John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) is rightfully hailed as an action classic, in large part because it successfully uses one genre to disrupt and collapse another. It begins as a story about American commandos heading into the Central American jungle to tackle Soviet-backed insurgents, before making a 90 degree pivot into a thriller about an invisible alien slaughtering the same commandos one-by-one. It also boasts one of Hollywood’s greatest pieces of production design in the Predator itself.
The popularity of the original led to five separate attempts to make sequels, the best of which were partially successful at best (Predator 2, Alien vs Predator) and the worst of which were fundamentally unwatchable (The Predator, AVP Requiem). Director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) has now made a sixth attempt, the Hulu/Disney+ exclusive Prey, and against all odds has achieved something the other five never did: a sequel that actually lives up to the original. It is one of the most enjoyable films I have seen this year.
Predator seems to work best when it follows the model of the original film, which was written by Jim and John Thomas. Predator 2 was deeply flawed, but it achieved a similar effect to the original by throwing a Predator into a Los Angeles gang war. Trachtenberg’s film manages the same feat: the film is set in 18th century North America, and features a stubborn young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) who struggles to gain respect as a hunter – only to encounter a Predator in the wilderness.
There is no need for a lengthier synopsis: Prey is a stripped-down, fast-paced action thriller. It boasts some beautiful cinematography, excellent music, a strong and ethnically-appropriate cast, and some outstanding action scenes and chases. It is unexpectedly bloody too, pushing an envelope that previous Predator sequels have been a little hesitant to try.
Amber Midthunder is an excellent lead as Naru, and does a fine job in a hard role. Most of her scenes capture her either on her own, or hiding from someone else – it is a much trickier task than exchanges of dialogue with another actor giving support. For my money she is up there with the iconic female protagonists of American science fiction-horror: Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor immediately spring to mind. Is Prey quite as accomplished a film as the best of Alien and Terminator? Of course not, but it is a four-star movie to their five stars and that is no small feat, and in no small part due to Midthunder’s talent. She is well-supported too, particularly by newcomer Dakota Beavers as her skilled brother Taabe.
At face value the storyline would seem ridiculous. A Native American going one-on-one against a towering alien hunter, she using an axe and bow and it using the now-familiar variety of technological gadgets and weapons. Patrick Aison’s screenplay – with a story co-written by Trachtenberg – takes its time to build both predator and prey, showing off the strengths and weaknesses of each. By the film’s climax not only is it a more even match than viewers might expect, it feels logical that it is such a close-run thing.