I’ve just watched Prey, which is now available for streaming on Disney+ in the UK, Hulu in the USA and presumably other services around the world, so I just wanted to write a few spoiler-free words about how unexpectedly delightful it is.
It’s the latest iteration of the SF/horror/action Predator franchise (which we’ve obliquely discussed on the podcast a few times recently while talking about various Alien films). The series began superbly with the so-titled Arnold Schwarzenegger muscle-and-guts-fest in 1987 and culminated in the widely-derided, slightly differently-titled The Predator in 2018 (which I have to admit I haven’t bothered to watch). Early word on Prey suggested a decent premise – a stripped-down prequel in which the alien hunter common to all films in the franchise would menace an 18th century Comanche tribe – but the trailers, looking a bit too cheap, a bit too glossy, and featuring Comanche characters speaking ahistorical accented English were somewhat underwhelming to me. However, against expectations, it’s marvellously well-judged and ironically enough would make for a thoroughly satisfying big-screen blockbuster. It has enough sense of place and character to take the audience on a journey but a light enough touch to create an accessible crowd-pleaser, benefiting from an inventive, pared-down screenplay.
Amber Midthunder plays Naru, a young Comanche woman who is determined to be initiated as a hunter according to the customs of her people, even though as a female this is not a role she is expected to undertake. (When asked by her mother why she would want to hunt rather than explore her other traditionally feminine skills – such as cooking and healing – Naru responds, “Because you all think I can’t.”) When she becomes aware that an unusual, ahem, predator is bedevilling local wildlife, Naru determines to hunt it down. Of course, she gets more than she bargained for.
This very simple premise pays three kinds of dividend. Firstly, as the story focuses on just one character with an easy-to-grasp goal, one quickly comes to engage with and care about that character. (Amber Midthunder’s hugely expressive face helps a lot in this regard.) Second, the very visual storytelling is so strongly-themed – everything is about hunting, basically – that dialogue can be kept to a minimum. (What dialogue there is, is mainly in English peppered with just enough Comanche to remind the audience that this not an American colonial culture: a rather old-fashioned approach, but one that works. Again it makes the film feel like an old-school blockbuster – a film made for cinema release in mostly English-speaking territories would probably have done this, but when designed with streaming in mind, and the resultant ease of access to subtitles and dubs in multiple languages, it’s perhaps surprising that the film wasn’t simply shot in Comanche. According to Wikipedia, an all-Comanche dub of the film does exist, but it doesn’t seem to be available on Disney+.) Finally, the ‘hunter becomes the hunted’ theme common to the Predator franchise is turned excitingly on its head. Arguably, Naru is not the ‘Prey’ of the title; she’s the predator. Albeit a likeable and relatable one.
This is the first Predator sequel (at least, I think it is, having not seen the 2018 film) to both stand comparison with the original and stand alone. 1990’s Predator 2 set a template for various novel and comic book sequels that essentially repeated the premise of the original film (alien predator picks off a bunch of macho warriors one-by-one, only in a different setting for each film) and subsequent films attempted to elaborate on the formula without bettering it. With Prey, for the first time, although the basic premise is almost the same, not only the setting but the culture of the human characters is different enough from that of the previous films that the manner of their reaction to the Predator is unpredictable. As a result, suspense returns to the storytelling, even if you’re already familiar with the Predator franchise. On the other hand, if it’s your first Predator film, the story still works: Prey rediscovers the Predator creature and its MO, as if for the first time, through Naru’s eyes.
Not much else to say, really. Production values are good, with action sequences that are kinetically edited yet coherently shot (several appear to be done in one take, John Wick-style, with Midthunder doing a lot of her own stunt work – or it’s very well-faked) and a particularly effective musical backing from Sarah Schachner.
Basically, watch it.