Couple of things. First, I’m not a huge fan of the “Predator” movies. I enjoyed the first film well enough, and I own it on DVD, but its sequels and offshoots are a textbook case of diminishing returns, with each new entry feeling increasingly repetitive, and too often trotting out the same macho histrionics of the first film. Secondly, a recent loss in my family meant that I wasn’t exactly in the mood for an action movie this week. However, I also thought a movie might make for a good diversion right now, when I need it most. But before I get into cowriter/director Dan Thratchenberg’s “Prey,” I want to let readers know where I’m coming from with regards to the other films in this often problematic series.
Director John McTiernan (“Die Hard,” “The Hunt For Red October”) crafted a tense, jungle-bound sci-fi thriller with 1987’s “Predator”, which featured an imaginatively-designed monster (Kevin Peter Hall) and starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Dutch,” a soldier-of-fortune who takes his fellow commandos on a dirty-ops mission to South America, where they are stalked by a cloaked alien hunter that only attacks those who pose an immediate danger to it–its goal is challenge, not just murder. The “Predator”, with its thermal vision, dreadlocks, blade-like claws, and clicking sounds, is arguably one of the most iconic sci-fi creatures of the last 50 years. Other than some bits of laughably dumb dialogue (“I don’t have time to bleed!” “Come on!!! Kill me!!!”), the first movie still works well-enough as a testosterone-fueled, pop sci-fi answer to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I liked it then, and I still enjoy watching it now, but I never quite loved it.
Note: The original “Predator” was designed by the late Stan Winston (1946-2008), who created so many iconic movie monsters and costumes, including the metal endoskeleton of “The Terminator” (1984), the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” (1993) and even Tony Stark’s suit in 2008’s “Iron Man”, shortly before he passed away.
I remember on my 24th birthday back in 1990, a friend of mine took me to see “Predator 2,” which took place in the ‘future’ of 1997 Los Angeles, with Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon”) as an LA cop who finds himself on the trail of the same alien game hunters encountered by Dutch and his gang in South America years before. The alien is ‘hunting’ heavily-armed drug kingpins, dirty cops, and other fair game within the ‘City of Angels.’ Glover is slightly closer to a real-life hero than human–Humvee Schwarzenegger, and the supporting cast–including Bill Paxton and Gary Busey–add extra testosterone to this otherwise pointless rehash of a sequel. The only scene that really stuck with me occurs in the film’s final moments, when Glover boards the alien’s spacecraft and sees some of its intergalactic trophies–including the skull of a dead xenomorph from the “ALIEN” movies. This, of course, set up an expanded universe in comics, and eventually on the silver screen.
“Alien vs. Predator” (2004) capitalized on the popularity of the ALIEN/Predator crossover comic books, but came up short. I remember renting it on video, watching it uninterrupted end-to-end, and I’d be hard-pressed to remember any great part of it. Beyond a few images, it was largely forgettable. I do remember that it costarred Lance Henriksen, who played the android “Bishop” in “ALIENS” (1986) and “ALIEN 3″(1992), but not much else. Needless to say, I didn’t bother seeing “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” (2007). A few years later, I did see Oscar-winner Adrien Brody in 2010’s “Predators,” a sequel which saw a mixed group of soldiers, convicts, cops et al whisked away to an alien ‘gaming planet’, where they are presented as human targets for the movie’s titular trophy hunters. I remember it being marginally better than “Predator 2,” but I don’t recall much else, other than the core idea reminded me of the The Outer Limits episode “Fun and Games”; an episode that saw petty crook Nick Adams and recent divorcée Nancy Malone whisked away to fight creatures to the death on an alien planet for the amusement of a galactic audience.
Oh, and there was “The Predator” (2018), directed by screenwriter and “Predator” costar Shane Black. Never saw it. No interest.
So, given my relative indifference to the “Predator” franchise, rumors of a prequel set in the early 18th century American Great Plains didn’t exactly tantalize, but since “Prey” was coming straight to Hulu, a service I already subscribe to, I decided to break out the digital projector and 7 ft. screen to give it a fair try. And I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest.
The movie opens in a radically different setting than its predecessors; the Northern Great Plains of the early 18th century. We see young Comanche woman Naru (Amber Midthunder) following in the footsteps of her wise, widowed mother, Aruka (Michelle Thrush), who’s taught her daughter many valuable skills, including the healing arts. However, Naru isn’t content with being a healer or a cook for the warriors in her community; she wants to be a hunter, like her older brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers).
