2018’s rampant franchise misfire that was The Predator may now all be a distant memory. Near, as its lack of clarity would shuffle it out of memory instantaneously. Fast forward four years later, anything to follow in its invisible footsteps would be a fresh restart. Never in my mind could that next move would rival its first predecessor. And yet, director Dan Trachtenberg dug deep to find the vulnerable, trembling core of the monster’s influence, pulling it up to the surface. That’s only the first way Prey manages to excel so quickly. And so frustratingly, knowing its deserved audience element is muted by its instant presence on Hulu versus, say, a midnight neighborhood theater crowd.
Further at that center is just where the Predator mentioned above (Dane DeLiegro), an expert on invisibility with a craving for blood, decides to land. The great plains, the early 1700s. At the time of the Comanche tribe, sworn to protect their territory from French settlers looking to seize it. They’re a tight-knit group, rebellious but never reckless. In comes Naru (Amber Midthunder), a headstrong warrior following under the shadows of her more experienced peers, bonding by way of hunting and gathering, working in the background when others are placed in front of a given conflict.
The opportunity arrives to achieve her “kühtaamia”, a benchmark for her skills on the battlefield. A moment where one can hunt who’s hunting them, without realizing it immediately. Much to the dismay of first in command Kehetu (Julian Black Antelope), a leader reluctant to break beyond gender, she buddies up with big brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and the rest of their party to track down a lion. The titular monster from another world who just touched down on their community might have the same plan, with chaos further spreading from there.
Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), with co-writer Patrick Aison (Wayward Pines), proves his eagerness to tear open the barrier and allow for suspense and bedlam to weave together. And all in a historical era and culture inexcusably underrepresented on film. At least, considering accuracy and integrity within ranks. For this group of characters, the Predator might be unlike any negating threat they’d once encountered, adapting faster than they could to bolster slow defenses. But it is a danger, all the same, a target to be eradicated. Trachtenberg never loses sight of that revolving theme, the one thread linking every film in the series before his. Humans battling an antagonist that’s as scary as it is unfamiliar, that’s the familiar thread we know.
What this iteration does to break out of the pack, a concept this franchise has attempted at every turn with inconsistent results is its most refreshing. Trachtenberg’s sense of location defies the desire to play safe for an action movie. No metropolitan hub or humid jungle. Merely a lush backdrop attuned to the earth and those who reside within, versus strange visitors whose instincts prohibit them from learning about the realm they’re encountering in the short-term, only to commit vengeful behavior. That perspective takes a welcome shift in the other direction. Anything to the contrary stays limited to a roving group of fur trappers, popping up as fuel for both the monster and the tribe to fight back. Contrast for the warriors’ mentality, they do not hunt just to hunt, it’s done with respect for their land, for the ecosystem. Neither the predator nor the trappers see it that way. Call it a difference of opinion, one with a spine.
Boiled down, nothing happens senselessly, unless somebody wants it to. From Trachtenberg’s perspective, thankfully, he looks to avoid that. Prey maintains its roots as an action film, albeit with the scope and scale reminiscent of a Cinerama epic (ex: How the West Was Won), and an inhibitory character focus oddly in line with a smaller budget indie. It’s a flexible image he crafts, equal times sweeping and intimate, once more alongside his regular DP Jeff Cutter to embrace every layer of an unspoiled Canadian wilderness. Particularly when the Predator’s on the prowl, the camera moves along with his conquest. And with the warriors, biding their occasion to strike, never without certain moral guidance.
Both Midthunder and Beavers are well versed on that front, not allowing recklessness to creep in while playing the visitors at their game of strategy. Their shared camaraderie is delightfully infectious, commanding like soldiers to a stage. It’s Midthunder, however, who compellingly steals every scene with an oft-acrobatic calm. With little to play off beyond her family, and guide dog Sari (well among the season’s finest film pets), she doubles down on the nonverbal gumption, committing to her sense of leadership without fault. One who guides, solves problems, and challenges the status quo. And with a captive blaze of badassery she leaves in her path, one might add. The work of composer Sarah Schachner (The Lazarus Effect) further envelops that motif of inventive delegation, authentic with both instrumentation and tonality.
I could sense there was still adherence to a rulebook involved, which Trachtenburg agrees to, no matter the fanservice. He does not completely veer off the humanist ideals of the franchise’s predecessors, nor does he lurch in diverting away from familiarity, emboldened by the chance to cover unfamiliar territory for one of Sci-Fi’s dark horses. With what he accomplishes directing Prey, he effectively reawakens Predator’s franchise share, delivering one of the year’s most brilliant action trips, if not also western hybrids. Emphasizing faces and places not often shared on screen, a conflict so hastily overlooked, and role reversals evaluated less-than-subtly, the future looks very bright and menacing. If not also a little stifled by its lack of a theatrical release element. May this gem find its audience, and may they be loud. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Prey streams on Hulu August 5; rated R for strong bloody violence; 99 minutes.