Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Prey’ Does Everything Predator did… Better

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Writer: Dan Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison

Stars: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, and Dane DiLiegro

Synopsis: The origin story of the Predator in the world of the Comanche Nation 300 years ago. Naru, a skilled female warrior, fights to protect her tribe against one of the first highly-evolved Predators to land on Earth.

Prey, the prequel to 1987’s Predator, was released on Hulu (or Disney+ via subchannel Star worldwide) this weekend. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), Prey tells the story of a young Comanche woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder), who must defend her village against a foreign alien with advanced technology and a desire to kill anything that moves. This film is a return to form for the franchise, returning to the roots of John McTiernan’s 1987 classic. From the script to the screen, this is a pristine work of art that you must check out. 

Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch in the original, Naru is the anchor to this story, whose own ability to adapt to the situation is tested in every scene. And just as before, there is a tremendous weight placed on Midthunder to make these trials seem believable. To that end, she isn’t just an effective actress in the role, she’s a dominant powerhouse for the film. Whether it’s a tense battle with a lion or a glance across the great Comanche nation, Midthunder accentuates the humanity of Naru in every sequence. The emotional beats land thanks to her stellar performance that makes us feel Naru’s drive for success and acceptance as a hunter in her tribe. And that supercharged performance leads to some of the greatest showdowns in the action-thriller genre, where the audience is fully in tune with Naru’s fight to survive. But it’s not just the action where Midthunder shines. As noted previously, the restful scenes land with added potency thanks to her own serenity in the wild. There’s much to learn about this world, and Midthunder brings that reverence for nature to this role. Compared to every other protagonist from the franchise, Midthunder outshines them all. And thanks to the chemistry between her and fellow Native actor Dakota Beavers, the sibling relationship between Naru and her older brother Taabe soars. Beavers brings in the confidence and wisdom needed to the older brother role, and his screen presence endears us to his character immediately. Added to this is the work of the American Dingo named Coco, who portrays Sarii in the film. Dog trainer Lori Boyle deserves a ton of praise for her work, as Sarii is truly one of the greatest on-screen dogs of all time, working overtime to be cute, loyal, determined and ready to defend Naru against fictional creatures. Coco’s performance against other predators in the wild is so good it convinces you those predators were on screen simultaneously, despite them all being created in post-production through CGI.

These performances are all caught on camera by the director of photography Jeff Cutter, and his work here is simply stunning. Whether it’s a wide shot of the new world or a closeup of a hand axe, the film’s composition is constantly captivating. His implementation of tracking shots and rack focuses constantly move the story forward, pulling the audience into this story. Additionally, the editing of the film allows each shot to stand on its own. Thanks to the use of dolly shots, every scene is able to build energy without the need for fast cutting, and it makes the action bigger and the subtler moments stand out, too. Those subtle moments can be a conversation between Taabe and Naru, but they also are insert shots of objects found in this world. A cigar is given as much importance as the Predator’s weapons, and that drives home the message of this film in powerful ways. 

Adding to all this is Sarah Schachner’s score for Prey, which is propulsive, eerie, and truly transportive. Much like her work on the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Schachner is able to tell so much about a time period just through the instrument selection. The larger role of string instruments, clashing with the many drums, makes this a score to remember. The arrangements tell of the many tones of the pre-colonial Comanche world; it tells of a world with both peace and violence, a world set on survival and remembrance. It’s a score that never forgets the world it’s in, and when foreign invaders arrive, its tone transforms entirely. The instruments remain the same, but the rhythm is completely changed. What was once peaceful with a burst of violence is inverted. It builds apprehension in the downtime, constantly moving forward as if war is all around you. It elevates the terror in each scene in ways few films ever do. 

Adding to that tension is the wonderful soundscape of the film. Whether it’s the work of the foley artists that bring the jungles to life, sound designer James Miller’s mechanical approach to the Predator’s weapon arsenal, Prey sounds stupendous. Every weapon moves with deadly precision in its sound. The bows and axes hit their targets with a satisfying thump, and the muskets and flintlock pistols go off with huge booms, followed by the hilariously long reload of course. And when the hunt has ended, nature begins to breathe in its own rhythm. The rivers, the trees, the wind and the bogs are all present in the film’s mix. Nature isn’t always peaceful, but it’s captivating in all the best ways.

All of those technical elements are nothing without a story. And as with every other element I have mentioned, the story by Patrick Aison and Dan Trachtenberg returns to those very roots that made Predator great. It uses different storytelling techniques, but the core of it remains the same: Use the Predator to comment on historical events and injustices by placing it in a time period and setting filled with heavily skewed power dynamics. In Predator, that setting was the Vietnamese Jungle during the Vietnam war, where the genre twist commented on the horrors of the war for many Americans who went in unprepared for guerilla combat. The Predator was both a symbol of that horror and of the horror of American Interventionism simultaneously. 

Now, in Prey, Trachtenberg and Aison utilize the Comanche nation to comment on the colonization of the New World. The Predator becomes a symbol of much more in this film; it’s a foreign people that invade the territory of others and hunt them for sport with better technology and an unknown language. The monster once again becomes a symbol of injustice in the world and gets to inflict its harsh karma on the colonizers in the process. This symbol is once again made crystal clear, as the screenplay places a heavy emphasis on the colonization of the Comanche nation before we even see the Predator in action.

Of course, adding to all of this is the effortlessly brilliant period design that creates the New World of 1719. Kara Lindstrom’s production design is nothing short of breathtaking, transporting us to that time period through simple yet effective sets. It’s minimal in nature, with Tipis and tents being the largest man-made objects, but when combined with the tree-laden setting it captures this time period better than ever before. And Stephanie Porter’s costumes are equally stunning, giving the needed depth to associate these characters with a culture immediately. Props and makeup are used to great effect, both for the storytelling and for the portrayal of the Comanche people. And that portrayal is truly stellar, as it lets the culture shine through at all moments. Whether it’s a coming-of-age ceremony or the gathering of herbs and medicine, it truly lets those moments shine without talking down to them. This is clearly an effect of having multiple native American and indigenous actors take part in the creation of the film, and more films should strive to tell these stories. 

I loved Prey. I think it’s the best summer “blockbuster” of the year. It’s accessible to all on Disney+/Hulu/Star, and I highly recommend watching the film. It’s also launched with the Comanche dub, which is absolutely stellar and worth checking out. 



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