‘Prey’ Review: The ‘Predator’ Franchise Reaches a New Apex

This is as far as you go.”

For a while, it seemed like the Predator franchise had reached its limit. Two movie monster fights, that one with Adrien Brody, and a confounding Shane Black reboot left the series scrambling for an identity. Back to basics, then. That’s where PREY rediscovers itself as a gnarly creature-feature and rad action movie-play on Darwinism. “No more. This is it.” No more crossovers, no Adrien Brody cosplaying as tough guy, and no need for cleverness other than the protagonist outsmarting the big trophy hunter with a thing for spinal columns. Director Dan Trachtenberg nods to the heyday of Schwarzenegger, unearths a soulful frontier through a new lead and time period, and moves the franchise needle forward, finally. PREY is just a good old-fashioned survival story; a most dangerous game of death. It’s projectiles vs. tomahawks and It. Fucking. OWNS.

PREY understands the franchise formula: (insert genre here) AND THEN the Predator shows up. I’m sure you’ve seen these jokes and memes across Twitter. Laugh all you want, it’s the sole subversive stroke that makes a Predator movie.

The slick genius of Predator to this day is that it starts out as a Schwarzenegger action vehicle replete with bulging biceps and dry one-liners. That’s the first 30 minutes, then the Predator shows up and it becomes a slasher movie where the characters get picked off one by one.

This is why Predator 2 IS A GOOD SEQUEL, ACTUALLY. (I will hear no more of this “inferior” or “subpar” tomfoolery.) It’s an LA cop movie; Lethal Weapon except with a solo Danny Glover and then BAM Predator heat vision. This isn’t an issue of screentime. Pred can show up whenever he wants. The ugly motherfucker’s got camouflage; he’s arguably in the first frame of the movie and we don’t know it. It’s WHEN he enters the movie that changes everything. Dutch and his team think they’re going up against guerilla soldiers, or Harrigan thinks there’s a new gang in LA. Once the protagonist realizes they’re dealing with something out of this world, then it’s a horror movie here on out.

Nuclear Take Alert: this is also why the Alien vs. Predator movies work as Predator movies—as much as they fuck up the canon for both franchises. AVP starts out as part-expedition/part-Alien movie and then you get the drill. Though I like Requiem a lot less, it coasts by as a Predator entry because it’s a rural small-town story, then a Predalien shows up.

Now, I might be roasting Predators, but I do enjoy its leanness. (And a dope katana fight in the tall grass.) The disappointment for me is that it’s dwarfed by an even better Predator movie in the middle—when we find the “classic” Predator strung up in the camp, and the characters realize they’re facing a newer breed. The better movie that I can never stop thinking about is a Predator being hunted by its own kind. (Maybe it went rogue, maybe it stole another Predator’s kill, whatever.) Predator vs. Predator, that would rip. We get maybe 3 minutes of that before Adrien Brody plays tag with a Berserker.

Predators, at least, maintains the subversion. It runs through the beats of the original in the first 40 minutes, and the twist is that they’re on an alien planet. 2018’s The Predator, then, is pulling too many twists and turns. It starts with the Predator, which is the problem. The movie has to plausibly work as if it could go on even if the Predator never shows up. Shane Black’s script needs the creature every step of the way. For some reason, they’re now trying to evolve themselves. This involves kidnapping an autistic Jacob Tremblay, because it turns out the autism spectrum is actually a roadmap for human evolution and… it’s too much. Shane Black might be a maestro when it comes to plot, but he’s so lost in his own pen that he doesn’t realize he’s being too clever for a Predator movie. The less that can be said about that film, its controversies, and its Iron Predator suit at the end, the better.

PREY being set in the 1700s works as a two-fer: being far removed from those events entirely and eliminating any cheap pop culture referencing. (You might spot a familiar line or two, but the godsend is that no one is gonna get the chance to say, “Get to the choppa!”) Following the formula, this could’ve easily been a Native American period drama; a day-in-the-life of the Comanche tribe through Naru’s eyes as she contends with the known world. Some of DP Jeff Cutter’s compositions look like B-roll from Terrence Malick’s The New World (story about the Powhatan tribe, then the settlers show up).

Which is to say the filmmakers did not have to go this hard. This is Trachtenberg’s sophomore feature and he directs with the confidence of a young James Cameron or Ridley Scott. This shouldn’t be a surprise when he directed the hell out of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s lockbox premise. Telegraphing – I don’t know any other genre director of his generation who telegraphs and foreshadows as well as he does. Trachtenberg neatly lines up the narrative pieces of his leading woman’s journey for multiple powerhouse payoffs at the end.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about PREY is that it establishes the most memorable action heroine in recent memory. Amber Midthunder gives a throwdown performance as Naru, the budding hunter with something to prove. (Something tells me that even with Naru’s extended training montage, y’all will still call her a Mary Sue.) The journey of every protagonist in the Predator movies is that they all require humbling before taking on the 7-foot alien. Everyone thinks they’re the apex predator because they have the most muscles or the most advanced weaponry. Until they face the Yautja, who’s actually got the most muscles and advanced weaponry.

Beating the Predator means outsmarting him. This is where some of y’all gonna show how illiterate you are (or just straight up misogynist). Dutch wins because he ditches everything he knows about combat and goes back to the basics of hunting. It’s not Schwarzenegger’s bare hands that kill the creature; it’s a goddamn stick. Harrigan wins in the sequel by literally using the creature’s own Smart Disc against him.

Technology is the Predator’s Achilles heel. It can’t see for shit, so it needs the mask; it can’t hunt for shit so it needs laser-guided everything, and it’s a big motherfucker so it needs the camouflage to move unseen. With all of this, the Predator is invincible. Take away any one of these tools and suddenly it’s vulnerable. I’m not doing some revisionist take here. This is the story. This is how Predator loses going all the way back to 1987. So if you’re complaining that the Predator always loses, maybe ask why you wanted the Predator to win this time around?

There’s a reason the movie is titled Prey, the same way the original’s title flipped the script on who’s hunting who. Naru is underestimated as a woman and this gives her an unexpected field advantage. (Camouflage, if you will.) Her brutal hero’s journey is learning that hunting is not a game or a statement, but a crucible for survival. She has the wits and the resources. She just has to bring it all home.

Naru wins just as Dutch did – setting up Home Alone traps in the woods. PREY takes it up a notch by making it an emotional payoff on top of a thrilling and action-packed one. [As far as 2022 breakout performances go, Amber Midthunder joins Monica Barbaro (Top Gun: Maverick) and Eiza Gonzalez (Ambulance).]

I was ready to hail PREY as a return to form once I saw the gnarly Predator redesign. Then the movie flexes some of the coolest axe-flipping I’ve seen, as well as the best bow-and-arrow combat ever put to film. (Dakota Beavers as Naru’s brother, Taabe, is a pure shot of adrenaline.) This was made for streaming, but I would’ve paid good money to see this in theaters. Sarah Schnachner’s score is thunderously immersive, and the long lingering shots of Naru enveloped in the wilderness are jaw-dropping. I suppose being able to queue this whenever I want from my living room isn’t all that bad.

As much as I’m one for the theater, this August hasn’t provided many compelling reasons to check out the megaplex. For once, I’m recommending you stay in. I’m saying give that Hulu free trial a go. PREY goes hard. It RIPS a thousand spinal columns. And, at a tight 100 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either. All I wanted was a solid Predator entry. But a rad, bare-bones survival story that’s now a new contender for my favorite movie of the year? I’ll take that too.

5 good doggos out of 5 🐕🐕🐕🐕🐕

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