20th Century Studios/rated R/97 minutes
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay by Patrick Aison
Produced by John Davis, Marty P. Ewing and Jhane Myers
Starring Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush and Julian Black Antelope
Cinematography Jeff Cutter
Edited by Angela M. Catanzaro and Claudia Castello
Music by Sarah Schachner
Debuting on Hulu on August 5 courtesy of Walt Disney
The best thing about Daniel Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison’s Prey is that it’s barely a Predator movie. It’s a prequel to the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner with at least a few visual or verbal callbacks (only one of which made me roll my eyes). But it’s a singular, stand-alone survival adventure set in 1719 featuring a dynamic new action heroine (Amber Midthunder) facing off against a technologically advanced alien. Granted, I’m not huge on most other Predator sequels, even if Predators at least inverted the formula by placing a dozen various action movie stereotypes into a Predator flick. However, I admire that they are mostly stand-alone adventures that don’t require prior knowledge or IP awareness. Sure, it’s by default the best Predator movie since the first Predator movie. However, it succeeds by deemphasizing the IP and ensuring it works as a kick-ass, character-focused action-adventure flick.
The picture, full of lush exterior locales and a sense of scale that feels more expensive than it probably was, opens with our protagonist (Midthunder) acting out a conventional Disney princess arc. That’s not a criticism, but it bemuses me considering external variables. Naru plays out the typical “I don’t want to adhere to gender-based familial expectations” role as she relentlessly convinces her older brother (a scene-stealing Dakota Beavers) that she’s a hunter and not a farmer. She gets that chance, for better or worse, when her Comanche brethren are attacked by something out there in the woods. It’s not an animal. It’s not would-be European settlers. It’s seemingly not of this world. However, and this is a problem with almost every Predator sequel, we spend the first act watching our protagonist trying to solve a mystery to which we already know the answer. Spoiler: It’s a predator.
Midthunder, who owns nearly every frame of this 97-minute actioner, commands our attention and sympathy even when the film goes through the franchise-specific motions. That’s good because she’s the only character who gets much in the way of shading or development. The picture soars in its second half into a rock-n-roll action extravaganza. Slight second-act spoilers, but we are eventually introduced to a group of bloodthirsty, racist French fur traders. They make the wrong choices at almost every opportunity, allowing for subtle political commentary regarding “civilized Europeans versus indigenous savages.” They supply ample cannon fodder for our amusement, avoiding the not-enough-red-shirts problem that can plague monster movies like, for example, Jurassic Park III. These folks aren’t presented with any more sympathy than the British villains from RRR, and there’s a cathartic value in watching them getting outwitted by Naru and Predator-ed to bloody pieces.
Like Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, an original screenplay slightly rejiggered into an IP spin-off, Prey is an original film with compelling characters but just enough IP seasoning to avoid allegations of mismarketing. All due respect to Danny Glover’s over-the-top star turn in Predator 2, I’d argue that Prey is the first Predator sequel/prequel where the main human protagonist is more compelling than the monster. That’s a critical point. Too many in Hollywood have presumed that the Predator creatures themselves were monetizable IPs. Instead, I’d argue the original John McTiernan-directed film was a hit ($98 million worldwide on a $15 million budget in 1987) because of its specific ‘Arnold fights a jungle alien’ pitch. It joins Conan the Barbarian, Total Recall and Terminator as hit films that weren’t franchises so much as examples of audiences wanting to see a big-budget Schwarzenegger action fantasy.
It matters that Naru holds the screen even when she’s the only thing on it and when she is merely prepping or avoiding battle. It matters that the film’s narrative, about an undervalued hunter holding her own against an unthinkably challenging foe, works regardless of whether you’ve ever seen a Predator movie. The picture looks great, I mourn for those who won’t get to see this in theaters even if I understand the business behind that choice, and I hope Midthunder gets more work beyond roles that *require* Native American characters. Prey is a generally engaging and often engrossing action-adventure film with a strong lead performance, theater-worthy production values, agreeably R-rated violence and just enough of a connection to the prior Predator films to appease that fandom. Prey is barely a Predator movie, which is why it’s the absolute best Predator movie in 35 years.