Subtlety and finesse are not the Comanche way.
The Predator movies, overall, have been more mediocre than memorable.
I know, that’s not exactly a hot take. But every article needs a good first sentence and over the past 24 hours I’ve done some real thinking on this.
The original film dealt with a team of heavily muscled commandos ironically facing an extraterrestrial version of themselves. The sequel was basically Predator vs Lethal Weapon, without Mel Gibson. Part three took the Pitch Black approach and while technically an improvement, still counts as a miss. Meanwhile, 2018’s The Predator decided what was missing from the franchise was slapstick.
It was better than it had any right to be, but it still didn’t feel like a proper successor to the first film.
Predator the Musical, also a miss.
Each of the sequels, in its own way, is worth watching. But none of them, individually or together, seem to entirely justify why we’re still sitting through these things 35 years later. The last time I watched a Predator movie and thought “More of that, please!” was 1987.
Wait a minute. Sorry…
No…it was last night.
You see, when I heard the news about Prey, a prequel to the 1987 classic, I was no more than mildly intrigued. I assumed they’d release another so-so film with some so-so special effects. It would do well enough to warrant an eventual sequel, but not with the same premise or actors. Every few years they throw a different kind of spaghetti against the wall; some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t.
This is what’s been happening since 1990, so there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t happen again.
It did not.
Prey is the Predator movie the world has been waiting for since an exhausted Danny Glover shuffled off screen 32 years ago. The original film’s conceit saw our heroes begin the story firmly in their element before memorably discovering how wildly that element has been disrupted.
Prey comes at things from the other direction.
The story takes place in the year 1719 on the Northern Great Plains of what is now the United States. At this time, the Comanche tribe ruled the region. The film glosses over the fact that they were the Spartans or Klingon Empire of the area. A proud, aggressive people whose warrior class were unmatched among their rivals.
If you’re looking for context, the Comanche are the primary reason the Spanish and French decided to get the hell out of of North America.
Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young member of this formidable tribe who wishes to be a warrior, despite being trained as a healer. She’s a bright girl with an indomitable spirit and a sharp sense of humor. She looks up to her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), the tribe’s greatest champion. Taabe is tolerant of Naru’s warrior ambitions but is skeptical. Women, after all, tend to be less physically strong than men.
So how could they possibly be of use in battle?
Turns out, an arrow is an arrow.
It was a different time.
Where Taabe is tolerant of his sister, the rest of the tribe makes up for it. The other warriors openly mock Naru’s ambitions and even her own mother, an accomplished healer, implores her daughter to abandon any fighting desire and embrace her talents as a physician. Despite her respect and admiration for her people, her family and her culture, Naru knows full well she can see things no one else can see. Her combat instincts are light years ahead of everyone else, to the degree that her comrades aren’t always even sure what she’s talking about.
Still, they can’t get past the fact that she’s, you know, a girl. Hey, subtlety and finesse are just not the Comanche way.
They’re also not the Predator way. And because this is a prequel, no mystery is maintained as to the nature of our antagonist. We see it arrive in its spacecraft, and we observe the alien setting up camp in its new environment. The only mystery is how our heroes are going to defeat this menace. How do you fight an enemy that’s not only more technology advanced than you but also hates to fight fair?
The Predator’s preferred hunting style is to don its invisible space camouflage, wait for say, a snake to attack a small rodent, and then kill the snake while it’s distracted. It then rips out the snake’s spine, holds it aloft and emits a triumphant cry as though it’s done something amazing.
It’s the equivalent of a human hiding in a tree above a deer feeder, blasting the deer when it walks up, then patting himself on the back for being smarter than a deer.
Does that even require skill?
Speaking of skill, Naru manages to convince Taabe to take her out with a battle party. A member of the tribe has been attacked by a mountain lion and Taabe and his men mount a rescue mission. Naru is knocked out of the fight early but manages to save the wounded warrior’s life with her medicinal acumen. Plus, her tracking ability and gift for strategic thinking eventually enable Taabe to locate and kill the animal.
No lion feeder necessary.
None of this helps Naru’s standing with the warriors, but now a fateful series of events has been set into motion. Naru unwittingly observed the Predator’s arrival, believing it to be a sign from the heavens. In a way it is, because during the fight with the lion, she catches a glimpse of the alien observing from afar. She’s convinced that something much more dangerous than the lion lies in wait for the tribe and sets out on her own to track it.
In the first film, Arnold and his team were convinced that whatever the Predator was, they could kill it because – and it comes up in Prey as well – it bleeds. This is probably true, but when you’re a six-foot-tall mountain of muscle with a machine gun, it’s normal to think you can solve any problem by riddling it with bullets or punching it in the face.
The Comanche have no such advantages and must work together in teams to take down stronger, faster enemies. Naru, by herself, surely stands little chance physically against all but the smallest opponent, but it’s made very clear throughout the movie that she makes up for the gap in her physical abilities by using her head.
Or, an axe.
We know she will eventually engage the Predator, and we know what’s probably going to happen when Taabe and his men head into the forest to fetch her and get mixed up in the fight. What we don’t anticipate is the wrinkle thrown into the story about six-tenths through when an unexpected event places Naru and her people in an entirely different kind of danger.
It turns out the Comanche aren’t the only ones who have a beef with this alien murder machine. From the moment the Predator lands, it assumes the position of Arnold’s original team. Unbeknownst to our space faring apex executioner, IT is the thing being hunted.
IT is the Prey.
This is a smart, imaginative film that is exactly what it needs to be, when it needs to be. It’s a brisk, lean, visually engaging feast that largely lets the broad vista of the American Midwest speak for itself. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter (who worked with director Dan Trachtenberg on 10 Cloverfield Lane) likely had a field day, and his work gives Prey a visual language distinct from the perpetually cramped confines of the original film.
Trachtenberg himself wisely allows his starring cast of all indigenous actors to tell the story as much through their actions as their words. One of the few quibbles I have with the film is the way the Comanche switch between English and their native tongue during conversations, clearly for the sake of the audience rather than realism. Some may find it helpful; I switched to the all Comanche audio track (the first ever) to keep my head from exploding in a cloud of confusion.
However you choose to listen, the relatively sparse dialog effectively establishes who these characters are and what motivates each. It’s sufficient enough that the inevitable fight scenes sparkle with energy and each time a Comanche war cry rings out, chills will shoot up your spine.
So to speak…
The brisk 100 minute run time actually feels longer, very much thanks to all that careful world building and character development. It takes up the first half of the film, and the Predator itself doesn’t really make a proper appearance for about that long. I never felt cheated though, because remember – we’re replacing Arnold with a 25 year old female. And Arnold’s muscles were no match for the Predator. He needed his wits to defeat it.
So if you want me to believe this young woman can take down a Predator (and spoiler alert – she does), the film needed to take the time to build her and her universe into something believable.
And spoiler alert – it does.
The Predator franchise has not just been rescued from mediocrity, it’s been entirely resurrected. Best of all, for the first time since 1987 the credits rolled on a franchise sequel and I said:
“More of that, please!”
Prey is now showing exclusively on the Hulu streaming platform.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."