If you’ve camped or hiked in a forest past dark without an electronic light then you already know the night woods are creepy as f*ck. Shadows are deeper. Noises are louder. A porcupine sounds like a bear, and a bear could be a few feet away and you’d never know unless it felt peckish. In the absence of technology, we’re simply another vulnerable animal, prey for any carnivore more determined than ourselves. But for thousands of years, squishy humans have used every tool at our disposal to fight back against the predators that find us easy pickings. For Naru (Amber Midthunder, Legion), an early 18th-century Comanche woman and hopeful hunter, there could be no greater calling. But her tribe and even her family think she’s unsuited for it and push her to become a healer until an alien hunter threatens them all.
Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane, The Boys) creates a tense and mostly satisfying adventure yarn set against the glorious backdrop of the Great Plains back when massive buffalo herds roamed and filthy French fur traders wandered down from Canada. If it weren’t for the spaceship and 7-foot Predator stalking a local Comanche tribe this would be your average dimestore novel, probably with green pages and that fantastic old pulp paper smell. But there is a Predator, tall and lean and more savage in appearance than the 20th-century hunts we’ve seen in movies past.
Amber Midthunder’s Naru makes for an excellent protagonist, as determined to defeat traditional gender roles as she is her green-blooded adversary. She longs to be a hunter and protector of her tribe. But knowing when to strike is as important as how. As Naru’s brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) makes plain, hesitation means going hungry or falling victim to the mountain lions or grizzlies that claim the same territory. Naru’s drive to excel puts her and her canine companion Sarii (Coco) in harm’s way time and again, but her ambition never wavers despite several failures and the derision of the tribe’s hunters like Wasape (Stormee Kipp). Her willingness to think outside the box and seeming vulnerability work to her advantage when the Predator, a hunter of hunters, makes his appearance. She’s well-versed in survival and natural medicine and understands the value of a proper ambush.
The rest of the cast is quite good as well. Taabe, Wasape, and mother Aruka (Michelle Thrush) are the only other characters to get any development, but they are great in their roles. As many others have said, the Comanche dub is great and you owe it to the cast to give it a try. I wish with every fiber of my being they’d been able to film in Comanche. The perfect audio quality makes it obvious it’s recorded in a studio instead of the open air, and it’s distracting. But I’m not complaining; there’s no way studio execs would’ve allowed Trachtenberg to film entirely in Comanche. It’s a miracle they had the opportunity to create such a fantastic dub.
10 Cloverfield Lane proved how good Dan Trachtenberg is at ratcheting up the tension, and he uses that to great effect here. Naru’s tribe feels as much a part of the landscape as any hawk or tree. They fit in. The French, by comparison, are as alien as the Predator, great sweating, stinking killers that slaughter herds of buffalo for their skins and tongues, leaving the meat to rot. Their language is as incomprehensible as the Predator’s clicks and growls — more, if you’re a French speaker and are confused by the actors speaking Québécois rather than the traditional version. Their iron traps, muzzleloaders, and paper cartridges may enable the mass killing of indigenous species and peoples, but against the Predator’s advanced technology they may as well be slingshots. In almost every instance, the guns are worse than useless thanks to their slow rate of fire and tendency to fail. The alien killer has a glorious array of weaponry this time around, from its laser-guided bolt-thrower to collapsible metal spears and a shield capable of cutting through stone. The 6’9 Dane DiLiegro playing the role has great physicality and all the prosthetics don’t seem to slow him down as he charges through the forest. The mix of practical effects and CGI work well, and he’s extremely intimidating onscreen.
That’s about the only place the CGI works, however, which brings me to my one big complaint about Prey. It’s set on the Great Plains. There are mountains and forests and, even in 2022, boundless wildlife. So why would you CGI every single animal you put on the screen? I understand you can’t let real grizzly bears or mountain lions attack actors any more thanks to lame-ass contracts and “the safety of our cast and crew.” But why am I looking at a fake mule deer 3 minutes in? Why is there the fakest hawk I’ve ever seen flying across the sky 6 minutes in? I assume it’s a financial decision, but if I took a camera and 300mm lens outdoors today I could get you stock footage of a red-tailed hawk in an empty sky within a few hours and for a lot less money than it takes to create one. Pay a falconer to toss his bird up in the sky and you could get it even faster. It feeds into what Andrew said about Nope, and reports coming out of Marvel and others about visual effects artists delivering subpar results thanks to overwork and poor compensation. Wildlife photography and animal handling take skill and patience, and it’s disappointing to see them cast aside for shoddy CGI work. There’s no reason a 2022 hawk should look as bad as Harry Potter’s Hedwig. There’s something sadly ironic about highlighting the disconnect between white folks and wildlife in a movie that only uses CGI animals, apart from Sarii.
My other few issues with Prey are minor. The mountain lion hunting scene isn’t great; the CGI is bad and I have trouble believing experienced hunters would chat so much while they wait for a predator to strike. The Predator has multiple opportunities to kill Naru but chooses not to because she’s not a threat — fair, but she keeps showing up, and the alien hunter is not a dummy. You’d think the third time he caught her with killers he’d finally do her in. Maybe we all look alike in heat vision and he doesn’t know it’s her? And I feel like the script could have gotten the point across that the tribe doesn’t believe in Naru’s hunting prowess without calling it out so many times that it feels like filler. Again, these are small complaints and, apart from the bad animal CGI, don’t detract from a great movie.
I loved Prey. Violent, gory, tense, and — apart from the CGI wildlife — beautifully shot, it’s easily the best Predator movie since the original. By stripping the Predator’s story to the bone and adding the friction between Indigenous peoples and European colonizers, Dan Trachtenberg creates a taut story of hunter vs. hunter vs. hunter. It’s very effective, and I’d love to see similar stories set in other pre-industrial cultures worldwide. Who doesn’t want to watch the Predator stalk Polynesian sailors from island to island, or take on armored knights from medieval England? The possibilities are endless!
Prey is available now on Hulu in both English and Comanche.