Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg || Produced by: John Davis Jhane Myers, Marty P. Ewing
Screenplay by: Patrick Aison || Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp, Julian Black Antelope, Bennett Taylor, Dane DiLiegro
Music by: Sarah Schachner || Cinematography: Jeff Cutter || Edited by: Angela M. Catanzaro, Claudia Castello || Country: United States || Language: English, French
Running Time: 100 minutes
After I watched Shane Black’s The Predator (2018) several years ago, I made a sort of unofficial pact with myself to move on from both the Predator (1987, 1990, 2010) and Alien (1979–2017) franchises, as well as any intellectual property (IP) crossovers (e.g. Alien vs Predator [2004, 2007]) thereof in the near or distant future, despite them being my favorite movie series of all time. The Alien and Predator IPs represent the perfect blend of my personal cinephile tastes (e.g. cool creature-designs, biopunk aesthetics, science-fiction horror overtones, violent action filmmaking etc.) with, at least amongst the best entries in the series, great directorial execution of high-concept “B-movie” premises. Like Jaws (1975), The Terminator (1984), Starship Troopers (1997), or Overlord (2018), they’re “B-movies done A,” which is why that 2018 film, the latest and one of the worst sequels to consist solely of B-movie schlock, exhausted the last of my patience.
While this decline in IP quality hasn’t been a straight line of R2 = -1.0, to say the later films never recaptured their franchise’s former glory — despite the never-ending remake machine that is the modern Hollywood zeitgeist — would be putting it mildly. Color me surprised then, when the latest Predator sequel stripped away much of the extraneous, overthought diegetic minutiae that burdened later installments (see also: Halloween ) in favor of a sleek, straightforward transplantation of the titular antagonist to a historical setting: The 18th century American Great Plains.
To say this newest series entry, Prey, wipes the slate clean of all that previous overwritten nonsense would be putting it mildly. Based in part on a minor yet memorable narrative detail from Predator 2 (remember that flintlock pistol Danny Glover was awarded for besting an alien hunter?), Prey reverts the IP back to its roots besides this noteworthy change of scenery (the American frontier generally and the early 1700s Comanche nation more specifically), which adds just enough novelty to distinguish it from a near rehash of the 1987 original.
Prey’s strengths and weaknesses are a function of, I suspect, the degree of creative freedom director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison were allowed. On the one hand, the movie’s setting, narrative scope, cast, and shift in tone from the bloated, nonsensical 2018 Predator are reminiscent of Trachtenberg’s directorial debut (10 Cloverfield Lane ) and utilize the IP’s inherent strengths well; the location-photography in Alberta is convincing and far more immersive than the spotty digital FX (more on those in a second), while castmembers portraying Comanche and European settlers feel archetypal yet rough around the edges in all the right ways. The story itself is patient, well paced, but limited to the point-of-view of our effective, memorable protagonist, Naru (Amber Midthunder), a rebellious adolescent female who challenges the patriarchal mores of both her Comanche tribe and the greater frontier landscape by proving herself as a hunter and warrior. Her chemistry with costar and first-time actor Dakota Beavers in particular is great, particularly once this otherwise formulaic coming-of-age Western is interrupted by a certain extraterrestrial who’s come to earth to hunt big game…
Much like how the original predator and its first sequel were a 1980s commando action movie and a 1990s gritty cop flick invaded by a sci-fi horror monster, respectively, Prey flips its Native American frontier drama upside-down with a slow buildup of camouflaged stalking, nifty bladework, and a well designed humanoid alien suit. That quintessential Predator carnage, once it starts, is reminiscent of the gruesome mayhem of its franchise predecessors while also flaunting a wider range of complex choreography, not to mention a greater percentage of daytime action sequences.
Now for the bad: Prey’s creative yet simple diegesis is cheapened somewhat by its tacky digital cinematography, inconsistent computer generated imagery (CGI), and distracting non-diegetic choice of language. The film’s old-school period setting doesn’t mesh with cinematographer Jeff Cutter’s slick digital camerawork, and instead begs for the grittier, grainier appearance of, say, Super 16 mm film. Even worse are the plethora of CGI wildlife, blood, active camouflage FX, etc. with which Midthunder and the Predator interact, which pulled me out of the narrative even more than the Comanche castmembers’ use of modern English. As much as I appreciate this film’s back-to-basics approach and fun carnage, I remain frustrated at its somewhat airbrushed, studio executive-approved finish. Contrast this mixed style with the authentic, grimy methodology of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), centered around the 15th century pre-Columbian era Mayan civilization, which was shot entirely in its characters’ diegetic language (Yucatec Maya) and utilized a combination of live-animal stunts, puppetry, and animatronics instead of distracting CGI, all for a sizeable yet not bloated budget (~$40 million); or, take the $1.8 million Bone Tomahawk (2015) by Craig Zahler, with its extensive, seamless practical gore FX compared to Prey’s obvious digital bloodwork.
All things considered, I have to report Dan Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison’s latest Hollywood reboot as a success given how it rejuvenated my interest in one of my favorite Hollywood properties. I disagree to a certain extent with Prey’s near spotless critical praise, attributable perhaps to widespread low expectations given the IP’s recent history, because its eyesore digital FX and Discovery Channel-esque camerawork make it look more like a Disney nature show at times than a gritty monster movie set in the 18th century. Then again, its powerful action, foreboding antagonist, and effective characters — Amber Midthunder’s protagonist most of all — take advantage of a streamlined Western premise that plays to the franchise’s biggest strengths.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: In keeping what worked from previous series entries, jettisoning the filler that weighed lesser ones down, and adding just enough creative twists to this standalone adventure, Prey elevates itself to the upper echelons of one of contemporary Hollywood’s most recognizable IPs. Just when I thought I was done with this stupid franchise, to paraphrase Al Pacino, this sequel pulled me back in.
— However… Dan Trachtenberg and director of photography Jeff Cutter’s digital camerawork distract from their film’s period setting more than any comparable film in recent memory, as do the non-diegetic dialogue, cartoonish fake gore, and unacceptable CGI animals.
—> RECOMMENDED; Prey ain’t perfect, but it’s a breathe of fresh air with respect to both its parent franchise and most theatrical genre filmmaking at the moment, so I’ll take it.
? Do the Predators return to the Comanche tribe later and retake that flintlock pistol?
Pingback: ‘Prey’ (2021): Less than the Sum of Its Parts | Express Elevator to Hell - August 27, 2022