Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writer: Patrick Aison, from a story by Aison and Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp, Julian Black Antelope, Stefany Mathias, Bennett Taylor, and Mike Paterson
By Valerie Kalfrin
“Prey” takes no prisoners. One of this summer’s most exhilarating action movies, it both reinvents the “Predator” franchise and layers it with thematic depth, thanks to a taut, character-driven script and well-choreographed action sequences.
Unfortunately, you won’t see it in theaters—at least, as of this review. It debuted this month only on Hulu, where it’s been drawing record viewership for the streaming platform. (Polygon looks at some corporate reasons why “Prey” didn’t receive a theatrical release, although an unknown cast of indigenous actors also might have factored into the mix.)
Yet even if it’s not on the big screen, “Prey” feels big. It has life-or-death stakes, of course, plus lush, naturalistic cinematography emphasizing the harsh, untouched beauty of the Northern Great Plains of 1719. It also has a fierce, intelligent hero who fits right in alongside other brave and resourceful sci-fi women, such as Ellen Ripley of “Alien” (1979), Sarah Connor of the “Terminator” films, and Imperator Furiosa of “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015.)
Naru (Amber Midthunder, TV’s “Roswell, New Mexico”) is a young Comanche woman itching to hunt like her brother, Taabe (newcomer Dakota Beavers), and the other men in her village. Her mother (Michelle Thrush, “Tin Star”) praises her skills with medicine, but Naru would rather use her tomahawk to do what others think she can’t. She whacks it against a tree, marking a goal, then steps back and whirls, flinging it repeatedly until she hits her mark.
Taabe supports his sister’s ambitions. He admires how observant and curious she is, defending her against his peers. Midthunder and Beavers create a believable teasing and affectionate bond, so any hesitation Taabe has about Naru’s hunting boils down to a brother’s loving concern.
When Naru sees red lights in the clouds, she thinks this is the Thunderbird, a sign for her to have her trial by fire, a kühtaamia. Little does she realize this is a spaceship dropping off an extraterrestrial hunter, also eager to prove its worth.
Director Dan Trachtenberg (“The Boys,” “10 Cloverfield Lane”) and screenwriter Patrick Aison (“Treadstone”) refreshingly center the story around Naru, with input from producer Jhane Myers (“However Wide the Sky: Places of Power”). The 1987 original starring Arnold Schwarzenegger already introduced the predator’s camouflage, heat-seeking vision, and brutal drive, so it makes sense to focus on characters encountering this for the first time.
Yet the filmmakers also flip the script in other ways, starting with the title, the first in the series not to use the word predator. Naru’s world is thick with danger, from the natural world to alien forces: the predator (Dane DiLiegro), here with a bare-bones mask and laser-guided arrows, and French trappers, who skin the bison they slay, leaving the precious meat to rot.
Trachtenberg and director of photography Jeff Cutter (“The Boys,” “10 Cloverfield Lane”) use wide and overhead shots to build subtext and suspense. At one point, Naru walks against the flow of the women in her village; at another, she runs from a threat closing fast in the tall grass.
Other subjective camera work highlights hers and the predator’s perspectives. Just as Naru measures the predator’s footprints and tracks it, the predator sizes up a snake, a coyote, and other creatures, working its way up to larger quarry. The action scenes in medium-full and wide shots are thrilling and easy to follow, showing both of these hunters attuned to their surroundings, using whatever’s at their disposal.
The Comanche version (available at the film’s main menu, not among the subtitles) is more immersive, heightening the interplay among the Comanche characters and between Naru and her endearing dog, Sarii. I found the English-language version oddly contemporary in spots, with Comanche words that aren’t translated, even in subtitles. The French dialogue isn’t translated in either version.
Fans of the 1987 film will recognize some callbacks, but they aren’t heavy-handed—and “Prey” proves rich enough to stand on its own. It establishes a rhythm of setups and payoffs, showing how Naru experiments, stumbles, strategizes, and learns throughout the film.
“You think that I am not like you, that I am not a threat,” she says at one point. “But that is what makes me dangerous.”
By the film’s end, we’re left to wonder: Who’s the predator, and who’s the prey?
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