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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Prey (2022)

It’s hard to not get completely swept up in the immediate euphoria of a franchise film that doesn’t suck, especially when it’s derived from one with a notoriously low-bar set by the sequels that followed the classic that started it all: Predator (1987). It’s been nearly two weeks since it premiered and the same amount of time since I watched it. I used to make a point of trying to review movies as quickly as possible, but with Prey, I had to be sure that my own hype was indeed the real deal. Thankfully, Prey is that good. The odd incel neckbeards are screaming bloody murder over the fact that the protagonist isn’t a straight white male, but thankfully, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive because it really deserves the praise it’s getting. Not just as a strong film in the franchise, but a strong film. Period.

Taking place over 300 years before the first Predator film, Prey sets itself in The Great Northern Plains circa 1719 where we follow a young Comanche woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder) in the throes of a crucial time within her life. She’s been taught to become a traditional healer, but Naru has grander ambitions: to become a great hunter, a warrior. The entire film is centred around a rite of passage ritual for the great hunters/warriors of her tribe called Kühtaamia – to hunt the hunter that hunts you. And in order for Naru to step out from the shadow of her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) as well as the traditional roles expected of her within the tribe, she chooses to pursue her own Kühtaamia. With the Predator’s inclusion, the ultimate hunter, Prey becomes a clever cat ‘n mouse action thriller that sends the franchise back to the basics of what made the original so great, and in certain areas, betters it (don’t @ me, bro), thanks to its compelling characters, plot and themes that let the Predator’s place within Naru’s journey make perfect sense.

The Predator films have always been incredibly simple in regards to plot, characterization and motives, particularly that of the Yautja (the Predator’s species name, ya nerds). In a nutshell, they just want to be the apex predator - to hunt the most dangerous game and ultimately become the most dangerous game as they sit atop the food chain. They're basically having a dick-measuring contest with nature. The film sequels have looked to expand the lore of the Yaultja but often to a fault, scratching the annoying itch we have in needing to know more about them. Unfortunately, this would often shift the focus away from giving us interesting human protagonists (and antagonists) that would instead become frustratingly one-dimensional with the barest of surface-level intrigue into who they are and their story. But here, writer/director Dan Trachtenberg effectively starts from zero, showing what is possibly the Predator's (or this one at least) first visit to Earth as it seeks out its prey to become the apex predator. Because we are well over 300 years prior to the first film, we get a completely different looking Predator as well as a substantially under-gunned group of humans for them to engage with. This is where Naru and the Predator’s battle with one another is fascinating and allows for Prey to give us the most compelling and relatable protagonist of the entire series. And by quite some margin as well.

Trachtenberg cleverly centres the plot and Naru’s development around the hunting rite of Kühtaamia. It is the initial driving force for her to succeed and develop as a character that is flawed, vulnerable and entirely relatable. The Predator series has barely given us any characters worthy of inspection, really. People look cool, they’re often hulking with muscles but as mentioned before, are entirely surface level in their motivations and desires. Don’t get me wrong, Naru’s character isn’t the most deeply complex, but her character has just the right amount of depth and motivation to garner serious interest and empathy from its audience. Her journey is relatable not in the way that she wants to go through with Kühtaamia, but that she needs to show everyone and herself that she can do what they say she can’t.

“Kühtaamia isn’t to see if you can hunt, but if you can survive”.

The word survive is a key word here. It's a key difference between a Predator and our human characters. Their determination to survive always seems far greater, relying on their primal instincts in order to eventually overcome them. Naru is also possibly the best character to represent that intrinsic need to survive and most importantly, adapt, in the entire franchise - thanks to her relatable motives in needing to do so. Unlike most characters we have seen take on the Yautja over the years (here, I am referencing the movies, not the comics. Soz nerds), we see Naru fail and develop skills in order to succeed far more regularly and with a clear focus. Characters prior to her were often already battle-hardened experts in their field and used said expertise to figure out a way to win. Of course, they have to fail, learn and adapt in order to defeat them, but with Naru, we see a character growing and learning from her environment much in the same way Arnie eventually did in the ’87 film, but this time, there’s a clearer internal conflict pushing her along with the plot beats, raising the stakes even further for our heroine.

