Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (2022) simultaneously pays respect to and gently subverts the 1987 Arnie vehicle to which it is a loose prequel. On the one hand, it grounds the franchise in the simple premise that made John McTiernan’s Predator so effective to begin with: two creatures – one human, one extraterrestrial – going head-to-head in an unforgiving, isolated environment. On the other hand, it replaces the original’s cartoonish, cigar-chomping macho men with a Comanche tribe in 1719. The title hints at this clever reversal; the protagonist on the other end of the predator’s laser gun is targeted not just by a bloodthirsty creature from another planet, but also French colonizers and men in her tribe who don’t think she has what it takes to be a hunter.
As played by Amber Midthunder, Naru may very well be the best human character to grace the franchise since Schwarzenegger’s Dutch. Wanting to demonstrate she is ready for her kühtaamia, a hunting rite of passage, she ventures out into the wild to locate and kill the creature threatening her village. It doesn’t help that nobody else has seen this mysterious beast, or that not even her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), believes it’s real. And with this simple premise, we’re off; Trachtenberg (who also gets a story credit) and screenwriter Patrick Aison made the wise decision of streamlining the narrative and focusing on their young, plucky, and ultimately triumphant heroine (teen audiences especially will relate to her desire to prove her worth). There are real, human stakes behind her battle against the alien, who – like the encroaching settlers – poses an existential threat to her family and community.
So far, so good. Prey works best when Trachtenberg focuses on Naru’s adventures (there’s a pretty incredible sequence in which she witnesses the invisible armor-clad creature fighting off a bear), giving the film an exhilarating “what if Apocalypto had an alien?” flair. But he stumbles whenever more people enter the picture. Smarmy French trappers, for example, appear and – rather than contributing to the metaphor of colonizers as invasive, “alien” forces of evil – are quickly disposed of in a number of disappointingly rote action set pieces. One gets the impression they were thrown in the narrative just to increase the body count; and since we don’t get to know about any of them, their inevitable demise doesn’t register in any meaningful way.
To be fair, the Predator films were never meant to be Alien (1979); they are, first and foremost, unabashed shoot-‘em-ups, and Prey mostly follows suit. Trachtenberg, however, seems oddly queasy when it comes to this stuff, cutting away from the gorier elements or placing them just out of focus, as if trying to secure a tamer MPAA rating. The abovementioned scene with the trappers could have been a prime opportunity to let things rip and lean into the franchise’s grindhouse roots, but the director sets it in a barren, fog-enshrouded forestland; as a result, some of the action is borderline indecipherable (an overreliance on CGI blood doesn’t help much, either). At the end of the day, gorehounds – that is to say, those to whom such moments are seemingly catered – will find the sequence weirdly tame and half-hearted. If you want to satiate your fans’ bloodlust, why not do so with some style and energy?
Prey still stands head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries, in large part thanks to superior acting (especially from Midthunder), crisp pacing, and some striking imagery in its non-action scenes (cinematographer Jeff Cutter works wonders with nighttime footage in particular, the torch-bearing characters surrounded by impenetrable blacks). It also avoids – well, for the most part – winking nods to the previous entries. In other words, it tries to be its own thing. And in a movie landscape saturated with tedious universe-building, such an approach feels downright bold.
Prey is now streaming on Hulu.