Sunday, October 2, 2022

‘Prey’: A New Horror Icon Is Born

MOVIES'Prey': A New Horror Icon Is Born

The trap of long running sci-fi franchises is that they often expect their viewers to be lore experts by the time they are a few films in. Sequels are often heavy-handed with references to early installments, confusing any new audience member who just wanted to watch a fun popcorn flick. For established fans, these deep cuts can be entertaining, but if the movie doesn’t live up to their expectations, the series is effectively dead without their support.

A well known franchise like Predator, then, essentially has two options to revive the concept: reboot the entire thing and start again, or add a new hook. Predator used to lean on the latter, with mashup films like Alien vs. Predator doing reasonably well at the box office. But 2018’s The Predator was not well received by critics or by audiences, leaving the fate of the character and the franchise in limbo. With Prey, director Dan Trachtenberg threw out the lore book and got back to basics: Predator from outer space wants to hunt, and humans would prefer to not be on the lunch menu. The fight is on.

As a prequel, Prey works well as an introduction to the alien for those who haven’t seen the previous films (this writer included). The story follows Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman in 1719 desperate to prove herself as a hunter to her family and to her tribe. But older brother Taabe is the accepted leader for his brilliance with a bow, leaving her behind on group hunts while she trains alone. She plans to take part in kühtaamia, a big hunt designed to show her brother and her people that she is worthy of being a hunter. But this plan is ruined as dual horrors arrive in her world: French fur trappers intent on expanding their territory, and the first Predator to land on Earth. As Naru desperately tries to warn Taabe and the other warriors about the strange creature hunting in their territory, she is dismissed until the bodies start piling up. In the end, it all comes down to Predator vs. Naru as her skills are put to the test.

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Prey is stunning from a technical perspective. The cinematography by Jeff Cutter is nothing short of breathtaking, with wide shots showcasing the natural beauty of Naru’s world while also emphasizing how small the humans must seem to an extraterrestrial creature. You’re never quite sure where Predator is lurking, and much of that is due to the way Cutter leaves room for it in every shot whether it’s there or not. It’s an effect that pays off in the bigger sequences where Predator hunts, leaving the audience just as dazed and unsure as the characters. Cutter and Trachtenberg have an uncanny ability to know when to stage the fight scenes intimately rather than grand in scale. One sequence in particular stands out for what can only be described as beautiful violence as Predator goes after some fur trappers while shrouded in smoke. The fight choreography team also deserves a lot of praise for their inventive work that is well executed by the leading actors and stunt performers (particularly several tricky Texas switches between Midthunder and her double Tammy Nera). It’s a real shame Prey wasn’t released on the big screen to give those scenes even more power.

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But what makes Prey truly great is its heroine. While there have been several excellent horror and sci-fi franchises in the last few years, there hasn’t been a leading female hero that has been embraced by pop culture at large outside of genre fans. With Prey, that’s all about to change. Midthunder’s Naru should join the ranks of revered heroines like Ripley from Alien or Sarah Connor from Terminator, and with good reason. Midthunder is a compelling presence who draws your eye every time she appears, even if she isn’t the focus of the scene. She conveys every thought in Naru’s head even without spoken dialogue. Prey should elevate her to stardom as she more than proves her ability to anchor a massive franchise film.

Naru is a fresh take on the underestimated female protagonist trope who kicks ass and takes names. She is cunning and fierce, refusing to give up even in the face of two existential threats. You root for her to succeed not just because she is clearly set up as the true adversary of the Predator but because of her emotional arc. Part of why she is able to go toe-to-toe with the alien despite the mismatch in their weaponry is her careful way of paying attention to the details around her. It’s a skill that her brother and his friends lack because of their determination to be revered members of their tribe. Naru doesn’t want glory for glory’s sake. She wants to do right by her people and shape her own destiny. It makes her the perfect foil for Predator, a creature whose only selfish desire is to be the most deadly thing on every planet.

Aside from being an entertaining and engaging film, Prey breaks new ground for representation. Producer Jhane Myers is a member of Comanche Nation, and her influence on the script is clear and invaluable. Her attention to detail and collaboration with Trachtenberg elevates the quality even further by grounding Naru and her people in reality. The cast is majority Indigenous and the film is the first to have a full dub in Comanche (which you can watch by switching your viewing settings in Hulu). In a time when Indigenous representation is gaining more ground with shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls along with the big budget superhero series Echo, Prey is yet another example of how essential it is to let Indigenous filmmakers tell their own stories.

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It says a lot about Prey‘s dedication to historical accuracy amid the carnage that the true villain of the film is a tossup. Sure, Predator has no motivation other than to kill the apex predator in a given location and has the kind of tech that no one in 1719 could even imagine — it’s not a fair fight by any means. But Predator also refuses to kill anything that isn’t a direct threat, often underestimating Naru and letting her live when it shouldn’t as a result. The French arrivals have no such moral code, dubious as it is, and Trachtenberg wisely lets the weight of history hover over the proceedings. It’s even starker when you watch the film in the Comanche dub (which I highly, highly recommend doing). We know which of these two beings are ultimately the greatest threat to Naru and her people, and the film’s ending reinforces this.

Prey is a thoughtful blockbuster, a franchise reviving film that makes a strong case for the triumph of basic storytelling over bloated plot twists. With a star-making performance from Midthunder and gorgeous visuals, Prey is an instant horror/sci-fi classic.

Prey is available to stream now on Hulu in both English and Comanche.

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