Should I Watch..? 'Prey' (2022)
Some films are too good to be a digital exclusive. Benjamin Cox examines this latest entry in the 'Predator' franchise and discovers a film that breathes new life into a long-stagnant character.
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What's the big deal?
Prey is an action adventure sci-fi film released onto digital streaming services in 2022 and is the fifth film in the Predator series. The film serves as a prequel of sorts and features a more primitive version of the alien hunter arriving on Earth more than three centuries ago, engaging in a battle of wits with a rebellious female Comanche warrior. The film stars Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp and Dane DiLiegro as the Predator and was directed by Dan Trachtenberg. The film is notable for being released in both English and Comanche with the largely Native American cast all contributing to the Comanche dub. The film was widely praised upon its release by critics, with many commending the film for accurately portraying Comanche characters and their community as well as the film's action, effects, cinematography and the performance of Midthunder. Despite being denied a theatrical release, most critics agree that this is the best film in the series since the first one in 1987 and the first to recapture some of the first film's original concept.
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What's it about?
In the Great Plains of North America back in 1719, young Comanche warrior Naru is frustrated at being seen only as a healer for her tribe. Despite excellent tracking and hunting skills, she is often denied a place during a hunt although her brother Taabe slowly begins to accept the fact that she may be useful. One day while out gathering medical plants, Naru and her dog Sarii witness a strange cloud formation in the sky and Naru interprets this as a vision of a Thunderbird, a sign that she is finally ready to prove herself. After a cougar attacks one of the tribe, Taabe reluctantly agrees to offer Naru a place hunting the creature down in the hopes of catching and killing the creature.
What none of them expect, however, is that the mysterious cloud formation was causing by an alien vessel arriving on Earth. The ship belonged to a race known as the Predators, a highly evolved alien species that hunts for sport and glory and are armed with an array of deadly weapons. As the Predator begins their hunt for a worthy trophy, Naru soon realises that there is something bigger and more dangerous than a cougar in the forest and sets off alone to prove it...
What's to like?
It's perhaps ironic that the last film I watched - John Ford's 1956 western The Searchers - also featured the Comanche although in a far more stereotypical fashion. This is part of what makes Prey so interesting as it's a rare film that portrays a society often demonised by Hollywood over many years. The film goes to great lengths to depict the Comanche as a peaceful people, merely hunting in order to survive as opposed to the 'white man' trappers who hunt for profit or the Predator hunting for sport. All of the cast are Native American and it helps make the film feel even more authentic, as does the clever use of language in the film. When the trappers first appear, they speak a different language to the Comanche (who speak in English in the version I saw) and it makes them feel as inscrutable and unpredictable as the more familiar dreadlocked hunter.
Midthunder is excellent as Naru, the first time a female character has appeared in a Predator film as the lead. She is resourceful, dangerous and captivating in the role, which also allows the character time to develop and grow in the film instead of reducing her to a Pocahontas-type cliché. The film also recaptures much of the spirit of the first film, keeping things simple and intriguing as the story rolls around to the inevitable showdown. The forest setting (which looks fabulous on screen, by the way, thanks to some brilliant camerawork) recalls the steamy jungle setting of the first film but Prey has more than enough nods to other films in the series as well. This is a tense and gripping film that might annoy the purists but is far more successful at reviving the Predator character than any of the other films that followed.
- The Predator in this film, known as Feral Predator, uses technology much simpler than previously seen to reflect the film's chronology. They wear much less armour, the HUD seen is more basic and the weapons are more physical, using metal spears and projectiles instead of futuristic plasma weapons. The bone mask they wear is made from the skull of a River Ghost as seen in the 2010 film Predators.
- Producer Jhane Myers is a member of both the Comanche and Blackfeet Nations and served as a consultant for Trachtenberg. Advising on all matters Comanche, she helped develop a historically-accurate toothbrush Midthunder uses, the style and nature of the costumes and the use of horses in the film, which were not included in the original script. She also helped produce a pipe ceremony on set to bless the production that was attended by most of the cast.
