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The Predator franchise gets back to basics, with a twist
It worked for the Alien movies, so why not Predator, too?
Everybody's favorite thrill-killer from outer space is back, only this time it's a prequel. Both the Alien and the Predator franchises put out four movies (each one a little bit worse than the one that preceded it) before they hit rewind — unless you want to count the two times the sinister interplanetary beings went head to head. (For the record, the first Alien vs. Predator is actually good fun; the second is not.)
With Prey, the film series gets back to the basics. A group of hunters becomes the hunted, and it takes the ingenuity of a spirited individual to survive the vicious being's bloodsport. The twist — and for a mainstream Hollywood picture, this is indeed different — is that the action is set within the Comanche Nation in the early 1700s.
Prey boasts a primarily Indigenous cast, aside from some French trappers who show up as canon fodder, as well as, you know, an extra terrestrial trophy hunter. (The monster is not played by an actual alien but by former basketball center Dane DiLiegro.) Our hero is Amber Midthunder as Naru, a determined would-be warrior held back back by gender norms. She wants to be a hunter, but her mother and older brother would prefer she stick to healing, and maybe a little tracking.
One day, though, a mountain lion is spotted nearby, and a team goes out to kill it. Naru's older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) coaches Naru on the down low in their tribe's coming-of-age hunting ritual, but the first encounter proves too much. However, we and Naru both know it wasn't a fair fight: she was distracted by crazy flashes of otherworldly light in the distance!
Back home, Naru is convinced something is out there. She packs up early, gathering her bow and arrow, her hatchet on a rope, her trusty pooch, medicinal flower petals that lower body temperature (v. important, as we'll see!) , and some camouflaging makeup. She finds an enormous bear, thinking that's her quarry, but soon realizes she's stumbled upon something much more deadly. (Said discovery is made when the bear and the translucent, heavily armed Predator get into a WWE-style brawl.)
She escapes (barely) and finds that some dudes from home have been sent to find her. They don't listen to her warnings and, well, you can probably guess what happens to them. Next, she encounters a band of French trappers, which leads to an extended sequence of tremendous Predator slaughter. While many of the effects have that "cheap CG blood" look, points still must be given for the many creative ways in which the warrior alien rips these people apart.
There's one nice guy in the French group who speaks Comanche, giving us a #NotAllColonists moment. Comanche is rendered as English in the movie, however, except for a few stray lines, usually shouted out in anger. This makes for no internal logic whatsoever. According to reports, Hulu will offer a full Comanche version of the film, which maybe would have been preferable to the cut I saw.
Director Dan Trachtenberg (whose 10 Cloverfield Lane showed a lot more ingenuity than what's found in Prey) keeps things pretty straightforward, apart from a few shot-from-overhead transitions when the tall grass almost looks like green water. So many action movies are filmed on green screens now (and surely much of Prey is, too) but the moments captured on location really pop. Directors: Go outside again, please!
Amber Midthunder is a very sympathetic performer, and she manages to look great even when she is covered in muck. Her hair is always terrific, and when her face paint gets wiped off it leaves her with some Instagram-ready smokey eye. I trust that the producers of Prey did their homework about Comanche customs of the period (Trachtenberg has touted their research), but I do question just how runway-ready Midthunder appears even in the thick of battle. (Also, were pit bulls around back then? I'm pretty sure that pooch is a pit bull. Either way, he's a good boy.)
Kudos to screenwriter Patrick Aison, who sets up a lot of things that pay off for the big finish. That's always a treat: "Oh, yeah, I remember that thing! Now it's back, in a way I didn't expect." Every movie should have that, especially in ways that blow up jerk aliens.
Nothing will touch Predator for classic high octane cinema, but Prey is a solid-enough entry in the franchise, and a quality base hit for Hulu for August.
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 5 on Hulu
Who's in it: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro
Who's behind it: Dan Trachtenberg (director), Patrick Aison (screenwriter)
For fans of: Indigenous action movies, watching Predator rip people apart