The older I get, the more I realize that my taste in movies is probably the direct result of having been raised by people who had absolutely no idea what was appropriate for a child to watch. Some of my earliest, fondest memories as a kid revolve around watching a revolving cavalcade of sex, violence and adult language that I had no business whatsoever experiencing, and yet was earnestly offered by the adults in my life with the same casual indifference as if they were an episode of Sesame Street.
While my mother is guilty of a fair amount of this (seriously Mom, who lets a seven-year-old watch The Ring?), it was my grandparents who were the real culprits. My grandfather was an old-school stoner who never quite left the late 70s, and whose taste in entertainment reflected as such. Comedies were more his speed, with younger me having caught many a glimpse at the expansive Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor backlogs of the era. My grandmother, however, was more into action. God bless her, she loves her some Schwarzenegger, and from a very early age, we bonded over a few select favorites of hers.
Most notably, Predator.
While I think Nana herself is partial to Predator 2 (a totally valid opinion), I still firmly believe that you can’t beat the original classic. I’ve gone on the record before about how much I love that film, from its over-the-top, gory violence to its never-ending parade of quotable one-liners (how can you beat “I ain’t got time to bleed?”), and will defend to the death its place in the pantheon of untouchably-perfect 80s action flicks. It’s perhaps the greatest example of all the era’s best tropes, while at the same time almost lampshading and lampooning them in a subtle fashion by having the biggest, toughest, most protein-fueled men on the planet be systematically slaughtered by a creature they can’t even see.
It’s incredible, and if you haven’t seen it, you and I can’t be friends.
And miraculously, it’s one of the few franchises of the era that didn’t immediately shit the bed with its subsequent sequels. Predator 2 is one of the most unfairly maligned films of all time (Danny Glover’s masterful grasp over looking completely “done with this” is worth the price of admission alone), and Predators is a completely solid semi-reboot that actually manages to make Adrian Brody look tough. Hell, even the non-canon Alien vs Predator offers a level of schlocky, B-movie fun that not many other films can quite match (the less said about its sequel, however, the better). There aren’t many other IP’s that can say the same for that level of mostly-consistent quality. Least of all not the other quintessential Schwarzenegger vehicle, Terminator, wherein the Universe collectively decided that two good movies was all we were ever going get from that particular well, no matter how many times they throw the bucket back down.
Unfortunately, that hot streak came to a resoundingly devastating halt in recent years, with Shane Black’s 2018 travesty The Predator stumbling onto cinema screens like an obnoxious, uninvited relative who just doesn’t know when to leave. You give it the benefit of the doubt, because you grew up together and you love it, but it soon becomes painfully apparent that the years have not been kind to it. It spends the next two hours telling you all about the Joe Rogan podcast and why women are too sensitive these days, before getting drunk and speeding off into the sunset, hopefully managing to not kill anyone in the process.
Seriously, you would think a film made by one of the original stars of the first film, and an accomplished writer, director, and producer in his own right, would be able to produce a semi-competent final product. But no, The Predator is perhaps one of the worst movies I have ever paid money to see, and its resultingly terrible critical and commercial reception seemed, for a time, to have killed off the franchise for good.
And that, dear reader, is precisely why it is such a genuine miracle that, in the year of our Lord 2022, we have not only gotten another new Predator film, but that it’s also genuinely awesome.
I cannot stress to you adequately enough in words how unbelievably pleased I am with Prey. I was a fan of director Dan Trachtenberg’s previous work (with 10 Cloverfield Lane being one of my favorite thrillers of the past decade), and when he was attached to the project, damnit, I dared to hope again. A Facebook message arrives from that same troubled relative, explaining that they’ve cleaned up their act and are in a much better place now. You know it’s a bad idea, you swore you learned your lesson the last time they showed up in your life, but then you remember the good times; And family deserves a shot at redemption, don’t they?
And lo and behold, they walk through your door a changed man. Clean-shaven, polite, and every bit as fun as you remember them being. It’s feels like old times, and for once, you’re happy. That’s how Prey feels, and I absolutely love it.
Prey, at its core, works because it embraces the reason that the original film still holds up so impeccably decades later: Simplicity. While the later films would get bogged down with expanded lore and an increasingly crowded new arsenal of alien antagonists, the 1984 Predator leans one a singular, focused narrative thread: An alien is here to hunt us. That’s it: No frills, no complicated explanations, no one claiming that autism is the next step in human evolution (Shane Black, I will never forgive you). Just an unknown, unseen force of nature doing everything it can to kill you and your friends, while you do your best to survive and fight back. It’s engaging, it’s scary, and it’s exciting as all hell.
Prey knows this, and treats this as its Bible, building its entire narrative and thematic structure around the very same core ideas and primal instincts as its forefather. This is a stripped-down, barebones kind of movie, where it recognizes that the audience doesn’t need protracted exposition or explanation as to why the Predator is here or what it’s doing. There’s no shocking twists to the lore, no misguided ambitions towards reinvention or a desire to make things bigger and better; Just good, old-fashioned man vs alien action.
Well, I say ‘man.’ In actuality, in a franchise first, our protagonist for this installment isn’t a ‘roided-up special forces soldier, or a gritty, hard-boiled LA detective. They aren’t even Adrian Brody. No, this time, our hero is, in fact, a heroine. The film is set in the early 1700s, following the Comanche people of the American Great Plains. This is the franchise finally delivering on a premise teased all the way back in Predator 2, wherein it’s revealed that the titular extraterrestrials have been visiting and hunting on our little blue world for most of human history.
