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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema, German Cinema

‘Prey’ (2021): Less than the Sum of Its Parts

Directed by: Thomas Sieben || Produced by: Sonja Ewers, Barbara Mientus

Screenplay by: Thomas Sieben, Sonja Ewers || Starring: David Kross, Hanno Koffler, Maria Ehrich, Robert Finster, Yung Ngo

Music by: Michael Kamm, Maximilian Stephan || Cinematography: Andreas Berger || Edited by: Robert Rzesacz || Country: Germany || Language: German

Running Time: 87 minutes

Over the past several years (~2018-2022), I’ve reviewed more Netflix and streaming exclusive titles — films, long-running series, or limited series produced and/or distributed by streaming video on demand (SVOD) services — than I have theatrical releases. My reasons for doing so are numerous and somewhat unrelated, ranging from my disinterest in most contemporary high-concept Hollywood blockbusters, superhero movies (e.g. the Marvel Cinematic Universe [2008-2019], Warner Bros’ DC Extended Universe [2013-]) and the generic Fast and Furious (2001-) franchise least of all, to the veritable death of mid-budgeted movies at the box office to Hollywood’s reluctance to produce adult-oriented, violent action films since at least the mid-2000s, to the sheer variety of titles offered by and the convenience of SVOD services themselves. As much as Netflix favored quantity over quality of exclusive titles (i.e. Netflix Originals) and despite some notable exceptions to the aforementioned trends at the theatrical box office (e.g. John Wick [2014, 2017, 2019], Overlord [2018]) these past few years, I found way more types of auteur-driven movies (i.e. films based on a director’s vision rather than a studio executive committee or focus group) I liked online than I saw in theatres.

The sheer convenience of high-quality film consumption via SVOD made even the chance of watching bland, forgettable titles so much “lower risk” than seeing a bad movie in theatres. Mediocre to poor films like today’s subject, Thomas Sieben’s Prey, feel so harmless given the ease of access offered by Netflix et al. that they are more or less in one ear, out the other even if they’re a disappointment to watch. Prey, not to be confused with Dan Trachtenberg’s upcoming latest installment in the Predator (19872018) franchise of the same name, set for release on Hulu — not theatres — later in 2022, is a recent low-budget outdoor thriller distributed by Netflix. With a few tweaks in direction and another script rewrite, Prey could’ve been another high-octane survival adventure like so many common to SVOD platforms today, but as it stands, is a misguided genre film that wallows in needless cynicism, unlikable characters, and a shortchanged antagonist.

What I like about Prey is similar to what I enjoy about most independently produced SVOD exclusives and low to mid-budgeted genre pictures on Netflix, such as its great location-photography (Saxon Switzerland National Park, Germany), effective, suspense-driven cinematography, and fun premise. To elaborate on the latter point, Prey feels like a combination of David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) and the Swedish film, Red Dot (2021), whereby a group of adult friends embark on an outdoor hike that goes to hell once an enigmatic shooter starts hunting them. This minimalist premise has been a common setup of low-budget cinema for decades and continues to survive almost entirely online today, but Prey fails to take advantage of this high-concept idea thanks to problems with both its screenplay and direction.

Top: Our principal cast take cover behind their vehicle after their first encounter with a cryptic sniper. Middle: Our shooter becomes the hunted as protagonist David Kross approaches Maria Ehrich from behind. Bottom: Our survivors take a brief respite from the ongoing carnage when the script tells them to.

For one, our principal cast of 30-something men are all unlikable or uninteresting save for our protagonist, David Kross, whose engagement they’re celebrating at the story’s outset. The supporting actors all have lackluster, forced chemistry with one another, where their casual banter feels cornball and like film students wrote them. The group immediately starts to turn on one another after their initial encounter with an unseen sniper (Maria Ehrich), to the point where their melodramatic arguments feel like contrived means to generate artificial tension and fill screentime (the movie is only 87 minutes long). Almost none of their interactions feel realistic, least of all the unnecessary flashback sequences that depict (spoilers… I guess) Kross’ protagonist’s brother (Hanno Koffler) sleeping with Kross’ fiancé (Livia Mathes), which adds nothing of substance to the primary conflict of the movie. While I didn’t approve of the melodramatic revelation central to the story of Red Dot, a film with a similar premise, at least the chemistry between that film’s male (Anastasios Soulis) and female (Nanna Blondell) leads was effective, their characters likable, and their backstory critical to the main plot. Prey can’t manage even those features.

The film’s bleak, depressing tone is a function of this needless, unrealistic interpersonal conflict, when the heightened survivalist premise of the movie should be more than enough to sustain narrative tension. Instead of investing energy in rooting for our characters’ life-or-death decisions, the fun of which peaks through on occasion despite Prey’s misguided backstory, the viewer is forced to endure scene after scene of superfluous character arguments and gross overuse of dialogue. Most frustrating of all may be Ehrich’s intimidating antagonist, who commands considerable screen presence but whose motivation for hunting down our main cast is weak at best and nonsensical at worst. She has zero dialogue, while her character’s final actions end the story on a sour note.

I’ve been a cheerleader for many of Netflix’s Original Films and Limited Series because, despite the glut of content and the platform’s lackadaisical marketing of all but its biggest projects, the SVOD service provides a distribution network and, in some cases, production outlet for many mid-budgeted genre projects that would have no place in today’s theatrical landscape. That does not ignore, however, the fact that many of these “Netflix exclusives (or exclusives on rival platforms)” are as bad as typical Hollywood blockbusters. The saving grace of filler movies like Thomas Sieben’s Prey is that they’re at least the product of an artistic vision rather than market-tested, corporate committee groupthink; yet none of that excuses Prey’s distracting dialogue, manufactured character drama, pointless flashback sequences, and underutilized villain.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As nice as the scenery is and as much as I enjoy a good, old-fashioned survival thriller set in the great outdoors, Prey somehow overthinks its simple premise by overwriting its characters, their motivations, and their dialogue. The movie’s filler, even at less than 90 minutes in total length, undoes the great meat of its concept.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED; try a real camping trip instead.

? I’ve always felt that sleeping with your family’s significant others is one step away from incest.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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