The trailers for Prey call it the Predator‘s first hunt on Earth, but it’s really not. Sorry, but the Alien vs. Predator movies cannot be extricated from the franchise as easily as Ridley Scott tried to remove them from the Alien series. Remember, Predator 2 established that the alien Xenomorphs have been hunted at least once by the Predator Yautja. And The Predator canonized the events of at least the first AVP. Additionally, Prey has a tie-in to at least one of these, so the studio can’t really pull out a card without the whole house tumbling down. It’s okay not to like every movie in a franchise. Virtually every major film series fandom has to deal with that issue. But thankfully, most will probably enjoy Prey. It might just be the most visually arresting in the series.
Most of the Predator movies feel like action flicks interrupted by an alien incursion. But Prey plays more like an art house movie at first. It introduces a small Comanche settlement circa 1719, beautifully framed against a vast backdrop of mountains and sky. We meet Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young woman who wants to go through the tribal process to become a warrior. This involves hunting something capable of killing her; implicitly, a bear. And when Naru sees a fiery symbol in the sky, she presumes it’s a divine sign. Of course we know better. There’s barely a moviegoer alive who isn’t at least peripherally aware of Predators by osmosis, if nothing else.
This Predator is particularly sadistic. Though it periodically shows mercy to those who can’t fight back, it has no issues skinning a snake, which is hardly a fair opponent. Honestly, the most relatable thing about the Yautja is that for all their space warrior honor codes, they can be complete hypocrites when something doesn’t go their way, or provokes their emotions. Just like humans.
CG cloaking and Predator gore aside, much of the first half of the movie feels like an art film. It’s a slow-paced look at — presumably authentic — Comanche life, although not quite bold enough to pull a Mel Gibson and have everyone speak Comanche. A dubbed version will be available, but any dub is rarely preferable to the original production dialogue. The Comanche language is represented as English here, such that when non-Native characters enter the movie about halfway through, any “English” they speak is presumed to actually be Comanche. At that same point, the movie takes a turn into territory similar to The Revenant, with an alien killer thrown into the middle. That’s a bit of a formula switch for a series more fond of imitating The Dirty Dozen.
Basically, Prey is much more of a one-on-one contest than previous franchise installments. Even the original, presented as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, surrounded its star player with Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and Bill Duke. Naru just has her brother, who’s mildly annoyed that his sister wants the warrior glory that he also seeks.
While in theory it’s tougher to make a Predator movie that isn’t about a bunch of distinctive characters slowly being picked off, that’s thankfully not the case here. Director Dan Trachtenberg, who previously worked wonders with minimal characters in 10 Cloverfield Lane, keeps the lone warrior battle interesting by occasionally following the Predator’s journey as well as Naru’s. It’s a stretch to say he makes both equally interesting. But as Yautja go, this one has arguably the most development since the Wolf in Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Mercifully, that’s the only thing it has in common with the otherwise undisputed least-good installment.
Cinematographer Jeff Cutter (10 Cloverfield Lane, Orphan) and production designer Kara Lindstrom (Den of Thieves) create an all-enveloping world here, rather than letting trees do most of the work. More so than even Predators, which was actually set on another world, this feels like a New World in a metaphorical and historical (and Terrence Malick-style) sense. It’s a shame this was conceived for a streaming release, because in some ways, this is the most cinematic Predator of them all. Both Midthunder and Dane DiLiegro as the Yautja rise to the challenge of the spectacle. They transcend their character types without ever betraying the actual characters or becoming overly self-conscious.
There’s very specific room for a sequel at the end, though typically, installments in this franchise never continue any protagonist’s story. That’s partly been due to actor salary negotiations, timing, and also the fact that the sequels never seem to do quite as well as the property’s name-recognition would suggest. At one point, the goal was to market Prey as a secret Predator movie, although it’s not clear that would have been better. Rather, it would have been Bone Tomahawk. The Yautja characters tend to do better at selling merchandise than movies, and to that end, the version shown here sports a distinctive look that ought to become a fan favorite.
Still, Trachtenberg remembers the most important rule: the Predator is just a character. The movie around it has to be a good one too. Prey would work if he yanked the alien completely, and kept it about the human characters. But it would admittedly be a lot less cool.
Prey debuts on Hulu on Friday, August 5.
Recommended Reading: Predator: The Essential Comics Volume 1
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