Cinema Dispatch: Prey

Prey and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Studios & Hulu

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg

The Predator franchise has actually had one of the better track records out there. Perhaps it’s because they take a significant amount of time between each entry, or maybe it’s a premise that is almost foolproof. In fact, the only time they really screwed it up was when they gave it to the one guy who really shouldn’t have screwed it up, but then we’re not here to badger The Predator yet again. Instead, we’re gonna talk about this latest entry that was recently put on Hulu with a few interesting twists that have certainly caught peoples’ attention. Is it another solid entry in this dependable franchise, or did Shane Black’s giant mishap a mere harbinger of things to come? Let’s find out!!

Set in the early eighteenth century, we follow Naru (Amber Midthunder), a strong Comanche warrior who wants to prove herself as a hunter to her tribe and to her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) who would rather she put away the bows and arrows to pick up a mortar and pestle. It’s not that she’s unskilled as a healer, but she’s not about to let others tell her what she’s gonna do and she continues to hone her skills for whatever tries to invade their territory. Of course, she’s picturing some wild cats and maybe a bear here and there, but it becomes clear that there’s something in the woods that’s stronger than all the cats and bears combined! An alien creature with a chip on his shoulder and covered in advanced alien tech, lands nearby and starts looking for the most dangerous creatures to kill and prove that itself to be tougher than. With such a dangerous monster lurking in the shadows (and the just as dangerous specter of colonialism looming nearby) can Naru and Taabe protect their tribe from the threats around them? Will Naru prove herself to be a worthy warrior to her tribe, and what will it cost her to finally get the respect she’s after? I don’t know, it seems a little bit unfair to be busting out the laser-guided bolts when your opponents still don’t have gunpowder. Seems like a hollow victory at best for the Predator, am I right?

“Is it just me, or is it a little TOO quiet?”

I don’t know if the usual suspects are out there complaining about this being a Predator movie focusing on Native Americans or the fact that the main character is a woman, but I wouldn’t be surprised and those are the kind of fools whose opinions you don’t need to worry about. If, however, there is anyone out there concerned that this latest entry is deviating too much from the Predator formula, rest assured that this is not only great as a Predator movie, it’s one of the better action films we’ve gotten all year. It finds a unique angle for a character that had come close to running out of steam with that last movie, and while I still think there are some flaws here and there inherent to the character and the premise, this is undoubtedly a bold and interesting direction to take the series; especially if they really go wild and start setting these in all sorts of historical periods.

I mean who among us WOULDN’T want to see Sherlock Holmes Vs. The Predator?

I don’t want to take up too much space here re-litigating the franchise, but it’s worth asking what it is that defines a Predator movie. It’s clear that this is a distinct entry from everything else in the series, but there’s no question that this is another Predator movie. Some of it is of course the callbacks and the overall structure of things that harkens back the most to the first film, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a vulnerability that runs through the franchise as what are typically seen as paragons of machismo and violence (commandos, cops, and I’m pretty sure they threw a samurai in one of them) are left scrambling against a creature that is bigger, stronger, faster, and better equipped than them. To that end, setting the movie in the early eighteenth century seems like a natural extension of that and the movie takes full advantage of that context to add some much-needed weight to the themes of this franchise. The other trappings you would expect may have changed, but the overall tone and visceral nature of it all have not. There may not be any shootouts with automatic weaponry but there are more than enough brutal action sequences that are the equal of anything we’ve seen in the series, and the tension you expect the Predator brings to each movie is definitely felt here. It would only be the shallowest of interpretations to see this as anything other than congruent with the rest of the franchise, and the ways that they do deviate (as each Predator movie does) only adds more interesting layers to the series.

“GET TO THE CHOPPER!! By which I mean we’ve got to cut this tree down so you better be quick about grabbing your axe!”

I’m certainly not qualified to speak on Native American representation in cinema, and I’m a little dubious about the fact that the director and writer are both white dudes, but the cast is almost entirely Native American and the whole movie seems to be as painstakingly authentic as possible. The level of detail in everything from the tools, clothing, and weapons does a lot to immerse you into the culture the movie is trying to represent, and the cinematography coupled with a few clever choices in the script help to frame the film from the perspective of these characters; not so much viewing them as an outside which is often the case for Native American representation in cinema but framing them as the core characters with everything else feeling foreign and invasive. To that end, the movie is not shy about what the Predator represents as it tears its way through someone else’s backyard without consideration for the devastation left in its wake, though if the messaging is too subtle, the second half of the movie gives us an even less ambiguous target to direct its scorn at. Even looking beyond the representation and the themes, which are well done in their own right, it works on a straightforward character level with Naru having an engaging story arc and the movie does a great job of pushing her through it; especially when it comes to her strained relationship with her brother that resolves itself in a very satisfying way. The accuracy of the representation and its value to Native American cinema is a discussion that will be had elsewhere, but I found it to be an intriguing direction for this franchise and perhaps the most compelling protagonist the series has had. There is some stiff competition there with Schwarzenegger’s star power and Danny Glover’s world-weary intensity, but Amber Midthunder proves remarkably well suited for this kind of action hero role.

“Alright, before we go on this hunt does ANYONE need to use the bathroom? Go now because we aren’t stopping on the way!”

As much as this movie gets right, there is one aspect of the franchise that eludes even this fantastic entry and that’s the Predator itself. As much as we like the Predator for the design and the amount of menace it can bring to its movies, it’s rarely been that compelling of an antagonist. It doesn’t seem like it should be the case given the amount of detail literally bolted onto these guys, but it never seems like we crack the code beyond the most surface-level understanding of the character. This movie does manage to do more than most as it’s not just the villain but a big glowing reminder of the themes of the movie, but even still, I felt it to be rather hollow and nondescript as an antagonist. Guys like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers may be lacking a bit in the personality department, but I never felt that they were interchangeable with any other slasher villain the way that the Predators are in this series. There’s not even a downgrade in technology to go along with the setting as it still has the same over-powered tech that the one fighting Schwarzenegger had, and considering how much more they did with the story here than in previous movies, it just feels like a waste to not flesh them out to the same degree.

Worf would kick this guy’s butt in a second, AND have something profound to say at the end of it!

It’s a shame that this didn’t make it to theaters and went straight to streaming given how great the final product turned out, but I guess I shouldn’t begrudge Hollywood for giving my wallet a break. If you have any affection for this series then I can’t imagine you finding a reason to dislike this one. For those who’ve never understood the appeal of this character I doubt this is the movie that will convince you otherwise, but then again there are a lot of interesting themes that could rope you in and the unique setting with the authentic Native American cast might be enough to elevate the material for those viewers. It’ll be interesting to see if the reception is strong enough for the series to continue going down this path, especially with Amber Midthunder’s star-making performance, but for now, this is absolutely a movie I would recommend checking out if you’ve got a chance to see it. If nothing else, I now have hope for my Alien Vs Prospector screenplay to get greenlit! Hey, who wouldn’t want to see cowboys getting eaten by Xenomorphs during the California Gold Rush? It practically writes itself!

4 out of 5

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