2022 has been a remarkable year for maximalist filmmaking, for big, colorful visuals and loud, expressive sound design. Most of my favorite movies this year have been overstated, from the rip-roaring action and emotion of Everything Everywhere All at Once and RRR, to the IMAX spectacle of Top Gun: Maverick and Nope. Baz Luhrmann and George Miller both have new movies out this summer; wild color palettes and frenetic editing are very in. Perhaps this is why Prey, the new sci-fi thriller from director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) that happens to be the latest installment of the Predator franchise, immediately sliced through all the noise in my head. It is a quiet, razor-precise action film that demonstrates all of the directorial prowess of the above films, but instead of blowing you away with grenade-like force, it lands with the crisp, satisfying thump of an axe into wood. Like its protagonist, Prey is lean, clever, and cool as hell without ever trying to show off.
This Land is Her Land
Prey is set in the Great Plains in the year 1719, and follows Naru (Amber Midthunder, Roswell, New Mexico), a young Comanche woman who aims to become a respected hunter, like her late father and her older brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers in a strong screen debut). The rest of her community’s hunters, who are all men, refuse to take her seriously, which only drives her to train harder and hunt smarter. Her education as a healer and forager give her a different perspective on hunting, but her peers mistake her ingenuity for foolishness. Naru seeks to prove herself just as her brother did, by hunting a beast that is also hunting her. Naru’s chance comes in a form no one on Earth could have predicted — a vicious, invisible alien game hunter (6’9” suit actor Dane DiLiegro). Accompanied by only her dog, Sarii, Naru ventures into the wild to confront the monster that’s stalking her family, all the while discovering evidence of an even greater threat to her entire way of life.
Prey functions perfectly as its own film, while also elegantly recycling the basic premise of John McTiernan’s 1987 classic. In Predator, a group of heavily armed American mercenaries invade a South American jungle and find themselves unexpectedly outgunned by an extraterrestrial warrior. After confronting the shock of seeing his friends slaughtered by a technologically superior force, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch must rely on only his wits and experience to survive.
Where Predator reflects the Viet Cong’s unlikely victory over the world’s most expensive military, Prey is built around portents of the doom that awaits North America as colonizers arrive, kill without mercy, and take what they want with little regard for what they leave behind. Unlike Dutch and his company (and in contrast to the typical rules of horror), Naru and her people do not transgress. Some of the Comanche warriors are dismissive assholes to our lead, granting the audience some small satisfaction when their skills prove inferior to hers, but they have done nothing to poke this particular bear and are entirely blameless in this film’s predicament. Their defiance against the alien menace is righteous as hell.
Prey does not (to my eyes, at least) fetishize or overly romanticize indigenous American life or culture, nor does it make cheap sport out of the real-life tragedy that awaits these characters or their descendants. Life in Naru’s Comanche camp is framed as a totally ordinary life, because that’s what it was. This not only helps to easily connect any viewer to her experience and to what’s at stake, but also accentuates some of the qualities that make this time and this culture so incredible.
Early in the film, Naru accompanies a search party for a missing warrior. When they find him, the crew quickly and efficiently builds a stretcher out of nearby materials. They didn’t bring one with them, they simply knew they could make one if they needed it, and that’s as normal to them as setting up your home theater system is to you. That’s fucking amazing, but Trachtenberg’s camera isn’t amazed by it, as if to say “Of course they’re building a stretcher, that’s what you do in this situation.” The only thing Prey is interested in romanticizing is the verdant beauty of the Northern Great Plains, which itself resonates because Americans so rarely think of their continent this way. This, too, is at stake in the film, and so much of it is gone now.
Prey’s biggest highlight is Trachtenberg’s direction (with due credit to director of photography Jeff Cutter), but Amber Midthunder’s performance comes in at a close second. Her character is not complicated, but she is totally compelling. Midthunder carries the film through long, wordless sequences during which she balances Naru’s determination and brilliance against her fear and vulnerability. Naru’s greatest asset is that she’s tougher than she looks, but she’s also not invincible. Her every victory feels both believable and hard-won. She is the best kind of action hero, someone who feels impossibly cool and somehow totally real at the same time, and so much of that is owed to Midthunder putting forth exactly the right amount of confidence.
It helps, also, that she reads as very young. Though 25, Midthunder gives Naru a teenager’s brattiness, which comes to the surface whenever she interacts with her older (and much taller) brother. For most of the film, however, she’s paired with a lovable dog, which brings out the kid in her while also giving her someone to protect and the audience someone expendable to worry about.
Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison also wisely keep the audience separated from the Predator for most of the film, checking in with him only about as often as in the original film. This is not a movie about how cool the Predator is. The story concocts a scenario that allows the audience to briefly delight in some gnarly kills with minimal guilt, but for the most part, he’s merely an obstacle in Naru’s path and a symbol for the horrors of colonialism.
In a refreshing correction from the approach of 2018’s The Predator, Prey is unconcerned with myth making, easter eggs, or sequel hooks. It is not about expanding on the audience’s knowledge of the Predator species or culture, or wowing us with cool alien gadgets. There are a few nods to other films, and one line of dialogue lifted from the original, but they’re all placed in such a way that if you didn’t know they were from something else, you’d never realize that they were references to anything. The Predator’s new design is wicked cool on its own, and becomes cooler when viewed as an extrapolation of what their technology and armor might look like centuries before their first appearance.
Because it serves so much as its own film, it almost feels wrong to spend much of this review comparing it to earlier installments in the Predator franchise. I would recommend Prey to any fans of sci-fi infused action movies, regardless of their interest or experience with Predator. But, for those who are familiar and looking for a frame of reference within this canon: Prey has the best story in the series and is a contender for the best action staging in the series. It’s easily the best Predator movie since the original, and I could imagine it becoming my new favorite. In a very competitive year, Prey is going to debut on my top 10 list for 2022, and stands good odds of surviving there into the winter.
It’s a shame that Prey has been denied a theatrical run, and for the pettiest of reasons. As a 20th Century Studios film that was in development before Disney bought Fox, it would be available to stream on HBO Max as well as Hulu after 45 days in theatres. Disney evidententally sees more value in Prey as a draw to their streaming platform than at the box office, and doesn’t feel like sharing. (Along with the shakeup at Warner Bros. Discovery this past week, this sort of thing gives me heartburn.) But, there is an upside here — when you’re done watching Prey, you don’t have to pay another $12 to see it a second time. You can just hit “play again,” like I’m going to do as soon as I turn in this draft.