Few major franchises have gone through the tumultuous trajectory of the Predator series. After the success of a first installment being undercut by a slew of disappointingly received sequels, crossovers, and a failed 2018 attempt to reinstate interest in the series, it seemed as if there were few places for the franchise to venture into. Yet, conceived by 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison, Prey arrives with a fresh spin on the franchise’s mythology that hopes to revitalize the series for good.
Distinct from its predecessors in focus, the film centers on Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman living with her tribe in the early eighteenth century. A fierce, driven warrior with impressive hunting talents, Naru finds herself and her skills constantly dismissed by the rest of her tribe, who believe she doesn’t have what it takes to succeed anywhere beyond the home. When she discovers signs of an unknown predator wreaking havoc, she attempts to alert the hunters, only to be ridiculed and dismissed again.
This character-driven conflict takes up much of the film’s first half, an admirable effort that sets it apart from other installments. However, the execution of this conflict is done so with mixed results in Patrick Aison’s screenplay. The passages that focus on Naru’s personal growth and her relationship with her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) successfully flesh out their characters and bring the required depth necessary to connect with their struggles. Beyond Naru and her brother though, most of the characters are thinly drawn, serving only as interchangeable one-note obstacles that repeatedly dismiss her talents, ambitions, and warnings to result in an initial half that can become somewhat repetitive in nature.
With the rest of the hunters failing to heed Naru’s warnings multiple times despite clear danger, they soon find themselves at odds with the predatory creature: an alien armed with technologically advanced weaponry, unlike anything they’ve seen before. By placing the film in an era where the disparity between the Predator’s and the protagonist’s weapons is larger than ever, Trachtenberg and Aison smartly create an impending sense of doom that grants every moment of survival a greater weight. This disparity, with the hunters attempting to use bows and arrows to fight off the Predator (played by Dane DiLiegro in a performance that is both lithe and hulking), has the Comanche hunters outmatched and quickly annihilated with Naru and her brother escaping as the only survivors.
From this moment forward, the film takes Naru through a slew of gripping action sequences and obstacles (including a group of French colonists who capture her) that culminate in a final showdown between the Predator and Naru. With clever setups, stunning cinematography, and a thrillingly breakneck pace, Trachtenberg crafts a variety of environments in which the simplistic conflict can play out in an engaging manner. Despite being an impressive emotional and visual step up from previous installments, Trachtenberg’s direction is unable to elevate certain action sequences beyond the standard expectations for modern action blockbusters, reverting to an over-edited, chaotic form of coverage that dilutes the impact of the final product. Adequately serving its purpose yet never elevating the narrative to its full potential, one can’t help but wonder what a more unique voice could have accomplished with the concept at hand.
Perhaps what truly makes Prey shine is the compelling emotional center formed by Naru’s arc at the film’s heart. Building on her character work in the slower first half, the trajectory of the action skillfully continues the progression of Naru’s arc as we see her gain the confidence necessary to hold her own against the colonists and fight The Predator. Parallel to the tribe’s initial sentiments, both the colonists and the Predator initially dismiss Naru as a non-threat, adding another layer of motivation for Naru to prove her worth by using the underestimation of her opponents to her advantage. In Prey, the story is framed through the lens of a marginalized underdog who is challenged not only by the alien creature, but the stigmatization she faces from those around her. Brought together by a star-making performance from Amber Midthunder, the film succeeds in creating a protagonist with a compelling emotional struggle that sets it apart from those that have come before it.
Prey is ultimately a remarkable improvement from its predecessors to set the stage for a more promising era of the franchise. Trachtenberg’s direction and Aison’s screenplay fall just short of reaching the full potential of their fresh concept, but still manage to craft a solid action thriller with a strong emotional core.
Prey will premiere August 5 exclusively on Hulu.
Photo: David Bukach/2022 20th Century Studios