“Prey” Flips an Action Classic on Its Head
25 Years after John McTiernan’s bombastic 80s classic introduced us to a high tech race of predatory aliens, the Predator is back hunting another band of fierce warriors. Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey is a majestic adventure that takes the well-loved franchise back 300 years to the Northern Great Plains of 1719. Building on the success of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Trachtenberg once again breathes life into a popular title by flipping the premise on its head and expanding the world to tell an entirely different story. In Prey, he follows a young Comanche woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder) and makes an inspirational point about the perception of power and the reality of strength.
Already skilled in the art of medicinal plants, Naru is determined to prove herself as a hunter among her family and her tribe. She is seeking her Kühtaamia, a rite of passage in which she will successfully hunt a predator that is also hunting her. But rather than a bear or mountain lion, Naru finds herself hunted by a Feral Predator from another planet, hell-bent on killing the most fearsome creatures he can find. Using a tomahawk inherited from her father and her well-trained dog Sarii, she hunts, tracks, and uses her ingenuity to survive in a world where even the fiercest warriors fall prey to the alien hunter. Though her confidence is shaken by a gorgeous moonlit standoff with a mountain lion, Naru succeeds where her alpha male tribe mates do not and provides an empowering lesson about representation and courage in the face of shame and ridicule
McTiernan’s original film examines masculinity and dominance as the Predator hunts a team of elite commandos led by Arnold Schawzenegar at his physical peak. They are targeted for their strength, but Naru is able to survive because the Feral Predator dismisses her for her perceived weakness. She not only uses her skills and environment as an unexpected weapon, but she uses the hunter’s own assumptions against him, feigning weakness to make him believe he is still the predator rather than the prey.
Midthunder is simply stunning as Naru, a young woman overshadowed by her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and dismissed as weak by the rest of the tribe. Deftly navigating between vulnerability and strength, we cheer with her as she defends herself from many different attackers as well as the cruel members of her tribe. She and Beavers light up the screen whenever they are together, providing the emotional core of the story. Trachtenberg put his core cast through a four week boot camp in which they were trained in Comanche-style weaponry. This physical training paid off in spades as Midthunder and Beavers seem perfectly at home using the spears, bows, and tomahawks their characters employ. Beavers performed his own stunts for the film including a thrilling horseback battle scene in which the siblings square off against the Feral Predator.
Trachtenberg’s dedication to authenticity pervades the film and is essential in capturing the nuances of this gorgeous world. The main cast is composed almost entirely of Native and First Nation actors and Indegenous People were involved in nearly every level of production from artwork that provides the closing credits sequence to an internship set up to benefit First Nations people interested in filmmaking. Hulu even offers a Comanche Dub which enhances the film’s cultural origins. Acclaimed filmmaker and producer Jhane Meyers, a member of the Comanche and Blackfoot nations, used her expertise and community resources to create the stunning details and lived-in feel that makes Prey more than just a period action film.
Prey also debuts the new Feral Predator, a leaner, more primitive version of the Yautja species than we’ve seen in previous films. Though his weapons are less advanced than previous iterations of the character, he is just as fierce and arguably more human as he battles with the elements and animals of the treacherous forest. The addition of French fur trappers leaves him with many more bodies to pick off. Former basketball player Dane DiLiegro brings the otherworldly trophy hunter to life in a jaw-dropping mix of physical stunts and special effects. Though we catch glimpses of the camouflaged warrior in early scenes, we’re officially introduced to the Feral Predator in a thrilling battle with a fully grown bear. Having slayed the giant animal, he lifts the gutted body over his head as blood pours over him, illuminating the outline of his invisible form.
In addition to stellar action and emotional character work, Trachtenberg uses the forest setting to his advantage with gorgeous long shots revealing the majestic terrain. Another stunning scene sees the camouflaged Feral Predator chase Naru and her friend across an open field visible only by the rapidly parting grass at their heels. The forest proves nearly as deadly as the alien himself and the fearsome animal predators set the stakes for a deadly fight in an inhospitable environment. A beautiful and dynamic soundtrack from Sarah Schachner perfectly enhances the film’s lush imagery.
Trachtenberg deftly builds upon social themes first introduced in the original film in which the commandos open fire and decimate the jungle searching for the Predator only to wind up with nothing to show for their destruction. The French Fur Trappers are a villainous counterpoint to the predator, both hunt for trophy and sport, simply killing to prove that they can. They take their trademark trophies and leave the rest of the bodies behind while Taabe and Naru focus on survival, hunting for food and to protect their friends from animal attack.
Given its Hulu release, a byproduct of the merger between The Walt Disney Company and 20th Century Fox, and the fact that is the first of the franchise to debut on small screens might cause many to dismiss this film. But Prey is a worthy sequel and equal to McTiernan’s iconic original. Its innovative approach takes the concept in new directions and invigorates an aging franchise. Despite the many odds stacked against it, Prey is one of the most exciting films of the year.
Jenn Adams is a film critic and podcaster from Nashville, TN.