TEXAS, USA — Amid their disemboweling thrills and head-splattering horrors, the “Predator” films make for a hell of a funny ongoing cinematic experiment; the idea that hapless humans could ever stand much of a chance against overpowered walking arsenals constantly taunting their targets is good for comedy of the cruelest kind, right up to when they get their comeuppance at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a xenomorph or a deus ex grenade.
For 35 years the action-thriller franchise has managed to exploit that cosmic joke, sometimes to glorious ends and sometimes to baffling ones. The punchline’s effectiveness lies closer to the former in “Prey,” the seventh film to feature the dreadlocked hunters and the one to stretch that joke to its logical limits by putting them in the ring not against Gatling-gun-toting mercenaries, but the axe-wielding Comanche warriors of the early 1700s.
By all accounts it should be a tune-up compared to what we’ve seen from one of movie history’s most iconic hunters. But neither he nor fans of the series are likely expecting the punch-up in human drama attempted by director Dan Trachtenberg and his co-writer, Patrick Aison, who place the alien on a collision course with Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche huntress hungry to prove herself against doubters—both in her tribe and in an audience skeptical that this long-running premise has room for something as elegant as a genuine character arc.
It’s a pivotal recalculation, and one that brings the series closer, if not fully into, the contemporary action-movie ethos of shoot-first, reflect later. The uncompromising weirdness of 2010’s “Predators” remains a better match for the series’ trademark callousness (and the less said about Shane Black’s 2018 offering “The Predator,” the better), but “Prey” deserves at least some credit for introducing gritted-teeth drama to the equation without getting its own credibility ripped out by its spine in the process. It may not be entirely accurate to say Naru has got the most at stake of any Predatagonist when they’re all at risk of being torn apart or blown up, but then Trachtenberg and Aison’s script makes a more intentional effort at characterization than the past six movies combined.
It’s compelling, for one thing, that the hero this time around is a heroine. Herself a Native American, Midthunder’s pint-sized bravura sizes up well to a familiar formula about young scavengers reaching for more than they’re fated for. In the process, Naru brings the “Predator” movies all the way back around – and more explicitly than ever – to being about the limits of masculinity. Those ideas have always been elemental and under the surface, and “Prey” runs the risk of clashing against itself by bringing them to the fore.
Credit to Midthunder, then, and the young actress's sheer expressiveness that helps her navigate some clumsy dialogue and skeletal plotting; by movie’s end, she’s tapped into a reservoir of primal power deep enough to create the strongest glint of catharsis these movies have yet to see.
"Prey,” as these movies eventually do, gets appropriately blunt and bloody, though it trudges through tough narrative territory on the way to a bombastically fun showdown. While Naru locates her spark, the Predator lurks on the periphery, spending much of the movie’s first half showing off how much more convincing his invisibility VFX are compared to when he was stalking Schwarzenegger (and, because this is implied to be partially a story about the ET hunter’s first visit to Earth, patience is demanded on the part of franchise veterans while it easily dispatches snakes and wolves). The neon-green blood glows brighter and the Wolverine-esque claws feel sharper than ever in “Prey,” but it isn’t until Naru finally confronts her foe that we’re fully reminded why these movies remain attractive in an increasingly bloodless Hollywood era.
More encouragingly, “Prey” recontextualizes the franchise’s potential with its setting. Trachtenberg makes the most of the opportunity, emphasizing the natural world of 18th-century North America with the same atmospheric gusto with which he grinded blood-churning suspense from confined spaces in his 2016 thriller “10 Cloverfield Lane.” It’s a small wonder that the Marvel Studios machine hasn’t subsumed his talents thus far, but if he continues building his career by taking familiar IP and giving them a jolt – and, in the case of “Prey,” more blood and guts than we’ve seen in 14 years of MCU fare – then Hollywood’s worst recycling habits will at least be that much easier to endure.
"Prey" is rated R for strong bloody violence. It's availble to stream on Hulu Friday. Runtime: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro, Stormee Kipp.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg; written by Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison.
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