Tribal Warfare

The Predator series has always been willing to play with its formula, tweaking its setup with each new installment to varying degrees of success.  The gimmick this time around is setting the movie in 1719, depicting the alien’s “first hunt on Earth” – this tidbit comes from the trailer, and feels somewhat lazy since it’s never mentioned in the movie.

But I digress.  Prey wastes no time in plunging us into its intimate world, where Comanche woman Naru (Amber Midthunder) lives with her small tribe in America’s Great Plains.  Naru desperately wants to prove her skills as a hunter, but her fellow villagers refuse to take her seriously because of her gender and inexperience.  Her only allies in her quest are her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and her trusty dog Sarii, and the former’s support is conditional at best.  When tagging along on a hunt for a mountain lion, Naru spots strange tracks and an immaculately-skinned snake, and becomes convinced that something else is lurking in the woods.  Disobeying her clan, she sets out on her own to find the, ahem, predator responsible.

Prey’s story is simple, but provides a lean, effective vehicle for its B-Movie aims.  Naru’s character (the plucky tough girl) and accompanying arc (learning to believe in herself) are nothing new, but the script goes through their motions competently and smoothly.  More importantly, Midthunder plays her with such appealing earnestness that she’s easy to root for.

Thanks to some shrewd filmmaking, Prey’s historical hook feels organic rather than arbitrary.  Director Dan Trachtenberg has a knack for capturing the essence of a place and time, especially its sounds and textures.  There’s heft to every sharpened stone and animal hide, and the crisp attention to detail makes it easier to suspend disbelief for the movie’s sci-fi elements.  Also worth noting is the luscious digital cinematography, which renders the Great Plains in picturesque detail.  The movie makes the most of its diverse landscape, traveling from dense woods and towering cliffs to the ash-covered remains of a burnt forest.  Prey isn’t fussy about historical accuracy – all the Comanches speak modern English – and this proves to be a wise decision.  It’s more concerned with feeling authentic than being authentic, and its worldbuilding shows enough care to forgive its anachronisms.

When it comes to tone, the movie gets to have its cake and eat it too, building tension early on by keeping its villain in the shadows before transitioning to an all-out bloodbath of a third act.  Prey knows that most of its audience is well-aware of the series’s mythos, and uses this to create suspense: Naru and her tribe may not grasp the danger they’re in, but we do.  The comparatively low-tech predator is still plenty capable of dishing out carnage, and to prove it, the movie introduces a nefarious band of Frenchmen, who serve their purpose as guilt-free cannon fodder but also represent the movie’s laziest writing.

Prey inevitably climaxes in a one-on-one showdown, which is entertaining enough but never approaches the life-and-death stakes of the first film.  The movie is strongest in its midsection, which wrings nail-biting thrills from its iconic villain as well as more worldly threats: the scariest set-piece is a claustrophobic encounter with quick-mud, with the Predator only tangentially involved.

Prey is never unpredictable, but it doesn’t have to be.  Its story confidently walks a familiar path; and the new trappings offer up just enough novelty to keep it from feeling like a retread.  Prey isn’t the best Predator movie since the original – that distinction still belongs to the gonzo Predators – but it easily outshines the rest of the entries.  Thanks to its well-known IP and clear production value, it’s the rare streaming movie that feels genuinely big, and that’s more than can be said for plenty of theatrical releases.


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