Tag Archives: Predator

Gorgeous, Thoughtful Alien Splatter Action — “Prey”

“Prey” understands pace better than the vast majority of movies, action or otherwise. A good action movie should ebb and flow. Early details that become important later should return in a way that feels natural, not predictable. We should make realizations as the characters do, and those characters should matter. Their relationships should matter because this is what suspense arises from, and suspense is the most meaningful element in action. You can’t just rely on a contrast between slow moments and breakneck action; you need to establish a relationship where they inform each other in a way that draws the audience in more and more. “Prey” evokes this uniquely cinematic sense of pace so well that it establishes itself as the best entry in the “Predator” franchise.

It’s 1719. We follow a Comanche woman named Naru, who wants to be a hunter. Many in the tribe object to this, though her brother Taabe can be supportive at times. Needless to say, an alien Predator has come to Earth to hunt whatever presents itself as an interesting threat – animals and humans alike. Naru insists there’s something else out there, bigger and more dangerous than a bear or mountain lion, but no one believes her. She sets off with her loyal dog to prove it.

There’s an approach to action movies where everything is used efficiently, where every detail is a Chekhov’s Gun we know is going to come back and be meaningful later. I don’t like that approach. I want my Red Herrings. I want my Chekhov’s Guns that end up failing, and Red Herrings that turn into Chekhov’s Guns when you look at them differently. That makes a great action movie, one that doesn’t just satisfy your expectations, but can play with them so expertly that it wraps up your anticipation as a willing ally.

There are suspense and splatter horror elements and some extremely atmospheric action in “Prey”. What ties them all together is a playful yet patient sense of storytelling and editing. It satisfies and subverts your expectations from previous “Predator” movies and action movies in general.

“Prey” is stunningly gorgeous. You don’t necessarily expect this from an action movie, but it’s nice when it happens. Much of this is due to the vast majority of the film being shot outdoors, often leaning on natural light. There’s a sense of peace and nature to it – and not in the way of some stereotypical approach to Native Americans. Instead, I’d say the closest comparison for its use of natural light would be a Terrence Malick movie. This is aided by a stretch in the middle of “Prey” having very little dialogue, building a foreboding relationship between the quiet and dread. Director Dan Trachtenberg has also spoken about the influence of Malick’s “The New World”, “Days of Heaven”, and “The Thin Red Line”.

This different pace and atmospherically textured approach makes the Predator’s inclusion feel stranger, more sudden, and truly alien. There’s also an opportunity for the Predator’s metaphor – a trophy hunter visiting Earth – to speak to the ongoing imperialism and genocide of Native tribes. French trappers figure into the plot in a way that makes them feel just as alien as the Predator – though smartly without lending them the power fantasy.

The acting is exceptional, particularly on the part of lead Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers, who plays Naru’s brother. Midthunder plays a rebellious action hero with inspired physicality. Beavers delivers Taabe with a mixture of arrogance and care, of carrying a burden for others, and measured concern that his care for them will make him fail that burden. His is a deceptively complex supporting role that I hope catches the praise it deserves. Most of the cast is Native American or First Nations (including all the Comanche parts, thankfully).

“Prey” is also artistically thick. Of course, many of the references are to Comanche art – both modern such as Doc Tate Nevaquaya, and traditional.

There are references to George Catlin’s paintings of Comanche villages. It’s worth noting that while these have anthropological importance, context is needed. His complex relationship to those he painted was described by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo as “’imperialist nostalgia,’ a yearning for that which one has directly or indirectly participated in destroying”. While he did record a way of life that was being violently erased, one can’t assume he did so without a biased eye.

It doesn’t feel like “Prey” takes these references uninformed, however. There’s no feeling of imperialist romanticism toward the Comanche, nor of subscribing to any racist or “noble savage” tropes. The Catlin influence is in there because it is a record of sorts, but it’s informed and measured out by a range of other influences.