Note: In its earlier scenes, “Prey” feels more like “Dances With Wolves” than a typical summer sci-fi/action movie, and I’m perfectly okay with that. If anything, the story of “Prey” reminded me more of Disney’s “Mulan” (either version) than the earlier “Predator” flicks. The Northern Great Plains of the early 19th century (pre-United States) North America are gorgeously rendered as well.
Recognizing that his sister has a knack for tracking, Taabe allows her to go with he and his fellow hunters on a quest to kill a mountain lion that has been stalking their village. Practicing her targeting abilities with her tomahawk, fellow hunter Wasape (Stormy Kipp) chides her for keeping a leash on her weapon–which allows her to more easily retrieve it, in fact.
Note: The tomahawk was first used by several nations within the pre-United States’ indigenous population (such as the Powhatan, and the Cherokee), but quickly spread across many indigenous cultures.
Note: The hunters’ mocking of Naru’s skills and dismissing her worthiness for the hunt is about the closest this film comes to the kind of toxic masculinity seen in the other “Predator” movies, and that’s fine by me. I was grateful not to hear former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura bragging about being a “sexual tyrannosaurus” or other bits of chest-thumping, alpha male nonsense (which is probably the reason the “Predator” movies never quite made my personal favorites’ list–not a big fan of that kinda stuff).
The hunt for the big cat doesn’t go well for Naru, and she’s distracted by the sight of a mysteriously skinned snake, which suggests the work of a malicious intelligence, not a hungry animal. The other hunters dismiss her claim, not trusting her rookie intuition. Later that evening, Naru senses what she believes to be another force stalking them, and is caught unprepared by their mountain lion quarry, which knocks her unconscious during a fight…
Note: The movie’s many Comanche flourishes, including dress, hunting customs, and bits of the Numino language were recreated in cooperation with the Cherokee nation and partly credited to Juanita Pahdophony. I can’t vouch for the authenticity, of course, since I’m no expert on the custom of indigenous North American cultures, but for a casual moviegoer? It certainly feels right, save for occasional Hollywood touches, such as subtly feminized makeup on Naru, or her shaved legs and armpits, etc; sexist carryovers from the days of Raquel Welch’s bikini-wearing cavewoman in “One Million Years B.C.” (1966).
Awakening later that night to her mother’s face, Naru realizes she’s home. Aruka explains to her headstrong daughter that her brother carried her back after she was knocked out during her encounter with the cat. We then see an exhausted Taabe and the other hunters returning home as well, with the slain cat over his shoulders. Taabe returned to kill the creature, after taking his kid sister home. Naru’s failure on the hunt only reinforces the others’ opinion that she needs to stick to cooking and medicine, and forget about being a hunter herself. Naturally, she does the opposite.
Gathering various weapons, as well as her loyal dog, Sarii, Naru innocuously exits the village the following morning and sets out on her own to find the greater threat to her people that she was tracking before being caught off-guard by the mountain lion. Her solo trek deep into the wilderness doesn’t go too smoothly, as she is temporarily trapped in a muddy bog pit before freeing herself with her ‘leashed’ tomahawk. She then stumbles across an open field of skinned buffalo carcasses–once again, the clear work of a malicious intelligence.
Note: The intoxicating location photography made me glad that I chose to watch it digitally projected in HD on a 7 ft. home screen instead of my iPad or 43″ living room TV. It allowed me to feel fully enveloped within the movie’s lush visuals.
As Naru’s investigation continues, she sees increasing signs of being stalked by something other. Before she can go on, she realizes she’s also been seen by a large bear in a nearby stream. Her dog draws the bear’s attention, and before long, the two of them are chased by the huge creature, before it’s attacked by an unseen force which viciously slaughters the animal, before lifting it above the shimmering outline of its head and shoulders.
Note: The Predator shimmering/cloaking FX are much improved over the earlier movies, appearing more or less flawless now. Many of the other Predator tropes are present, including the thrumming sound, the brightly-hued thermal vision and the occasional clicking sounds made within its multi-pronged jaws. We also hear Alan Silvestri’s “Predator theme” as well. Later on, we see that this earlier form of the creature is subtly different than the versions we’ve seen in the other movies, but its overall silhouette and bearing remain unmistakable. Kudos to Dane DiLiegro, who performs the creature in this film, following in the footsteps of the late Kevin Peter Hall (1955-1991).
