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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Prey"

In the realm of long-running sci-fi action properties, the Predator franchise doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Sure, it hasn’t produced a film with the gothic artistry of Alien, or with the high-tech cleverness of the first two Terminator movies. But for a series that specializes in big, dumb, explosive set pieces, each outing finds new ways to subvert the formula.

The original Predator, released in 1987 and directed by John McTiernan, is a guts-and-gristle jungle thriller pitting Arnold Schwarzenegger against an intergalactic hunter with infrared sight, the power invisibility and super strength. Predator 2 brought the creature to 1990s L.A., where it became embroiled in gang warfare, and 2010’s Predators dropped a team of soldiers and convicts onto a strange planet where they her hunted by Predators.

(The less said about the Alien vs. Predator subseries and Shane Black’s pathetic 2018 reboot, the better.)

The latest Predator film, titled Prey, returns the franchise to its lean, mean roots. It is relentlessly paced and minimally plotted. It doesn’t have much time for dialogue or supporting characters. It clocks in at a tight 90 minutes. It is as single-minded in its pursuits as the Predator itself, and those pursuits are geysers of blood, a whole lot of severed limbs and a decapitation or three.

This time, the action is set in the early 18th century on the Great Northern Plains, where a group of Comanche Indians have settled. Our hero is a teenage girl named Naru (Amber Midthunder), who wants to be a hunter-gatherer, much to the chagrin of the men around her. When it’s discovered that there’s a mountain lion stalking the homestead, Naru heads out with her dog to prove her mettle. That’s when she runs afoul of the Predator, which has traveled to an era that doesn’t have machine guns or soldiers in high-tech tactical gear.

For awhile, most of Naru’s greatest threats are the wilderness itself — roaring rivers, sucking bogs, wild animals — and that’s before we’re introduced to the French fur trappers, whose muskets and nets are no match for the Predator’s claws and blades.

The original Predator, which remains the high-water mark of the series, was so comically macho that its entire essence has been distilled into a popular internet meme of Schwarzenegger’s and Carl Weathers’ sweaty, bulging biceps in close-up. The testosterone and semi-automatic gunfire of the Schwarzenegger universe have, in Prey, been replaced with pre-colonial technology, and with a female protagonist who at times functions as a rebuke to the roided-out, teeth-gnashing action heroes of yore. Amber Midthunder, best known for TV series like Legion and Roswell, New Mexico, is a terrific anchor for this story, too, and she’s tasked with creating an appealing, believable character through sheer physicality.

Prey was directed and co-written by Dan Trachtenberg, who debuted in 2016 with 10 Cloverfield Lane, another glossed-up B-movie riff that shook up a seemingly dead franchise. At a time when so many properties are being resurrected — and when so many of those resurrected properties are then weighed down by needlessly byzantine lore — it’s refreshing to see one that’s an exciting, no-frills genre exercise and nothing more. Prey learned a lesson from the best of its predecessors: It gets in, it gets the job done, and then it gets out.

Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.