Film Review – Prey
Prey (2022) – the latest in the long running Predator franchise – is a return to form. Where the other sequels and spin offs became progressively sillier, this entry has elected to strip things down to its bare essentials. Writer Patrick Aison and director Dan Trachtenberg have a keen understanding of what made the 1987 original work so well. These films operate best when the focus is on the survival narrative. Although Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers are hulking, muscular strong men, they were pitted against an alien warrior that made them the underdogs. All their strength and weaponry were no match for the creature’s technology, and so the only way to beat it was with wit, determination, and smarts. This latest endeavor follows in that tradition, but to a higher degree.
Our story operates as a prequel of sorts, taking place way back in the pre-America of the early 1700s. Here, among the Great Plains, we’re introduced to the Comanche Tribe. Among this group is a young woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder). Naru is adventurous and determined, wishing to be a hunter like her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers). Early on, we learn of a sacred ritual in which a Comanche warrior ventures out to find and defeat wild game. Taabe is the latest to complete the ritual. Naru’s wishes to do the same. Unfortunately, her desires take a back seat to more pressing matters. Peculiar events start happening in the surrounding areas: unfamiliar footprints, loud noises from the sky, lightening bursting from inside the forest, etc. When no one believes her, Naru decides to take matters into her own hands. With her trusty dog Sarii, Naru heads out to find the cause of the commotion. Little does she realize that source is a deadly Predator, who has landed on Earth to once again (or for the first time?) lay down a path of destruction.
Immediately, we get a sense that Naru – and everyone else, for that matter – are overmatched. Where the Predator has lasers, grenade-like explosives, and the ability to hide under an invisibility shield, Naru and her tribe are fastened with bows, arrows, spears, and axes. Even the white people we see (mostly French colonizers) are equipped with muskets that must be reloaded after every shot. The sense of insurmountable odds that was so prevalent in the first film is taken to a whole new level here. Right away, we see how much of an advantage the Predator has. There is a very high body count, as the alien slices, dices, and shoots down person after person with ease. However, where the Predator is efficient in its physical abilities, Naru utilizes the one component she has on her side: her mind.
It’s that element that makes Prey the best of the franchise since the first film. Aison’s writing and Trachtenberg’s direction take their time in establishing Naru’s character, showing us how quickly she adapts to her environment and then using that knowledge as a weapon. In fact, much of the runtime focuses on Naru’s ability to survive the harsh conditions of nature. There are long sequences of her and Sarii wandering through wide open fields and thick forests, encountering obstacles that puts them both in danger. Jeff Cutter’s cinematography captures the geography like an old school western, opting for wide and long shots to accentuate how the landscape acts as an additional character. Some set pieces are thick with fog and humidity, as if the screen itself was wet. Other times, the camera settles to take in a gorgeous shot of the sun setting in the horizon. These are the stages for Naru’s journey. The narrative shows how she learns to work with what’s around her instead of fighting against it. Encounters with a sinkhole and with a grizzly bear shows how quickly she’s able to think on her feet. That comes in handy once she runs into the Predator.
Midthunder is very good in the lead role – able to command the screen with authority despite her youth. Naru is a tricky character to play. Not only does she inhabit the customs of the time, but she also represents modernist themes. A young woman wanting to make her own way while society tells her otherwise seems ripped out of the present. How others – including Taabe – brush off her warnings of the Predator has parallels to stories we see now. But none of this feels like its being forced or shoehorned in, and that is mainly due to Midthunder’s strong performance. A lesser actor might have chosen a more caricature-like approach given the violent material, but Midthunder’s work is more nuanced than that. Yes, this is a sci-fi/horror film featuring a classic movie monster, but it is also a well developed character study as well.
But don’t let that fool you, this does provide some excellent thrills. Horror and action fans will get their money’s worth, as the production delivers well constructed sequences. Trachtenberg and his team suggest the presence of the creature before diving headfirst into its rampage. The sound design inserts the classic clicking/growling noise of the Predator, letting us know that it’s near. The camera frame will sit on a patch of trees or underbrush for a few seconds longer than normal, causing us to lean forward and squint our eyes to see the Predator before it attacks. This lends to heightened sense of anticipation. It’s the classic Jaws (1975) approach: let the audience imagine the terror before unveiling it. Once we do see the Predator in its full glory, we can tell how its conception is influenced by the original’s design, but with a new twist. CGI is incorporated – sometimes very noticeably – to amplify the Predator’s looks and killing abilities, but for the most part the character is carried by Dane DiLiegro’s physical performance. Although some of the movements are familiar, it’s obvious that this is a different being than ones we we’ve seen before.
I had a blast with Prey, not only for the shock and awe of the action but by the central character’s engaging, captivating story. This is not only a tale of life and death, but of growth and transformation. The fact that it covers relevant topics while featuring blood, guts, and dismemberment goes to show how well the production pulled it off. It’s not often we get something that balances smarts with mayhem, because it is not an easy thing to do. Luckily, that is precisely what happens here. Despite the odds, this has breathed new life in a franchise thought to have been dead in the water. See it as soon as you can.