I think at this point, I’ve come to realize that I was not exposed to a lot of the 1980s action franchises. I mean, I’ve seen “Die Hard,” and “The Terminator,” but outside of the latter, I was never indoctrinated into the world of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action movies of the 1980s with posters that are interchangeable in my mind. The likes of “Raw Deal,” “Commando,” and even “Predator” look the same in my mind with Schwarzenegger’s massive biceps front and center and him holding a gun. Of course, it’s hard to not be in the film industry without hearing “Get to the Choppa,” so rest assured I am aware of that iconic line. But I just haven’t seen any of the films in full, they never interested me. So with all of that said, “Prey,” the latest film in the “Predator” franchise, piqued my interest as it’s a prequel to the four later entries into the franchise. As a newbie to the franchise, did “Prey” do enough to convert me into a die-hard fan of this franchise? Not necessarily — in fact, I’m quite unchanged by the experience — but I’m not opposed to more with lead actress Amber Midthunder.
In the Comachache Nation in the 1700s, “Prey” follows Naru (Midthunder), a skilled warrior who finds herself predator to prey that is a highly-evolved alien that has found its way to earth.
The first act of “Prey” is very methodical. While generating some of the film’s best imagery — more on that in a second — much of the first hour of the film is just everyone being an asshole to Naru, including her brother (Dakota Beavers). At one point, her brother tells her, “You tried, you couldn’t bring it home.” Sure, gender norms 300 years ago were far different than today, but the idea Naru is constantly told to stay back — despite her clearly being more skilled than any of the neanderthals in her pack — is asinine. Clearly, Naru is not like other tribe members and not only wants to hunt but is fully capable.
But Amber Midthunder rises above the mediocre script that includes a callback to the original “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” (said by her brother). Midthunder is an intriguing prospect with her performance here, and it’ll surely get her work above back-to-back roles in 2021 Liam Neeson action films. It’s clear that Midthunder is the brightest part of the cast, and she plays the part of sensible badass so well.
Right from the very first shot, “Prey” felt a lot different than what I pictured a film in the “Predator” franchise looks like. Sure, there are the scenes that take place in the wilderness, but director Dan Trachtenberg (“10 Cloverfield Lane”) and cinematographer Jeff Cutter — who also worked on Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane — have shot a very beautiful film. The openness of the mountain setting is one to behold, and some of the open landscape captured plays into the strengths of Sarah Schachner’s score. The score just has these ancient, spiritual, and tribal sounds that make for an entrancing score that is more than just wallpaper to the film.
Also very different from the other “Predator” films is the design of the titular predator. It’s understandable to want to differentiate your iteration — especially a prequel made over three decades after the original — and change the character design. But even I, someone who has never seen a “Predator” film in full, felt that the design was off. For starters, the “mask,” or face-covering that the predator dons in “Prey” looks more like the old dried-out mushrooms in my garden with a hint of the “Quiet Place” creatures — the predator here also shares the sound design with the “Quiet Place” creatures. Say what you will about the original (and dare I said, iconic) predator design, but it was distinctive. Doing a simple Google search shows that beneath the mask, the predators look comparable, so I’ll give a pass on that, but the helmet that even I recognized is completely swapped out for the mushroom mask. The fact that I can’t even think of a greater description tells you all that you need to know about the design; it’s just forgettable. Oh, and remember that NFL game that was broadcast on Nickelodeon? The CGI slime makes its return in “Prey,” as anytime the predator bleeds, it oozes green slime that instantly brought my mind back to the only game Mitch Trubisky won an MVP.
But this raises the question of what’s more subtle, “Prey’s” predator vs. prey metaphor or the green slime? I’ll leave that up to you, but it’s a shame that “Prey” doesn’t trust the viewer to understand the very basic concept of the survival of the fittest. Images of certain creatures eating another and then the cycle continuing, mixed with the repeated game of cat and mouse that the characters play in the third act make for a metaphor that is as clear as daylight with no explanation needed.
To wrap up positively, “Prey” is a film of really good parts (Midthunder, the score, the cinematography) that left me feeling indifferent. It should be given credit for making the franchise very digestible — I never felt lost watching it — but the methodical first act slowly devolves into a bland first hour of the film. Only the last 30 minutes really ramp it up and bring the kick-ass action that is unfortunately so sparse early on. I don’t know if the comparisons to “The Revenant” are completely valid; sure, the films bear some resemblance, but these are distinctly different films. Trachtenberg did enough with “Prey” that I’d entrust him with entertaining me for another 90 minutes in a sequel. “Prey” is fine as a prequel to the well-known franchise, but perhaps treating this as more of a reboot could serve it well down the line. It’s hard to imagine that in 2022, a film like “Prey” that is above-average in terms of quality, would fail to get a sequel greenlit (though you never know considering a $90 million film just got canned), and the fact that you have over 200 years of time to tell stories in before reaching the timeline of the first “Predator” film means that the world is your oyster (though I’d recommend bringing Midthunder back assuming she’s game).
“Prey” will be available to stream on Disney+