In the seemingly-endless cycle of “trying to reboot popular ’70s/’80s sci-fi franchises”, it is once again the turn of Predator, following in the wake of 2018’s disappointingly messy The Predator and 2010’s apparently-disliked Predators (I enjoyed it, but everyone seems to write it off nowadays). Where both of those tried to go bigger — either with more or larger versions of the eponymous aliens — Prey strips things back to basics, as per the one entry in the series everyone can agree is good, the first.
Set around 300 years ago, when indigenous people still lived freely on the plains of North America, the film introduces to a member of the Comanche tribe, Naru (Amber Midthunder, who genre fans might recognise from X-Men-adjacent TV series Legion), a young woman who wants to prove herself as a hunter like the tribe’s menfolk, including her exalted brother (Dakota Beavers). Long story short, she’s about to get chance when an alien Predator rocks up.
Plot-wise, Prey is pretty straightforward. And therein lies a big part of its success, because what more do we want from a Predator movie than “a hero has to fight a technologically-superior Predator”? If you do want more than that, I think you’ve come to the wrong franchise. Of course, simply rehashing what’s gone before is just another path to failure, and so what Prey does is take those basic bones and dress them up with fresh settings, ideas, and perspectives. In this case, that’s the period setting and Native American heroes. How do you defeat a Predator using weapons no more technologically advanced than bows and arrows? With intelligence, of course, and the film does a nice job of showing Naru gather information and formulate plans without ever needing to spell them out for us.
That it can pull that off is also to the credit of star Amber Midthunder, who conveys so much of Naru’s thought processes through only looks and expressions. All round she makes for an appealing heroine: she’s capable and brave, but not foolishly so, sometimes hanging back to assess the situation, or even running away when the odds aren’t in her favour, rather than diving in mindlessly. As action heroes go, I think that counts as nuance. I saw one critic tweet opine that she’s so good she needs to be given a Marvel superhero role ASAP, which is more a depressing indication of the state of cinema (appealing action lead? The highest honour would be a Marvel role!) than an indication of Midthunder’s ability (please, Hollywood, don’t just waste her on Marvel filler).
This may be a straight-up humans vs aliens action movie, but it still treats its audience with a degree of respect. It knows we’re capable of joining dots ourselves, especially when we can see characters doing the same. Naturally, Prey has some developments and moments derived from previous Predator movies — it wouldn’t really be part of the same franchise if it wiped the slate wholly clean — but they feel recontextualised or come into play naturally, rather than the filmmakers over-eagerly forcing them on us as a plea to nostalgia.
Quite aside from the plot and action, this is a beautifully made film. The first half-hour almost evokes the work of Terence Malick, with its relatively slow pace and photography that showcases nature and gorgeous scenery. This would’ve been a stunner on the big screen. Most big-budget theatrically-released films don’t look this much like A Movie nowadays, never mind streaming churn. I say it only “almost evokes Malick” because it’s not actually Malick-speed slow, but what it’s doing is quite deliberate: establishing the characters, the environment they live in, the things they know and the tools they have access to, and so on — as well as building up the looming threat of the alien hunter — so that we understand the world and the stakes when things kick off later.
One thing I sort of want to pull the filmmakers up on is the language(s) used for dialogue. During promotion, they’ve talked about how some of the film is actually in the Comanche language, a selling point because of diversity and inclusion. Well, not much of the dialogue is Comanche — the primary language is unquestionably English — and it’s not subtitled, which means the vast majority of viewers can’t understand it, so they could be saying anything. I don’t think a film is ‘in’ a language if you can’t understand it (it’s why I’ve not listed Comanche as a language at the top of this review, nor the European languages spoken by the settlers who come into the plot, which also aren’t subtitled). That said, there is the option to watch the entire film dubbed in Comanche — a first, apparently. That would be more historically authentic, but it’s also a dub, i.e. not how the film was ‘intended’. Nonetheless, I’ve already seen some argue it’s a better version, so it may well be worth a look.
That minor point aside (it’s not something I’m holding against the film, just the filmmakers boastfulness), Prey is a resounding success at what it sets out to be: an action movie in which humans and Predators have a fight. It’s the Predator film fans have long been waiting for. And it hopefully indicates to the studio bigwigs what the future of this franchise should be: pick a different era, with different technology and/or attitudes to combat, drop a Predator into it, and see how the humans get on against it. Honestly, with the right creatives, you could milk that simply premise for another half-dozen or more enjoyable movies, I reckon.
Prey was the 49th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.
* There was no certificate listed on the BBFC website at time of review; Disney+ continuing to take advantage of the fact there’s no legal requirement for streaming content to be certified. Some press ads listed the film as 18+, but they’ve gone with 16+ on the service itself. So, it’s either a 15 or an 18. I guess we’ll never know (unless it gets a disc release). ^