Let’s start this review of “Prey” with a scalding hot take: almost every movie in the “Predator” franchise is actually good. “Predator” is obviously a classic. “Predator 2” is a new take on the concept, and Danny Glover should have received all the awards in the world for his performance in that film. “Alien vs. Predator” is fantastically gothic and features some of the best action sequences the genre has ever seen. “AVP: Requiem” has good stuff in it, but unfortunately, it’s too dark for us to see. If some good Samaritan gets their hands on the original print and color-grades it properly, maybe we’ll be able to see its brilliance. The cast of “Predators” alone makes it a grand entry. The action is like icing on the cake. Let’s not talk about “The Predator” (hence, the “almost”). And now, there’s “Prey,” which is so awesome that it gives the original a run for its money.
Directed and co-written by Dan Trachtenberg, along with co-writer Patrick Aison, “Prey” takes place in September 1719 on the Northern Great Plains. It follows Naru (Amber Midthunder), a member of a Comanche tribe who aspires to be a hunter. But, since she’s a girl, she’s expected to cook food, and clean hides like the rest of the women in their society do. One day, a member of their tribe goes missing, and she goes along with her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), and his rescue team, only to realize that there’s something unnatural roaming around in the forest. That’s right! A Predator (Dane DiLiegro) has landed, and he’s meticulously researching the territory to find out who is at the top of the food chain. When Naru becomes adamant about proving her eagerness to be a hunter, she unintentionally goes out looking for the Predator. However, the closer she gets to it, she understands that she has clearly bitten off more than she can chew.
Dan Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison understand the simple magic of set-ups and pay-offs, both in terms of story and action. Naru’s entire journey is synonymous with a coming-of-age movie. It just happens to be set in 1719 and has a Predator in it. She’s determined, observant, and talented. But since Taabe’s ego gets in her way, she never gets to complete the task that’ll allow her to prove to her tribe that she’s the best of the best. That’s the set-up. The pay-off for that is Taabe’s realization that he has been a thorn in Naru’s path to glory and that he needs to step aside so that Naru can fulfill her destiny. On the micro-scale, Naru uses the bait and kill method to maim the lion. Once Taabe tells her that it’s a successful method, she uses it again to take on the Predator. Heck, even the framing and lighting of those two scenes are similar to indicate what is being echoed and how far Naru has come.
There aren’t a lot of twists because there’s not a lot to hide once you know it’s a “Predator” movie. So, Trachtenberg uses the time that could’ve been wasted in setting up a mystery angle to set up satisfying action scenes. And the subversions lie in those set-ups. For example, we all know that mud cools down the body and prevents the Predator from locating its prey with its heat vision. That’s why when Naru falls into a mud pit, we think it’s a reference to the first film, and this is where Naru is going to notice the Predator for the first time and understand its whole shtick. But nothing of that sort happens, and it seems like a throwaway scene. In reality, it’s not. It’s the set-up for the final altercation with the Predator, and the cooling agent is actually rooted in Naru’s medical skills instead of a silly in-franchise callback. The only thing that’s better than that set-up and pay-off is the way Naru uses the Predator’s helmet and projectile weapon on it.
On a technical level, “Prey” is masterful. Trachtenberg, along with cinematographer Jeff Cutter, production designer Kara Lindstrom, supervising art director Kendelle Elliott, and the sound design, special effects, visual effects, costume design, make-up, and location management departments, bring a sense of tangibility that’s becoming absent from modern tent-pole films. They all feel like they are happening in a vacuum in some parking lot. Every “Predator” film (escape the 2018 one) has a distinct sense of place. So does “Prey.” Once you are in the forest, you feel transported to those woods. You can hear everything that’s fluttering ever-so-slightly. That automatically forces you to get closer to the screen and scan it to see if you can notice the Predator before Naru does, thereby putting you in her shoes. Claudia Castello and Angela M. Catanzaro’s editing is sublime in the quieter scenes as well as in the action set-pieces. Sarah Schachner walks the line between being operatic and limiting herself to the dim beats of percussion instruments. It’s all so good, so atmospheric, and so engaging.
This brings us to the performance. Let’s give it up for Amber Midthunder. Right? She truly deserves all the applause in the world for being at the helm of this film with such confidence and poise. It’s undoubtedly a very physically demanding role. And while her stunt double (Tammy Nera) must have done a lot of the heavy-lifting during the action scenes, she seems to be pulling her weight through claustrophobia-inducing mud, scarily dark forests, and mountainous pathways. The award for the best supporting actor goes to Dane DiLiegro as the Predator. It’s not necessarily a complex character. But it is malevolent as hell. Which is something that DiLiegro aptly conveys with his physicality, the way he waits for his victims, and the way he rejoices after a kill. Dakota Beavers is a strong and important element in this film, and his familial relationship with Amber is palpable. Stormee Kipp, Bennett Taylor, Tymon Carter, and Corvin Mack do a great job of getting killed by the Predator. In fact, every stunt person who gets killed by the Predator deserves a shout-out.
In conclusion, “Prey” is tied for first place with “Predator” as the best “Predator” movie and is definitely one of the best movies of the year. It is one of the best movies to grace the action, horror, and science-fiction genres. And it’s an utter shame that we are watching this on our small screens. I want to avoid going into a rant about the state of film distribution after the Disney takeover. But that’ll give this positive review a negative tinge. So, let’s not go there. Instead, here’s what I will say. Gather your friends, your family, your extended family, and anyone who has watched “Predator.” Rent a projector and a good sound system. Maybe cook some snacks or order them. Emulate the theatrical experience because that’s how this humdinger of a film is meant to be consumed. If that’s too much work, get a pair of noise-canceling headphones, take Dan Trachtenberg’s hand, and lose yourself in the hunt.