture … it just became ever messier and more unfocused. In hindsight, this plot holds the best formula. Trachtenberg's treatment has gone grassroots and made it primal again. But instead of the macho "ain't got time to bleed" malarkey of the 80s classic, this has the alien up against the smarts and speed of another type of fighter.
Midthunder's "Naru" is centre stage and carries the narrative for the vast majority of the running time. The actress is pretty damned good in the role and makes a nice contrast against the previous leads in the franchises. What is refreshing is that she isn't a super-warrior who makes no mistakes. In fact, she screws up. Often. But her wit, speed (check out those rebound leaps off tree trunks), and ingenuity is what makes her a formidable adversary that the Predator constantly overlooks. She "MacGyver's" a retractable axe for hunting and finds an anti-heat-vision alternative to mud in a neat twist to the original film.
Fears that the gory violence and scope of a Predator film would be diminished by going to a streaming channel (especially with Disney involved) have been largely unfounded. With the vast and open jaw-dropping scenery of Alberta, Canada, along with some superb cinematography, many scenes still deserve to be seen on a big screen. Thankfully, blood spray and geysers of gore are in evidence. However, the POV sometimes deliberately goes to one side when a particularly nasty death occurs (the old flesh-chunk-a-body-in-a-shrinking-net trick). But, we get a character holding a huge bear aloft and soaking themselves in the cascading blood. So there's that.
As stated, the plot is fairly straightforward and simply constructed. The portrayal of the Comanches and some unlucky French fur trappers feels right and not exploitative in any way. There are some very nice little details, such as the sequences where the Predator observes food-chain encounters in the landscape before getting stuck in. The effects are pretty good, apart from occasional shonky "stealth" shots, especially with the nicely rendered CG wildlife. Also worth noting is the appearance of the hunting alien itself, which is subtly changed both with and without the headgear (an uglier motherfucker?). Its technology is slightly different as well. It is 300 years before the first one, after all.
Some of the plot threads are a little heavy-handed regarding the representation of misogyny and sexism in the tribe and further afield. The theme of female empowerment is nicely handled but often with the aid of big neon arrows in the screenplay. Still, viewers will get a kick out of Naru's journey to badassery and beyond. The Easter Eggs are also there for Predator 2 and Predator fans. Hopefully, this represents the future direction of any other films, and to be honest… pick a date in history, and we're up for it.
Showing that franchise sequels can still pack a punch and put things back on track with a little thought and care, "Prey" is a pure and assured film. Still feeling like a "big screen" project, it has some great cinematography and cool combat sequences. Some of the narrative flows and themes are a little blunt, but this movie delivers the sort of viewing experience that "Predator" fans have wanted since the original. Prey for more.
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