After seeing the scope of this creature’s immense size and power, Naru and her dog both flee for their lives. She then runs into the other hunters from her community, who’ve come to find her and take her back home. Not seeing her Taabe among the hunting party, Naru asks about her brother, and learns he’s off in another direction trying to find her as well. As Naru insists there’s a greater danger, they belittle her claims of a massive monster nearby. With her brother conveniently absent, the bullies within the hunting party begin to taunt and physically assault Naru. This assault triggers the emergence of the cloaked Predator, and red laser sights suddenly appear on the hunters’ bodies. As we’ve seen before, the Predator is only interested in killing those creatures that pose some sort of direct threat to it.
Before long, most of the hunting party are slain right in front of the terrified Naru, who flees into the thick fields with fellow survivor, Huupi (Tymon Carter), who makes the mistake of aiming his bow and arrow in the creature’s direction, as a set of trio of red laser points appear on his head. Huupi’s life is momentarily saved by Naru, who quickly learns what those ‘magical’ red dots mean (the dots mean you’re screwed). Huupi is soon killed, as well.
Note: Many of the beats of this film are the same as those in the first movie, such as the slaughter of the hunting party echoing the mass slaughter of Dutch’s soldiers in the jungle. Yet it’s made fresh again by changing both setting and perspective. Granted, there are only so many stories you can tell within this series before they quickly boil down to a hi-tech vs. lo-tech, kill-or-be-killed scenario. Nevertheless, “Prey” ably demonstrates that even a few smart changes can liven things up considerably.
Naru is then captured by heavily armed (i.e. 18th century pistols) French-Canadian fur trappers, aka voyageurs, whose iron bear traps have been causing grief to the local wildlife, including Naru’s dog. Noticing buffalo hides at their camp, she realizes the voyageurs were responsible for skinning the buffalo she’d seen earlier. The trappers’ native Quebecois confuses Naru, until one of the trappers, a man named Raphael (Bennett Taylor) approaches the captive Naru, who is bound to a tree. Speaking in Naru’s native tongue (which we hear as English), Raphael tells her that his companions have found Taabe, and that they’re both being used as bait to lure the creature. Naru tries to tell him the Predator only hunts those who pose a direct threat to it, and that it doesn’t take idle bait. As the merciless trappers slice their knives across Taabe’s bare chest, the Predator storms their camp, gutting them like fish. In the melee, Taabe and Naru manage to escape, with Taabe vowing to get a horse for transportation, while Naru sets out to free her dog from the voyageurs‘ camp.
Note: Nothing like a dog in peril to win instant audience empathy, of course…
Naru and Sarii return to the voyageurs’ campsite where she finds a bleeding, one-legged Raphael, who pretended to be dead in order to escape the Predator’s wrath. Instinctively showing her former foe compassion, Naru gets her medicine bag as well as some local herbs in order to treat his pain. In gratitude, Raphael gives the able-bodied young woman his pistol, and teaches her how to fire it. Naru’s medicinal herbs quickly lower Raphael’s body temperature, just before the Predator returns to the campsite.
Note: There are various plants and herbs that have been proven to reduce body temperature, such as peppermint, chamomile, etc. but whether they can reduce the temperature of an entire human body so quickly, or effectively enough to cloak a human’s body temperature from infrared detection strikes me as a product of poetic license. Personally, if it serves an exciting story? I don’t really care, any more than I mind hearing sound in the vacuum of space during a “Star Wars” movie.
With Raphael appearing as ‘dead’ to the alien’s thermal vision, he ignores the dying man before killing him by stepping on his leg, causing him to bleed out. Before she can become the Predator’s next target, Taabe races in with a newly acquired horse, and attacks the deadly alien hunter. Together, Taabe and Naru double-team against the Predator, before Taab is stabbed through the back with its immense claws. With her brother dead, Naru then finds a surviving voyageur–the same cowardly creep who sliced across Taabe’s chest while he was bound to a tree–and gives him an unloaded pistol, hoping that the Predator will do her dirty work. Realizing that that she can trick the creature by masking her own body heat with her herbs, Naru takes a few for herself…
The Predator sees the surviving Frenchman aiming his unloaded pistol, and makes short work of him. Just then, the creature’s ambushed by Naru, who fires the pistol given to her by the dying Raphael. The shot knocks the distracted creature’s hunting mask off, and the mask contains the Predator’s various sensing/targeting technologies. Naru takes its mask and flees deeper into the woods. Without its technology to easily track her body heat, the massive advantage gap between the Predator and Naru closes just a little bit…
Note: The look of the Predator is in this film is subtly different than those we’ve seen in earlier films, which means there might be an untold number of variations within its genome, or perhaps its race experienced some kind of genetic mutation or alteration before appearing as they do in the earlier films, which take place centuries after the events of “Prey.”
