Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenwriters: Patrick Aison, Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DeLiegro, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush, Julian Black Antelope, Stefany Mathias, Bennett Taylor, Mike Paterson, Neldon Leis
35 years ago John McTiernan released Predator, an oiled-up, muscle-bound, gun-toting actioner about a black ops team led by Arnold Schwarzenegger on a rescue mission in a Central American jungle being hunted by an extraterrestrial with advanced alien weaponry. It transcended cult appeal to become a genre touchstone and gave birth to a decidedly mixed franchise. Now with Prey, director Dan Trachtenberg has stripped out everything inessential, set the new story 300 years in the past and has viewed it through the prism of First Nation culture to bring a much-needed jolt of life to proceedings.
Comanche healer Naru (Amber Midthunder) wants to prove herself a hunter like the men in her tribe, particularly her protective brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). But, while following his party on their hunt for an aggressive mountain lion, something else starts hunting them and forces Naru to use all of her learned skills to fight back against a technologically superior visitor from another world.
A Predator movie doesn’t need to be complicated, so having Trachtenberg at the helm, a director who proved himself an expert at taut, simple storytelling with 10 Cloverfield Lane, was a good fit. That film threw out most of the found footage and giant monster movie trappings from the original Matt Reeves (The Batman) film to create a paranoia-fuelled chamber piece, and he does something similar in re-staging the action-sci-fi in a historical setting.
Naru’s arc can be summed up by a short but telling exchange with her mother (Michelle Thrush), “Why do you want to hunt? / Because you all think that I can’t”. Shortly after this we get an admittedly on-the-nose aerial shot of Naru literally moving against the tide of tradition, with a line of women going out to gather herbs as she strides in the other direction with her bow in hand. She is essentially a rebellious teenager, and it seems that no one in her community will support her chosen life path – even her brother who will back her to a point can’t resist spelling out after his successful hunt: “We didn’t do it, I did. You tried it, you just couldn’t bring it home”.
Naru and the Predator are both hunters in training, undergoing their trials. Naru has been told to stick to her assigned place in society so will need to prove herself in no uncertain terms to force a change in attitudes. The Predator is a big game hunter in search of trophies sent to a backwater world to go after the most dangerous predatory creatures it can find up to the deadliest of all: man. They are both shown to go through their pre-hunt and post-hunt rituals, and gradually evolve their strategies to fit the present situation.
The Predator kills and takes trophies from every other predatory animal it encounters, shown to us in some striking imagery. An ant crawls over the cloaked form of the Predator before a rattlesnake senses and lashes out at it, getting impaled in mid-air. Later it wrestles a bear in a river, its invisible silhouette getting drenched in the beast’s blood in the process. There is also a particularly memorable night-time fight later on lit almost entirely by bioluminescent blood.
Trachtenberg has a lot of fun with the ultraviolent action, particularly in demonstrating some very cool and particularly nasty early Predator weapons. The Predator still has its trademark targeting laser, but instead of a shoulder-mounted energy cannon, it launches razor sharp metal stakes three at a time, switching to bladed weapons and a retractable shield as its quarry closes the gap.
The whole film is from Naru’s point of view and we are never shown any battle she didn’t participate in, so by the time she witnesses first-hand how effortlessly the Predator dispatches even a group of men carrying firearms (there is a great gag based around awkward early flintlock rifles), she is trapped unsettlingly close to old crab-features.
Dishearteningly, but perhaps inevitably, the usual dark corner of the internet has dredged up the usual “Mary Sue” criticism; how could this female Native teenager possibly put up as good a fight as Schwarzenegger and the rest with all their macho one-liners and oily biceps? The thing is, Naru is far from excelling at the task at hand, she is constantly learning, and she makes costly mistakes. She has to outsmart the Predator because no-one including the seasoned hunters in her tribe can physically match their alien adversary. Naru has always been underestimated by her own tribe and is then not seen as a credible threat by the thing who has slaughtered so many of her people, so needs to demonstrate she is a true hunter to herself, her family and the thing she needs to kill. She quips that “I’m smarter than a beaver” that would chew through its own leg to escape, and after spotting some telling weaknesses in her opponent she comes up with a plan of attack.
Because the whole film can’t be Naru vs the Predator, some admittedly tense scenes earlier on seem a little too obviously calculated to foreshadow what is to come so she can succeed when it matters later, from nearly drowning in a muddy quagmire to frantically trying to tie a knot as something charges her down, but it does work on a purely mechanical level.
Prey is a lean, mean and completely thrilling hunter vs hunted historical action movie, taking what worked in the original Predator film and doing it again just as well, but perhaps with even more impact by giving this story a fresh cultural voice. Amber Midthunder, who already proved herself a kickass heroine on TV in ‘Legion’, is the completely captivating focus of a seemingly imbalanced battle between technologically divided hunters, and further adventures with her compelling character (perhaps making preparations with her tribe against further invasion) would be very welcome indeed.