“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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