The movie "Prey" - reviewed by Dan Webster
Never let it be said that Hollywood is willing to let something go that it considers to be a good thing – at least in terms of box-office potential.
That’s pretty much the only reason why there have been so many films in the “Predator” franchise: Somebody’s looking for a payday. Three sequels followed John McTiernan’s initial 1987 installment: 1990’s “Predator 2,” 2010’s “Predators” and 2018’s “The Predator” – all of which made some money, if not nearly as much above the budget line, proportionally speaking, as McTiernan’s original.
And in terms of critical appraisal? That original “Predator,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, still rates the highest. Why, then, was anyone willing to put money into yet a fifth film?
Well, first of all, director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison came up with an original idea: Instead of another sequel, they planned to make a prequel. And this time, our killer alien from outer space wouldn’t be facing modern military types with automatic weapons but Native American warriors equipped with spears, hatchets, bows and arrows.
Here, though, was the real selling point: Instead of a muscle-bound male as the protagonist, they opted to place a teenage girl at the center of things. A girl, spelled g-r-r-r-l, who is intent on proving her worth in a world that has her consigned from birth to the role of she who fixes food that others have hunted.
The pitch, especially in this “Me, Too” era, worked – though only so well. Following its premiere at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, “Prey” didn’t receive a theatrical release. Instead, the film was – for contractual reasons – consigned to Hulu. So the bad news is that you can’t see it on a big screen.
The good news is that you can see it, as long as you have a Hulu subscription. Which even though I already do, I might have considered signing up for just to see what Trachtenberg has made. After all, in addition to work on such television shows as “The Boys” and “Black Mirror,” his previous feature film, 2016’s “10 Cloverfield Lane,” was a taut little thriller.
Set in the year 1719, “Prey” takes place on America’s Northern Plains. We meet Naru, a girl in her mid-teens played by the appropriately named Amber Midthunder. Though expected to do the chores required of the women in her Comanche tribal band, Naru dreams of being a hunter – and we learn fairly quickly that she not only is adept with a hatchet but also is a seasoned tracker.
That second skill comes in handy when a group of hunters, led by Naru’s older brother Taabe (played by Dakota Beavers), sets out in search of a friend who has been attacked and carried off by a mountain lion. Naru tags along, which doesn’t please the other males of the group – all of whom resent her stepping out of her assigned tribal role.
It is she, though, who first realizes that the real enemy they all face is not the lion, not a ravenous bear nor even the force of French fur-trappers that – in a preview of disasters to come – freely kill and skin as many buffalo as they can find. No, the threat comes from above, in the shape of a hunter-killer shielded by invisibility, aided by a device that recognizes heat signatures and armed with an array of serious weaponry.
So, in a fashion fitting with the “Predator” franchise, the story comes down to whether a young girl can find a way to outsmart such a fearsome foe.
That might not have been enough to carry things had Trachtenberg not been able to shoot much of his film in the wilds of scenic Alberta, Canada. It helped, too, that he has the requisite skills to fashion a narrative that both follows a plot template and gives it a fresh sense of energy.
And let’s give him credit also for managing to make Midthunder’s Naru seem so believable, both in the action sequences – whether fending off men, wild animals or that killer alien – and when she’s required to think her way out of danger.
“Prey,” then, is just the “Predator” film for 2022, a time when an agile brain is clearly more useful than Schwarzenegger swagger.