The last time we saw the iconic creature from John McTiernan’s 1987 action classic, Predator, was just four years ago. 2018’s The Predator, written and directed by Shane Black, who had close ties to the original, was a massive creative disappointment. Hoping to be a new comic book-like film franchise, the film was plagued with behind-the-scenes drama, involving massive reshoots, last-minute editing changes and was ultimately deemed a misfire from all angles. Taking a unique creative approach to a franchise that could certainly use a good idea, granted, we did get to see two Alien vs Predator films, this latest film harkens back to the original by zeroing in on the survival aspect. A prequel set in the 1700s, the newest film to feature the creature originally designed by Stan Winston is a tense and lean exercise in filmmaking that is exactly the kick in the pants this series deserves, minus the theatrical release.
Set in the Northern Great Planes in the year 1719, Naru (Amber Midthunder, in a revelatory turn), a young woman living in the Comanche Nation, wants to be accepted as a hunter from her tribe. A noble spirit, armed with a roped tomahawk and her trusty canine, Sarii, Naru is instead ignored hunting duties, and is seen as any other girl in the tribe. Her older brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), is the leader of the hunters and, supposedly, the most skilled.
Hoping to prove herself worthy among her male peers, the opportunity arises when Naru witnesses a strange object crashing out of the sky. That object just happens to be a spaceship carrying the first-ever Predator (Dane DiLiegro) to touch down on earth, looking to hunt only the toughest prey and claim victory. With the safety of her tribe at risk, Naru has no choice but to face off against the alien warrior and tons of blood will be spilt, both red and florescent.
After the dismal response to The Predator, director Dan Trachtenberg, helmer of the solid, 10 Cloverfield Lane, sharing a story credit with Patrick Aison, takes the franchise in a much smaller, refreshingly self-contained direction. Focusing on character and story above mindless spectacle, this newest entry in the Predator franchise is more tonally in sync with Apocalypto or The Revenant, compared to any previous Predator entry. This is a far more stripped down survival film, not unlike the original, but more authentic to its setting and without the typical franchise pretensions. Despite the brisk 99 minute runtime, this is a deliberately paced film, allowing the viewer to be engulfed in the smaller details of Comanche lifestyle before indulging in Predator mayhem.
It’s apparent early on you’re in the hands of a truly skilled filmmaker with Trachtenberg. There is a confidence behind the striking compositions, showing just how ridiculous it is this is premiering solely on streaming. Trachtenberg’s control of the frame, down to the expressionist movements and focus-pulling, is just masterful. The filmmaker builds so much character through the visual storytelling with entire sections of the film wordless. A scene where Naru escapes through a patch of quicksand-like mud is absolutely nail-biting. The direction certainly has some similar DNA to John McTiernan, but has more of John Carpenter’s sense of mood and visual rhythm. Jeff Cutter’s cinematography gives a natural grit to the story, while still providing the film with a graceful appearance. A set piece in a burnt down forest area is just staggering and a nighttime sequence early on has natural in-camera lighting that would make Roger Deakins smile.
Prey relies heavily on the talents of its fresh-faced cast. Amber Midthunder’s performance anchors the film, with Trachtenberg using her every asset as a performer to his advantage. This is a notable example of a director and star in perfect harmony of one another. Midthunder’s vulnerable, yet naturally badass presence holds a candle to not just Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch in the original film, but specifically Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Her physicality is often completely in sync with Trachtenberg’s visuals.
The new Predator appearance is highly memorable, with the old-fashioned look working to give the classic creature a fitting redesign given the period setting. The inclusion of the character’s iconic weapons and gear are incorporated nicely with “new” gadgets, most notably a killer use of a shield. Dane DiLiegro’s portrayal of the Predator is menacing and wholly effective. Fans of the practical effects, particularly of the puppetry that goes into making the Predator face, will likely be disappointed by the added emphasis of CG. That said, there is still enough of a blend between practical and digital effects, that the mix still creates an awesome new character.
It’s satisfyingly gnarly to witness the Predator take on groups of colonizing French Canadian fur trappers, but the showdown between Naru and the Predator is the true shining piece of the film. The brutality and viciousness to the violence has a crunching, tactile feel, but Trachtenberg will still provide an occasional winking moment of ultra-gore for genre fans to revel in. Given the film’s more modern sensibilities, the action is more choreographed as opposed to most films in the franchise, but the stunt-work and editing is top-notch. Sarah Schachner’s score is a great piece of work, having to balance the film’s competing elements. You may even catch an occasional well-placed hint of Alan Silvestri’s original theme. As with any franchise installment or reboot nowadays, there are one or two requisite franchise callbacks, but they’re used appropriately and don’t stop the film dead in its tracks with its obviousness. There is almost certainly a larger conversation to be had about the film’s deliberate portrayal of the dichotomy between the new, advanced species and the old — with both the Predator and his earth-dwelling prey, both also the imperialistic French Canadians and the Comanches — even if the film doesn’t go out of its way to have it. The script is tight enough and well-rounded that it doesn’t ever strain its grasp.
Prey is a terrific reinvention of a franchise that desperately needs it. Director Dan Trachtenberg’s visual flourishes and star Amber Midthunder’s compelling presence help Prey become a brutal and thrilling genre film and a dramatically satisfying coming-of-age story.