If there is any film that never should have spawned a franchise, it’s Predator.
Released in 1987 to mostly negative reviews, the original Predator was seen at the time as a derivative, disposable action film substituting special effects for character and gore for intensity, criticisms which can still be given to many films today. Also like many films today, audience consensus differed from that of critics, with the film raking in enough cash that three years later Predator 2 was released. With only the writers returning, the sequel received even worse reviews, earned far less money, and ended the film franchise for several years. Then, for some reason, Fox and writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson, now most known for Resident Evil, another film that never should have become a franchise, decided to crossover two long-dormant creature feature films with Alien vs. Predator, a big dumb movie that three years later, again, received a bigger, dumber sequel in Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. This should have killed the franchise. Yet, like every movie monster, the Predator just kept coming back with 2010’s surprisingly decent Predators, before original cast member turned writer-director Shane Black went for the full reboot with 2018’s The Predator. More remembered for its controversies both on-screen and off, the failure of The Predator killed two planned sequels and the whole franchise.
What most differentiates Prey from these other failed sequels is that it doesn’t try to be a Predator sequel. First, it is a prequel, taking place in 1719, but most of all, it doesn’t try to expand the Predator mythos, nor attempt to recreate the original. Where Predator‘s cheesy one-liners, military worship, over-the-top violence, and oily, hyper-masculine cast (which apparently created the term “manly men”) typified 80’s overabundance, and The Predator‘s snarky, too self-aware humor, sequel bait, and reliance on callbacks and nostalgia is typical of the worst of 2000’s filmmaking, Prey uses the narrative reframing, stripped-down aesthetic, and beautiful cinematography that form the best of 2000’s cinema. In short, Prey is everything a modern Predator movie should be.
As much as Prey‘s story follows Predator, which is as closely as The Force Awakens does A New Hope, the film never feels like it’s relying on the previous work in lieu of creating its own, even limiting the number of callbacks to a single line from the first film and a single prop from the second. Rather than focus on a full team of heavily-trained and even more heavily-armed military commandos, Prey bears down on a single aspiring Comanche hunter nearly two-hundred seventy years before Dutch Schaefer’s “choppa” making the Predator’s technological advantage, and the resourcefulness needed to counter this advantage, even greater. Where Carl Weathers and the two future governors had miniguns and explosives, Naru has her dog Sarii, the bestest girl, and her newest invention: an axe on a rope.
This shift in time proves to be Prey‘s strongest feature in terms of narrative, marketing, and theme. Pushing Predator further into the past allows director Dan Trachtenberg and writer Patrick Aison to stress the difference between hunter and hunted – greater than that between Naru and the rabbits she tracks – thus making the invisible, explosive-tossing, infrared-using “sportsman” an even more insurmountable obstacle. Seeing this Predator tear into the Comanche’s most feared opponent would make for a moment of sheer terror if not for the fact that this is a Predator movie and we pretty well know how these movies turn out, but it still cuts a striking, visceral image. Further, shooting in mostly natural lighting and a low-technology environment, likely kept Prey‘s budget below that of most science fiction-action films without compromising on visual quality with the mountains and rivers of Calgary providing a beautiful tableau onto which blood is spilled. Yet, the most notable aspect of Prey is also that for which it will draw the most meaningless criticism.
Let’s admit it, an action movie can’t have a female lead without cries of “feminism,” “forced female empowerment” or “woke-ism,” and even the mouth-breather nickname of “PredaHER.” Nor can a film focus on a non-white population without further cries of “reverse racism,” “alienating white audiences,” and even more “woke-ism.” Let’s also admit, Prey would not be getting this level of attention or praise if not for its lead character and setting. The fact that the film chose a female lead when it could have had a male lead without much alteration lends it a thematic element that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Naru’s intelligence and determination throughout the film make her transition from aspiring hunter to worthy adversary entirely believable. She isn’t stronger than the Predator, none of the franchise’s human characters ever have been, but she’s adaptive, cunning, and under-estimated, all of which make her a more compelling character than yet another team of manly men would be. What’s more, the film isn’t built entirely around the idea of busting out of gender norms; rather, that element, along with a minor stab at colonialism, is there for those who want it to be. Even without this theme, Prey is still a strong, well-crafted action film, with all the brutality and psychological horror required of a Predator entry. If absolutely nothing else, Naru offers an outstanding opportunity for Amber Midthunder, whose performance is equal parts beautiful, strong, and compassionate, a combination which could never describe the male leads in any other Predator film.
Another noted choice in Prey is the decision to create both English and Comanche dubs of the films. Trouble with the English version is that in the reality of this world we are to assume Comanche equals English, thus every word from the lead characters should be in English with none of the Comanche dialogue. Admirable as it is to include some non-translated statements, using both languages means that the native characters choose to speak primarily in English even among themselves. This is, of course, a common error when films with non-English speaking characters use an accent or select words from their mother tongue. The problem for Prey increases when non-English, non-Comanche characters enter speaking a language that, at least in the version I watched, was not subtitled in English (it was subtitled in its own language, which allowed me and my novice level of knowledge to understand it). It’s wonderful that the producers made a Comanche version of the film, and with a conversion to black-and-white would make Prey a believable arthouse film, however mixing both languages in one dub breaks the verisimilitude the procedures sought by using the native tongue. All the same, “What’s that?” “No!” and “Ahhhhhh!” need no translation.
Prey isn’t a great film. But neither is Predator. Divorced from nostalgia, the original is a very basic action movie. There’s little to no story or character development, a predictable structure, laughable levels of gore, and several scenes and one-liners would be ridiculed if they’d been made in the age of social media. Yet, for what it is and what it wants to be, the film is now considered a classic. It’s a cheesy action movie that doesn’t want to be anything more than a cheesy action movie. Part of Prey‘s strength it is that it too doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. While some viewers may want to attach extra meaning to it, just as they did with the original, the film itself doesn’t spend any of its lean runtime attempting to delve any deeper than this is what is happening to these characters at this time. Contrary to some critics and even its own marketing, Prey doesn’t have a grand message. Nor does it need one. It’s a tightly-woven, skillfully filmed, tense, at times brutal action movie. It has a compelling lead and a threatening villain and that’s all it needs. From characters to craft, storytelling to special effects, for what it is and what it want to be, Prey is the superior film. If there is any film that is far better than the franchise from which it spawned, it’s Prey. Maybe in time, it too will be considered a classic.