There are many other details that shine through. Naru’s loyal American dingo, or Carolina Dog, reflects a once-common breed that many tribes used for hunting across the Americas. “Prey” producer Jhane Myers is Comanche and Blackfeet and has spoken about the focus on incorporating accurate Comanche aspects. The film also has a Day One Comanche dub and subtitle options, a first for a ‘major release’.

You’re obviously coming to “Prey” for the action. It’s great, across the board. The fight choreo is creative, and doesn’t feel isolated – it constantly interacts with complications introduced by the location and design elements. It’s these other details that make the action feel more consequential and engaging, though. “Prey” doesn’t just get action right, it gets the storytelling right. It gets the build-up right. All the little ways it justifies and subverts your expectations feed into its suspense. Its often breathtaking cinematic beauty and painterly execution elevates the atmosphere of the film while making the “Predator” franchise’s strong B-movie bogeyman roots feel as alien and otherworldly as they should.

For “Predator” franchise fans, there are a number of references, but not in that overburdened, “must explain everything” way that (the otherwise very good) “Solo” took with Star Wars. There are layers of reference that are there if you know them, but they aren’t belabored or highlighted. They’re cleverly and quickly implemented before they’re gone again and more important things are happening.

There are things to criticize, but they’re relatively minor. A few animals are realized in CG. While a Predator can largely be acted and puppeteered, not so with a bear. You can tell some elements that are CG, and I know that can impact viewers’ immersion, but it didn’t detract anything for me.

I’d argue that the core “Predator” franchise is much stronger than people credit it. “Predator”, “Predator 2”, and “Predators” are all well realized action movies. With “Prey”, that gives it four good movies out of five. When I say “Prey” is the best in the franchise, it’s not measuring against one Schwarzenegger film, it’s measuring against three other good films. But that also seems like a small pool to measure it against. “Prey” is a great movie, artistically compelling and with something to say within the action genre. It delivers much more than I expected.

One thing that initially gave me pause is the notion that the lead characters were referred to by the title: “Prey”. Sure, it’s some smart wordplay, but what does that say about its perspective on the Comanche, or relationships of power between cultures? The loveliest, most fulfilling realization I had watching “Prey” is that the title still refers to the alien.

You can watch “Prey” on Hulu.

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Undercooked Stake — “Dracula Untold”

Dracula Untold at least the costumes are good

by Gabriel Valdez

The most important factor in telling a story is having a reason to tell it. It can be a small reason – this year’s Godzilla asked a modern horror filmmaker to return the monster to demigod status. It can be a big reason – The Monuments Men addresses the sacrifices made not just to save people, but to save their very culture during World War 2.

Whatever your reason is, it doesn’t need to change the world, but you do need to have one. Dracula Untold has no reason. It has a vague plot, involving Prince Dracula’s people resisting a Turkish army bent on taking 1,000 of their boys as tribute. Dracula seeks out an ancient beast in the mountains in order to borrow his vampiric powers for the coming war.

Leaving aside yet another tired “anybody east of Greece is inherently evil” plot line, everything that needs to be there in a period tale about the famous vampire’s origins is there. A great lead (Luke Evans), detailed set design, good costuming, solid music, nice visual effects. Take each of these components on its own and it holds up well. Put them all together and there’s something vital missing.

Dracula Untold feels like the first two minutes before a TV show that recap all that’s come before, except it goes on for an hour and a half. There is no, “And now for the conclusion.”

Dracula Untold the makeup budget was spent on my predator vision

Universal wants to use its classic movie villains (Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein) to establish a Marvel’s Avengers-like team of monstrous anti-heroes. It’s a good idea on paper, but the film that gets you there feels like it’s rushing you through so you’ll be prepared for the sequel two years from now. We pay to see movies in order to be thrilled, not rushed.

Certain scenes play well, like the various ones that steal directly from Superman movies. Dracula first awakening to his newfound powers, for instance, feels like every time Clark Kent discovered a new Superman power on Smallville. Dracula flying across the landscape to catch a loved one feels like Christopher Reeve flying across a cityscape to do the same. It’s just Superman didn’t have to turn into bats to do it. Even silver gets used an awful lot like kryptonite. This Dracula bears little resemblance to the terrifying ones we’ve seen before; he’s Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) This would be fine, but only if you have a reason beyond wanting to be like Marvel.

