Prey is the best instalment in the Predator franchise; Dan Trachtenberg breathes new life into the franchise by crafting a simple yet fierce and cutthroat action thriller.
After Matt Reeves’ 2008 film, the Cloverfield “franchise” was left to rot. If the studio was going to start anew, it needed something fresh and thrilling to spark the anticipation for more films. So, they chose Dan Trachtenberg for the next installation, 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), but it wasn’t what anyone expected. It wasn’t like the previous one, which primarily focused on creatures that were as tall as skyscrapers. Instead, Trachtenberg wanted to present fear, paranoia, and dread through a claustrophobic setting. He didn’t want to show what was happening on the outside. His emphasis was to build the tension and sense of trepidation in the underground shelter in which the trio of characters was situated. The film acted like a horror-induced play, with little room to play with and a small number of characters. However, Trachtenberg pulled it off and breathed new life into an almost “dead” franchise.
The success of that film is attributed to his unique approach to the Cloverfield story elements, anxiety-inducing set-pieces (both horror and conversational), and slowly showering the screen with the aversion of an apocalyptic outside setting without actually showing it. It is always fascinating when a project takes different paths than what you expected, and it ends up working in full. Once the characters go outside for a couple of minutes in the last act, it doesn’t work that well, but for the most part, it’s a thrilling and entertaining horror-thriller with some sci-fi in its background. Since 2016, I have been waiting for what Dan Trachtenberg would do next, either dealing with another franchise or doing an original story of his own. The years passed, and there was no news on his next feature until 2021. His next project would focus on… the Predator franchise? It seemed odd because the multiple installations in the franchise set around the badass alien creature aren’t that good, even if the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led Predator (1987) is a classic amongst the people.
In fact, most of them are pretty terrible (especially Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). However, if someone could resuscitate that franchise, it would be Trachtenberg. I knew he wasn’t going to take the straightforward Hollywood approach, hence the creation of Prey. Set on the Great Plains in 1719 (three hundred years ago), the film centers around a fierce and highly skilled Comanche warrior named Naru (Amber Midthunder). She tried to prove herself to her camp but was rejected by the men. Her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), tells her that she is not ready to fend for herself. Everyone around her underestimates her. Nonetheless, Naru keeps her head high, practicing every day by hunting and tracking animals, thanks to the help of her trained dog, Sari, and her knack for crafting off-the-cuff trinkets and tactics. One day, Naru hears a weird sound – like thunderous cracking in the sky. She begins to worry once she sees skinned animals all over the plains.
So, in order to prove herself and help her family, Naru embarks on a mission to track down and kill what’s causing all this commotion. She knows that the tables are turning – the hunter is becoming hunted by an alien species with technologically advanced weaponry and arsenal, the Predator. With this simple yet cutthroat and fierce premise, Trachtenberg uses elements that helped elevate the original 1987 hit. Prey embodies the original and embraces the past by referencing it with a couple of nods, like the “if it bleeds, we can kill it” quote. But Prey is still trying to be something of its own – a unique and thrilling entry into a franchise that always replicates itself upon each installation, doing the same thing over and over again. Because of its setting, Trachtenberg had plenty to play with in terms of how he would develop its action and thriller set pieces. One of the critical assets he uses is silence and making sure that the wilderness is treated like a character of its own.
Since nature is one of the main aspects of the narrative, Naru must find a way to use it to her advantage, forcing her to create makeshift traps and weaponry through old-school yet tactical techniques. The throwing axe and quicksand scene is a perfect example of this alliance between nature and old school arsenal. It is evident from the get-go that it will all lead to a confrontation with the “beast”; there’s no denying that. However, the finale is what draws people’s attention – the conclusive altercation between Naru and the Predator, which contains well-crafted and exhilarating action mechanisms and nail-biting sequences. And these sequences of tension and violence are elevated by the cast’s performances, especially Amber Midthunder with her fierce persona, and the cinematography by Jeffer Cutter, who also shot Tractenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. There’s also a pulling sensation of being immersed within the landscape of the great plains due to Sarah Schachner’s pulsing score and the Comanche-language dubbed version of Prey. The Comanche language gives it a broader sense of realism within its sci-fi story – so if you decide to watch this, choose the dubbed version instead.
Prey contains a few faults that take you off the experience for a quick second and diminish its high Predator franchise status a little bit. First and foremost, its lack of practical effects and the occasionally wonky CGI. Because of the well-designed costumes and masks, it makes you reminisce about the old days when you could sense, touch, and smell the creatures. Here, even though the alien creature looks cool, you don’t get that sensation because of its reliability on CGI. Coincidentally, the various animals that appear throughout the movie, the bears, deer, snakes, and rabbits, look floppy and unrealistic to some point. Of course, because Prey is well-shot, acted, and concocted, you are engaged and amused by what’s happening. Yet, there’s something to be said when the first two films of the franchise centered around practical effects and had a more palpable sensation with their various creatures.
One error that Trachtenberg makes early on during the film is letting the audience know what’s “out there” in the wilderness, causing us to be always one step ahead of the characters. That is a crucial factor in a suspense thriller, because you could lose the audience due to predictability. Still, at least the film has you on the edge of your seat – that issue isn’t bothersome this time because of his directorial craftiness. What’s interesting about Prey is that there’s a specter of colonialism present at all times. With the aspect of “hunter vs. hunted”, the predator stands as a camouflaged figure of colonialism during that day and age, and the later addition of the French traders, whose words aren’t translated, adds some layers to that distinction. Prey is at its most fascinating when it tackles the gender dynamics in Naru’s Comanche tribe, as she tries to prove herself by tracking and eventually killing a never-before-seen beast.
As it slowly reaches its endpoint, the movie goes into familiar territory. However, because it is built carefully and tactfully, one remains connected with the characters and goes along on the journey. Although some technical and narrative mishaps hurt the viewing experience by a small inch, Trachtenberg manages to raise the Predator franchise to new heights by making a unique and straightforward movie that’s also resemblant to the originals. In my opinion, it is the best instalment by far. It’s tightly constructed on a cinematic level, which hurts because of contractual means; this will only hit Hulu and won’t have the in-theater experience. The Predator film series has never been a box-office hit. However, if you look at the bright side behind all of this, it will at least have millions of eyes on it. There’s a high probability that plenty of people will bask in it and highly enjoy it. Prey is fierce and cutthroat while traveling some acquainted beats, but it is undoubtedly a badass action-thriller that Trachtenberg and Amber Midthunder carry to high grounds.
Prey is now available to watch on Hulu.