The Stew Review: Prey delivers a worthy, thrilling successor to Predator
TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - It’s taken more than 30 years, but we finally have a Predator sequel that feels worthy of standing next to the stone-cold classic that is the 1987 original.
Predator 2 has its defenders (though I am only marginally among their ranks). Predators is decent but too overcrowded. The less said about The Predator the better. (The same goes for either Alien vs. Predator movie.) Any merits found within the follow-ups to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s definitive first outing all arrived with a huge asterisk next to them. Until now, that is. Prey joins the envious ranks of “outstanding sequels decades in the making” alongside Mad Max: Fury Road and this summer’s Top Gun: Maverick. (Yes, Prey is technically a prequel, but you get the point.)
Amber Midthunder (a member of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe) plays Naru, a young Comanche woman living with her tribe on the Great Plains in 1719. She is a skilled healer and tracker and is anxious to prove herself as an equally capable hunter. She lives in the shadow of her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), the tribe’s favored son and newly adorned war chief. Taabe sees Naru’s potential but believes she’s far from ready to complete a hunter’s final trial. But when no one believes her descriptions of a mysterious beast tearing through tribe members and mauling bears, Naru becomes tested in a way she could have never dreamed.
What makes Prey work where every other follow-up has faltered is that director Dan Trachtenberg and his co-writer, Patrick Aison, understand the essence of the original. Predator is a movie about survival, adaptation and, importantly, isolation. It is an action movie, yes, but its central tenet is that simply being a big, strong muscle man armed to the teeth isn’t an advantage. It’s only once Schwarzenegger’s Dutch is isolated and stripped down to his most elemental, instinctual capabilities that he truly becomes a force to be reckoned with against the alien. Until Prey, subsequent films drew further away from this essence. Prey embraces it fully. Naru is a heroine thrown head-first into a crucible, forced to embrace her instincts, her skills and her resolve.
There has been no shortage of wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding Prey and its diminutive heroine somehow managing to go toe-to-toe with an apex predator like the Predator. (No, I do not care that comics or novels have identified them as the Yautja. Shut up, nerds, they’re just Predators.) But what’s remarkable about Prey is the way Trachtenberg and Midthunder so thoroughly extinguish any doubt that someone like Naru could not only survive, but dominate. Like any worthy prey, her success is determined by her wits and resolve, qualities that Naru has in excess. She’s not stronger, she’s smarter.
Though even taking Naru’s cunning into account, Prey manages to thread the needle of showing why these aliens are a credible threat while also acknowledging they’re the extra-terrestrial equivalent of people who travel to Africa and pay to shoot an elephant with a massive hunting rifle so they puff their chest out and pretend to be a Big Game Hunter. Sure, these aliens have impressive tech, but how skilled can you actually be when you’re going up against people fighting you with literal sticks and rocks. Trachtenberg hits it right on the nose when he has Taabe scream “CHEATER” when the Predator re-activates his cloaking device mid-fight.
That said, while the Predator may be a less-than-honorable warrior, by contrast Naru is a wonderfully compelling character played to steel-willed perfection by Amber Midthunder who imbues her with the perfect balance of grit, determination, vulnerability and guile. The original Predator may reign as the more classic film, but Prey may ultimately be a better film because it is propelled by a far more compelling lead. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s work as Dutch is endlessly quotable and iconic, but Midthunder’s performance as Naru provides a much more relatable and sympathetic lead. In a just world, this would be a star-making turn for her.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is Trachtenberg’s direction. His most notable work prior was two episodes of television, a no-budget fan film based on the video game Portal, and a mostly effective spin-off of Cloverfield. In other words, nothing that would signal he’s capable of delivering a movie that often stands toe-to-toe with one of the most revered sci-fi action movies of all time. And yet that’s precisely what he accomplishes. One of the hallmarks of Predator is how quickly it establishes the characters, the environment and the stakes. It’s one of the leanest, most efficient action movies ever made, a lesson Trachtenberg learned well and applies it superbly to Prey. But rather than simply aping the more claustrophobic feel of Predator’s South American jungle, Trachtenberg wisely leans into the gorgeous expanse of the Great Plains. Rarely do action movies allow such stunning natural sights to linger, but they provide a memorable contrast to the bursts of no-nonsense violence that erupt when the Predator goes in for the kill. I would never be so gauche as to compare Trachtenberg’s direction to that of infamous naturalist Terrence Malick, but it’s clear Trachtenberg has taken note of how Malick luxuriates in the natural world and had enough vision to apply that to his monster action movie.
He also understands the importance of set-ups and payoffs. While there may be few surprises here for anyone who’s either seen a Predator movie or even just pays half-attention to how movies are structured, the satisfaction with which Trachtenberg and Aison’s script pays off every early set-up cannot be overstated. It’s not quite the efficient marvel that Steven De Souza’s original Predator script is, but it’s within spitting distance.
More than anything I’m sad Prey likely will never be seen theatrically. It was clearly filmed, acted and directed in a way that was meant to be seen as big a screen as possible. Its magnificent score by Sarah Schachner feels and sounds big, clearly intended to be blasted from a huge surround setup. I may understand why it wasn’t put in theaters (thanks to a dangerously diluted brand after decades of poorly received sequels and spinoffs), but that doesn’t make me any less salty about missing out.
Prey is currently streaming for all Hulu subscribers.
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