“It won’t matter how sharp it is if you’re too afraid to use it”.

The dialogue throughout is simple and well-rounded enough to paint a picture of her relationship with those around her, as well as what she needs to realize in order to achieve her goals. It’s never deeply complex, poetic dialogue à la Terence Malick, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s simple enough to understand what’s at stake for each character, particularly Naru, outside the external plot points. The original Predator (we have to reference it a lot here, apologies) is a plot-driven narrative through and through. And that’s fine. It’s a classic for a reason. Trachtenberg understands this formula that made the original so awesome and elevates it by balancing it out as not only a film driven by plot, but by character as well. And how he does this is not just through simple dialogue, but through visual storytelling as well. He manages to communicate not only Naru’s personal journey but that of the Predator’s evolution as well. The Predator is a newcomer to this world, and we know this by the visual story Trachtenberg relays to us every time we drop in on him. He is always watching and learning in this truly alien environment for him as he tries to determine who and what the apex predators are. But this predator is different because he doesn’t know who the apex is on this planet. Not yet. An ant crawls on his shimmering, light-bending camouflage. A mouse eats the ant. A snake strikes the mouse before turning on the Predator where he is more than up to the task of skinning it alive. We are treated to two more instances of this, introducing us to deadlier animals hunting one another before the Predator realises who the ultimate apex is. These moments are fascinating exercises in how the Yaultja observe and adapt, effectively getting stronger with each hunt. Just like Naru. Trachtenberg often transitions between the two of them, taking us on a journey of observing and adapting. Both of them are essentially partaking in their own Kühtaamia.

Predator has always been a David vs Goliath story, but Prey is the finest example of this massive contrast in size and skill the series has seen. And although it seems impossible to defeat the Predator, Prey somehow allows it to feel more possible than ever thanks to Naru’s believable journey of internal and external growth. It’s also worth noting that this is the first notable instance in the series where our protagonist actively searches out the Predator instead of the Predator seeking her out first, and like the Predator, is adapting and learning what the hunter is before they choose to hunt them themselves. It’s baffling to me how those aforementioned neckbeards can’t fathom how a female Comanche warrior can take the Predator on with "sTiCkS aNd StOnEs", but thanks to Trachtenberg’s character and plot breadcrumbs laid throughout, it’s entirely possible for her to beat the Predator because we are shown what she has learnt about him and the world around her. After all, the Predator is in her neck of the woods, so she will eventually have the upper hand. We want to believe that we could take them on and win. It’s a David vs. Goliath battle and with Prey, we get an ultimate version of that.

You very rarely get period sci-fi films and it feels all the more present when we see the appearance of Prey’s Predator. Like the humans with the limited technology they have, the Predator is sporting older versions of familiar weapons we have seen throughout the franchise, most notably that of his iconic mask. Instead of the familiar, iconic look of their mask, we are treated to one that looks bone-like, possibly part of the skull of a slain foe in the past or even that of a Predator. He’s also the most practical-looking Predator to date. He’s still big, but slimmer. Strong, but more agile than ever; making him a fresh, new version of the Predator we’ve never seen before that is without a doubt, my favourite design of the creature to date (don’t @ me, bro). Pair that with period-centric designs of his familiar weapons as well as a never-before-seen shield that unfurls from his wristband, you have a distinctly unique Predator that genuinely feels like new, uncharted territory - allowing for the set-pieces to be as brutally inventive and as fun as ever.

Language is another important aspect of Prey. There are two versions you can watch. One is primarily in English, which it was filmed in, and the other is in Comanche, dubbed by the same cast. In a perfect world, I would’ve loved for it to have been shot as it was initially intended, Comanche, but this doesn’t take anything at all away from the filmed English version. For my first watch, I wanted to watch it in Comanche as the creators intended but soon switched over to English just so I can get a feel for their performances as they performed it as such on set. Upon my second viewing, I watched it in Comanche. And it actually heightened the experience for me even further. I don’t do dubs at all, but here, it just feels right. It’s authentic and rightfully feels like an entirely new experience that just made me love the film even more. For one, the Comanche title is Kühtaamia, an even more fitting title than Prey considering that it’s this rite of passage that the entirety of Naru’s journey is centred around.