Luring the creature into the woods (and into the same bog pit she fell into earlier), Naru then uses the Predator mask’s targeting systems to fire the alien’s deadly projectiles into it. With a powerful adrenaline rush that can only come from pure rage and anguish, Naru viciously attacks the massive Predator, plowing into it with all her might. She’s also assisted in her attack by Sarii, who bites the alien’s thick legs, and draws even more of its bright green, phosphorescent blood. Their combined attacks cause the Predator to hemorrhage and eventually die of its wounds. If it can bleed, it can die, as Taabe once told her…
Note: Some might question the plausibility of a small woman physically defeating such a massive creature, and I agree that if this were simply a boxing or wrestling match, Naru would lose easily. However, boxing or wrestling doesn’t take into account the pure, adrenaline fueled-rage that comes with hatred and the need for revenge. A small but resourceful person out for deadly revenge is far more dangerous than a much bigger someone out on safari.
Returning to her village with her face smeared in streaks of the monstrous alien’s phosphorescent green blood, and its severed head in her grip. Her village honors Naru as a conquering hero, and the death of the murderous Predator brings some closure to Naru’s grieving mother. The tribal leader, Chief Kehetu (Julian Black Antelope) names the young woman as their new war chief. Celebration ensues.
Note: The end credits play over ancient Native American-style cave paintings of the Comanche conflict with the Predator, which are beautifully rendered and worth sticking around to see.
Summing It Up
“Prey” has a lot going for it, including a fresh 18th century setting, a potential breakout performance by star Amber Midthunder, gorgeous cinematography by Jeff Cutter, and a return to basics courtesy of writers Patrick Aison and director Dan Thratchenberg. Eschewing the signature machismo of the previous movies, this film has a deeper emotional core than its predecessors, specifically the core relationship between Midthunder’s Naru and her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). Kudos as well to a memorable Michelle Thrush, who plays their widowed mother Aruka. While Beavers and Thrush are certainly most memorable, the undeniable star of the movie is Amber Midthunder, and she absolutely owns the hell out of it.
Some beautiful wilderness photography from Jeff Cutter, who shoots primarily in Alberta, Canada, standing in for the Northern Great Plains, circa 1719. At times, the visuals approach the lushness of Dean Semler’s amazing work in 1990’s “Dances With Wolves,” and on a significantly lower budget, as well. The Predator’s cloaking effects and other visuals are well-executed, and are much improved from the opticals used in the first few movies. The movie smartly eschews the toxic machismo of the earlier movies, but without being too on-the-nose about it. Naru’s quest to be a hunter echoes the story of “Mulan”, but without that movie’s broader proclamations. I also enjoyed the beautifully-rendered artwork in the movie’s end credits, done in the style of early Native American art; they add to the power and mythology of the film’s lore.
If I have any nagging issues with the film, it’s that the rest of the cast are little more than fodder to be killed off later on. This detriment of the movie is otherwise forgivable, given its sparse 95 minute running time, which only has so much room for expanded character development (I’d be curious to see deleted scenes in a future Blu-Ray release). While most of the dialogue substitutes English in place of the Comanche language Numino, it skirts very close to modern-speak at times (“You got this,” “Bring it home”), but that’s also forgivable in a movie where you have to imagine that the characters are speaking their native language, anyway (just as original “Predator” director John McTiernan did with his Russian characters in “The Hunt For Red October”).
“Prey” is a pleasant surprise of a summer action flick, and it marks a fresh return to basics for a sci-fi action franchise which went stale a long time ago.
Where to Watch/Stream
“Prey” is available for streaming on Hulu.com in the US and on Disney+ overseas. The other movies in the “Predator” or “AVP” series are available for digital rent/purchase via AmazonPrime or YouTube.