This particular hunt is seen through the eyes of Naru, a young woman being trained as a healer for her tribe, but who has aspirations of joining her older brother and his male compatriots as a warrior. Despite her natural talents, her people constantly doubt her abilities and her potential, leading her to seek out a worthy challenge to prove herself to her family and her tribe. Naturally, this puts her on a direct collision course with The Predator, giving us a classic underdog story as the narrative spine of this particular creature-feature. Naru is played by Legion-alum Amber Midthunder in a genuine star-turn performance that is sure to put her on some studio’s superhero radar sometime soon. She may not be the massive, hulking lump of muscle and testosterone as the usual main characters in a Predator film, but she has every bit the bravado, tenacity, and ingenuity, making her more than worthy as the alien’s most recent adversary.
Her story is grounded and gritty, which fits in perfectly with the franchise’s roots as a tale of impossible survival. She isn’t some unstoppable, plot-armored badass: She takes some licks in this movie. Prey, if nothing else, makes its hero earn their victory through blood, sweat, tears, and more blood. She’s smart, she’s capable, and she definitely ranks up there with Arnold himself as one of the most compelling characters in the series.
Also, she has a dog, and he’s a very, very good boy.
They’re joined by a supporting cast of other fantastic actors, all played by Indigenous performers like Midthunder herself. After my recent rant about Indigenous representation in horror, it was extremely refreshing (and a more than a little vindicating) to see the demographic done right for a change. Although writer/director Trachtenberg himself is a white man, he approached the culture and history of the Comanche people with genuine respect and care, making them the focus of the film rather than an accent or set dressing. There’s even a Comanche dub of the film available! And all of the performers that Trachtenberg found for the film are all genuinely great, making it all the more nonsensical that the rest of Hollywood seems to be hellbent on continuing the narrative that Indigenous actors are nowhere to be found.
A notable highlight among the gallery of talent in Prey is Dakota Beavers, who plays Naru’s brother, Taabe. Beavers plays an endearing, complex character that expertly accents Naru’s own, acting as both a voice of reason and a sympathetic ear without ever straying into archetypes and clichés. He’s also an absolute force of nature when it comes to his physicality, going toe-to-toe with all manner of man, beast, and combination thereof throughout the film. I was absolutely stunned to learn that this was his acting debut, and look forward to seeing where his career goes after this.
Trachtenberg’s dedication to authenticity goes far beyond just his writing and his casting: Visually, the film is a delight. Too often nowadays, real-world location shooting is abandoned in favor of the green-screen or similar simulated environments. And while we’ve come a long way with visual effects technology, there’s still nothing that compares to an actual landscape on screen. Shot in an around Calgary, Prey features some downright gorgeous shots of beautiful, rolling plains and thick, luscious forests. These backdrops make the film seem all the more alive and vibrant, which adds wonderfully to the weight and feel of its setting. Much like the jungle in the original Predator, the setting here is a character too, one that gets just as much care and attention as everyone else. It’s a damn shame this went straight to Hulu, as I’m sure it would have been breathtaking on the big screen.
And while all these details are great, they just make for a good film: Not necessarily a good Predator film. For that, you need a worthy foe, a terrifying, dangerous adversary to stalk and strike at the hero. And boy, does Prey have that in spades. Recent Predator films have kept trying to up the ante by making the Predators larger, or more technologically advanced. This, I think, misses the point of the villains entirely. They’re meant to invoke a primal, physical threat, one that reminds us of, well, predators. As in, natural predators, the sensation of being hunted and killed purely for sport, not for the sake of invasion or anything nebulously sinister or political. The original film’s version of the creature portrayed it as a careful, stealthy tracker, who was smart enough to use tech far beyond our own, but chose to resort to primitive tactics simply for the challenge of it. Later, they’d bafflingly be changed into a race of mad scientists, harvesting our DNA through hunts to improve their own.
Thankfully, Prey leans into the former reading of the characters rather than the latter, bring us back to basics with a lean, mean hunter rather than whatever the hell Shane Black had in mind with his mess of a film. But rather than being just a retread of what worked in the past, Prey also adds its own unique flair to the iconic monster. This is a more primitive, feral Predator, one that serves as a fascinating narrative counterpoint to the Western stereotype of the similarly savage Indian. He’s young, inexperienced, and out to prove himself, just like our protagonist. This Predator is a straight-up brawler, preferring to get up close and personal much more than any other version we’ve seen before, and more than willing to get his hands dirty. We get some absolutely gnarly kills in the film, with it fully embracing its R-rating with some of the most clever and sadistic executions ever featured in the franchise. A good portion of them wouldn’t be amiss in a Mortal Kombat game. It’s visceral, it’s thrilling, and if you’re like me, it’ll have you shouting obscenities at your TV on more than one occasion.
I could go on for ages about this movie. Like I said, I have a nostalgic attachment to this franchise, with memories going back literal decades (geez, I’m getting old). It hurt seeing Predator become a second-rate, forgotten property, having been rightfully written off after a string of low-effort crossovers and bizarrely comedic theatrical misfires, and it genuinely warms my heart to see this new installment getting the praise it so truly deserves. With any luck, Prey can breath some much needed new life into the series.
And on a broader scale, Prey also gives me a little more hope for direct-to-streaming sequels after Netflix’s dismal Texas Chainsaw re-quel from earlier this year. If this means that there’s even a chance that HBO’s upcoming Evil Dead Rise can hold its own against the Raimi classics, then I’ll gladly keep my faith.
See Prey, people! And if you haven’t seen the original Predator either, what’s wrong with you? Go fix that immediately.