Nowhere is this film’s dismissal of its audience better represented than by its explosions of sound and light. When characters pull a sword or strike a torch, it’s enough to make the audience cover their ears, and my theater wasn’t particularly loud. Similarly, when you’re straining your eyes to make out details in a dark, moody scene, you don’t want to suffer a quick succession of blinding white flashes. It was so painful, audience members had to shield their eyes and look away at certain points. That’s profoundly inexcusable.

By the end of the film, Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) is flying at jet speed while Turks are magically transporting from the top of a cliff to the valley a thousand feet below. And no, that’s not according to some superpower, which would be fine. They’re magically transporting according to shoddy editing that strips out any sense of geography or consequence in the action scenes. It’s laughable, which my audience regularly took advantage of.

Dracula Untold totally not trying to be the hobbit ok maybe a little

The fight choreography is good. It might even be great, but you won’t see much of it. Shaky cameras, blur effects, and trick shots – like seeing half a battle in the reflection of a thin sword – are relentlessly abused, and there isn’t the skill behind the camera or in the editing room to incorporate them in any way that makes sense beyond “the director really likes blur effects.”

Dracula Untold has solid design elements and a lead who’s fun to watch. You may recognize Evans from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in which he plays Bard. He doesn’t act any different here, but that’s fine – he has a compelling demeanor. It’s a good thing, because few other characters are given names, let alone anything resembling characterization.

Dracula Untold just doesn’t care about your experience. It’s checking off boxes on the “start a franchise” clipboard, and that’s not enough reason to tell a story.

It’s somehow rated PG-13 despite the fact that the last five minutes are spent skewering people on stakes and watching their skin fall off as they dissolve into corpses, hinting at a movie that at least would’ve been far trashier than the one we got. But PG-13? I don’t think so.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Dracula Untold have more than one woman in it?

Technically, yes. There is Dracula’s wife, Mirena, played by Sarah Gadon. There’s a Governess who barely appears, played by Dilan Gwyn, and whose importance to the plot you can derive by the fact she has no name, and is simply listed as “Governess.”

Other women occasionally appear in the background doing oh so important background things like looking dramatically at Luke Evans, or looking dramatically at the camera, or looking dramatically at each other.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Hah!

3. About something other than a man?

Haha!

Look, Dracula Untold may technically pass the first rule of this test, but only because if all the extras were men, we might think Superdrac was running a gay kingdom, and something like that still matters to some people. Personally, I think that would’ve made a far more interesting movie. Shoot, why didn’t they try that 40 years ago with Tim Curry as Dracula – oh, wait a minute, they basically did.

But I digress.

Dracula Untold is all about super awesome European men protecting their women and children from evil Turks, who do such nefarious things as wear copious amounts of eyeliner. Pick up your swords! Trade your souls for demonic powers! Our European children must not be forced to wear copious amounts of eyeliner!

Seriously, Dracula Untold is ridiculous. That I’ve already written 1,000 words on it means I’ve put more thought into their movie than its writers did. What did I just watch, is it possible to nuke it from orbit (it’s the only way), and who thought this could function as the beginning to a multi-tiered franchise?

Not only does Dracula Untold fail the Bechdel Test, it also fails the Are You Racist Test, the Try Not to Blind Your Audience Test, the Prosopagnosia Test, and the Not Throwing Up in My Own Mouth Test (patent pending).

Honestly, when it comes out on DVD, this could be the new mainstay of bad movie nights*, but it certainly doesn’t do anything for feminism or tolerance or the English language. Only through Luke Evans being Luke Evans and its own general ineffectiveness at everything, including being hateful, does it fail to threaten 300: Rise of a Thin Gaza Metaphor as worst movie of the year.

*Seek out Dario Argento’s Phenomena, people, and your bad movie nights will never be the same again.