Trachtenberg’s previous film, his debut in 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), was a fantastic Twilight Zone-esque paranoia thriller. It’s a brilliant film on its own but felt that it was unnecessarily tacked onto the Cloverfield universe. It was so strong on its own that it really didn’t need to be in that world for it to be any more or less effective. Prey could easily have just been about Naru’s Kühtaamia, tracking a bear or a mountain lion as the hunter she chooses to hunt. But the Predator’s inclusion in this story makes perfect sense. It never feels tacked on, but a perfect evolution of that concept that goes beyond a random idea you and your mate had after watching Predator and The Revenant back-to-back.

In saying that, Prey is also a phenomenal piece of inclusive storytelling that doesn’t negate the experiences and stories of the Indigenous peoples of America down to just being a backdrop to a sci-fi story. There has been a wonderful rise in more mainstream films and TV focusing on Indigenous American characters as well as stories being told by them. But what makes Prey stand out as an important watershed work is that it’s an entry into a hugely popular blockbuster franchise that will reach more fans and newcomers the world over. It’s an important work of representation that not only has a Comanche dub but also gives us a brief insight into the practices of their culture. Prey does this really well. It invites us to another world that allows us to relate to social and personal dynamics that are universally relevant regardless of location, culture, race, age and gender. Remember, it’s not just about Naru wanting to prove she can hunt, but that she can survive. The addition of the Predator in this story somehow never feels tacked on, and for once, especially in regards to a mainstream film released by a big studio, Indigenous Americans are portrayed as realistic, relatable characters – an extremely rare occurrence as they are often portrayed as overly spiritual or complete savages. Here, Prey embraces and normalizes their culture regardless of it happening in a completely not normal scenario. It also helps when your entire Comanche cast is played by Indigenous American actors, not to mention one of the producers being a Comanche woman. It's inclusive without feeling preachy, fascinating without being exploitative. At the end of the day, it’s a believable human story in an improbable situation.

With franchise films, there’s often the danger of falling into an aesthetic look that is generic and well, safe. Prey could’ve made it easy for itself and look like every other studio blockbuster à la MCU, but it looks gorgeous. It’s artfully made, from the sweeping photography of its rugged environment to some stunning nighttime shots where our characters are only illuminated by burning flames or falling snow. Trachtenberg and DOP Jeff Cutter deserve major credit for making this entry into the Predator franchise distinct in not just its setting, but its look and feel. It looks up to the original, but never looks to copy it – understanding what made the original so great, borrowing from that, and then becoming its own beast.

Obviously, we’ve got to talk about Amber Midthunder. I’ve always been a fan of her since seeing the FX series Legion. But here, she shows just how damn versatile she is. Prey doesn’t just let her be a badass, but it allows her to be vulnerable as well. She is both terrified and completely fearless. She often fails but grows from each failure. After all, there’s nothing more boring than an over-powered protagonist with barely any flaws. We want to see ourselves in her, but ultimately, we want to believe we can become her. Midthunder makes me believe that and convinces me of Naru’s journey - displaying her mettle as a dramatic actor as well as a fully-fledged badass. The easiest comparison one could make in regards to Naru’s character is that of Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise - they’re imperfect characters that grow and adapt according to what is thrown at them, turning them into battle-hardened warriors that make them impossible not to route for. I’m all for the rise of Amber Midthunder, and with this genuine star-making turn, you best believe we will see more of her in the future.

Prey was always going to be a major risk, and it’s a damn shame that 20th Century Fox didn’t bite the bullet and drop it in theatres, but I am just grateful we finally got a Predator film worthy of the original: a back-to-basics white-knuckled period sci-fi actioner that rules far harder than I ever imagined it would. Thanks to Dan Trachtenberg’s knack for visual storytelling as well as Amber Midthunder's outstanding lead performance, we are gifted a Predator film as good as, if not, for me at least, even better (don’t @ me, bro) than the original. It’s a clever, nerve-shredding, and inventively brutal survival film worthy of going toe-to-toe with the ’87 original. Hollywood take note, this is how you reboot a dwindling franchise. Predator is back, baby.

Where you can watch it: Hulu (USA), Disney+ (Worldwide).

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