Prey is a distinctly odd movie in that it simultaneously looks fantastic—director Dan Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter know how to frame a shot and pace a sequence—and cheaply ugly, with some truly clunky computer-generated animals through the first hour of the picture. But the beauty and the ugliness mask a larger issue, which is that Prey fundamentally misunderstands why Predator worked so well.
The basic appeal of Predator—and, to varying degrees, the films that followed—is simple: It posits scenarios in which apex human predators are brought into conflict with a nigh-on unstoppable intergalactic hunter loaded with both physical and technological advantages and says, more or less, “lol good luck.” You take human alphas and pit them against the scariest sonsabitches in the universe and see who wins.
This is why the early moments in Predator, in which Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team take out a rebel encampment in Central America with ease, are so important. They establish his bona fides: Here is prey worth an interstellar hunter’s attention. You see it again in Predator 2, which is best understood as an urban crime thriller along the lines of New Jack City that throws a Predator into the mix: Lt. Harrigan (Danny Glover) demonstrates he’s a badass in the urban jungle of Los Angeles in the opening moments by taking on a terrifying gang like he’s Robocop. Predators throws together a series of perfect killers—a cartel hitman; a yakuza; an IDF sniper; et cetera—on an alien planet and pits them against Predators and Predator Dogs. Cool! Even Alien vs. Predator and its sequel are based on this basic idea: What if the Predators trained for their hunts by taking on the perfect killing machine, a double-jawed killer with literal acid for blood?
Prey does not hew to this ideal, and that unbalances the picture somewhat. Protagonist Naru (Amber Midthunder) is not an apex human predator; in the opening moments we see her fail to kill a deer during a hunt. The young men in her tribe deride her efforts to join the hunts; her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), is supportive but unsure she’s ready to take the test to become a warrior. No one believes her when she says that there’s something more dangerous out there than bears and wolves and mountain lions. Even her mother suggests she should apply her talents elsewhere: She’s a skilled healer, why go in for all this warrior nonsense? That’s boy stuff.
As a result, Prey is less about the survival of the fittest and more about proving your friends and family wrong, overcoming their lack of faith in you, showing them that you can, in fact, overcome the category your society has placed you in and Achieve Whatever You Want. I mean, fine, you can make that movie, but that’s not really why this particular series is fun.
There’s a profoundly dumb argument against Prey that goes something like “Well how am I supposed to believe a woman could beat a Predator, lol, she’s just a little girl!” It’s not like Arnold Schwarzenegger beat his foe in a fistfight. But that doesn’t mean that Naru’s characterization isn’t off. Throw a Predator against a tribe of Amazons or Viola Davis’s Woman King or something: perfect, that works. Having it square off against a character who we have no reason to believe is worthy prey portrayed by an actress whose facial tics, particularly in the early going, call to mind Aubrey Plaza ca. Parks and Rec more than a would-be warrior roaming the plains of America as they existed before the westward expansion of Europeans? Well … that doesn’t.
All of which is to say that between the bad computer-generated animals and the fundamental misunderstanding of why these movies work, the first hour is kind of a mess. Luckily, things pick up in the back 40 minutes or so, as the Predator comes up against the true villain of the film: French fur trappers. The sequence in which the intergalactic big-game hunter takes apart these (literally) filthy, cheating hunters is an absolute delight, and Prey’s second half rolls much more smoothly than the first.
Trachtenberg, who shares a story credit with screenwriter Patrick Aison, took away a fundamental lesson from the underrated Predator 2, which is that it’s simply delightful to watch a Predator absolutely destroy a collection of despised outgroup stereotypes. In Predator 2, the outgroup was vicious, drug-dealing Colombian and Jamaican gangbangers. These days, the despised outgroup is Western colonizers. It’s an easy enough, era-appropriate swap, and this bit of audience-approved sadism works as well on the North American plains as it did in a Los Angeles penthouse.
Midthunder is solid in this film when she steers clear of the aforementioned eyerolls, but I feel like Beavers isn’t getting nearly enough credit for his turn as Taabe, stoic warrior and loving brother. To my mind he’s the standout in this film, the squint in his eyes and the calm confidence he exudes harking back to a long line of action heroes. One hopes he’s able to parlay this performance into a long and fruitful career.