- Although he is 6' 9" tall, DiDiegro is actually among the shorter actors to portray the Predator on screen. Original actor and mime artist Kevin Peter Hall played the creature in the first two films and stood 7' 2" tall. He replaced the diminutive and pre-big-time Jean-Claude Van Damme who was originally cast - it was thought that Van Damme's athleticism would make the creature more of a ninja-type hunter but appearing awkwardly on stilts opposite much larger stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers, it quickly became apparent that Van Damme was not right for the part.
What's not to like?
The film's biggest issue is its exclusivity to digital streaming platforms instead of being granted a cinema release, which would improve the film immeasurably. The stunning vistas, remote locations and blood-soaked action would all look better on the big screen but sadly, audiences will have to make do watching it at home. I must confess that neither Predators or The Predator (the third and fourth films in the series) appeal to me as much as this fifth entry, which at least has the gumption to try and do something new with the franchise and that's commendable. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but I don't recall either of the first two films being quite so gory. The action and fight scenes are bloody, brutal and sometimes uncomfortable to watch but Trachtenberg doesn't let the digital decapitations run away with the film. The violence, however unpalatable it may be to some, is a necessary component of a series such as this and Prey isn't afraid to roll its sleeves up and get dirty.
Apart from a running time that feels a little bit stretched out and the familiar scent of predictability, I can't find much fault with the film. I may even go back and rewatch it via the Comanche dub for that added level of authenticity - some of the English dialogue doesn't feel quite right for the period of history shown. I would have liked to see a bit more of how Naru's fight against her society's gender norms impacted her community as well as a bit less reliance on CG for some of the sequences involving animals (even if I understand why this was necessary). What Prey does brilliantly is recall the struggle at the heart of the first film - humans using their wits and the environment to survive against a technologically advanced hunter - and present it in a new and interesting way. Quite why it has taken so long for a decent sequel to Predator to arrive is, frankly, a bit of a mystery.
Should I watch it?
If you are hesitant about Prey after years of substandard sequels, don't be - this is finally the sequel that Predator has been deserving for all this time. Stripped back and reminiscent of the first film's tone, this is a thrilling and brutal follow-up that demands to be seen on a wider release than being stuck on digital services. Thanks to some wonderful cinematography and a genuinely ground-breaking performance from Amber Midthunder, this film injects new blood and fresh ideas into a series that has long languished in mediocrity. That Dan Trachtenberg knows how to deliver a good film...
Great For: fans of the first Predator film, Native American representation in cinema, Amber Midthunder's career which should rocket after this
Not So Great For: the squeamish, anyone who hasn't seen a Predator film before, anyone who loves dogs too much
What else should I watch?
In terms of the series, the original Predator is hands-down the best of the lot. Thrown into a guerrilla conflict somewhere in South America, Arnie leads his team of ultra-macho commandos into battle against local militia before finding themselves targeted by a technologically-advanced, invisible presence with a talent for ripping out spinal columns. John McTiernan's sweaty action film is still well worth a watch today as it's tense, violent (this is the same McTiernan who directed Die Hard after all) and gives Schwarzenegger all the room in the world to shine as a star. By contrast, each of the sequels got something wrong - Predator 2 moved the action to a gang war in LA for no discernible reason, Predators tried to revive the formula but was far too gung-hu for its own good and The Predator - which brought back former star Shane Black to write and direct - was just your average substandard shooter. Officially, the crossover films Alien vs. Predator and its sequel Requiem aren't included in the Predator series which tells you everything you need to know about those films.
What makes Prey really stand out is the use of Native Americans as leading characters, presenting a view of their society and culture rarely seen on screen before. Prior to this, the only films I could think of to do so were the romantic action film The Last Of The Mohicans and Kevin Costner's western Dances With Wolves - both of which were released back in the early 1990s. Previously, they were nearly always shown as bloodthirsty savages for heroic pioneers and cowboys to overcome as the white men spread ever west. The Searchers is a prime example of this, depicting the Comanche as nothing more than kidnappers, rapists and murderers that a vengeful John Wayne pursues all over the Old West. Thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change and I sincerely hope that Prey isn't the last film of its kind to shine a more respectful light on a long-stigmatised people.
© 2022 Benjamin Cox
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