In 1987, Predator was a palpable hit for Arnold Schwarzenegger, a sci-fi action adventure so stuffed full of testosterone it felt like it was going to explode off the screen. Its titular villain, an alien hunter sporting dreadlocks and a face like a shellfish casserole, was memorable enough to prompt a series of sequels, each one less satisfying than the last. Eventually, the creature was pitted against the villain from Alien, which really should have been the end of the story. It seems obvious: if you haven’t got anything new to add to a franchise, why bother?
And then writer/director Dan Trachtenberg has a great idea. What if the alien hunter has been around for a long time? What if he visits Earth in the 1700s? What if he has all those same hi-tech weapons at his disposal but his adversaries are native Americans, armed with nothing more deadly than knives, spears, bows and arrows?
It sounds like a brilliant premise and, from the moment I hear about it, I’m in. But annoyingly, Prey doesn’t get a cinematic release and is exclusively shown on Disney+. Which more or less explains how I wind up viewing it months after its initial release.
No matter, late is better than never, right?
This is the story of Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Commanche woman who cannot see why she is expected to stay in the tipi with her mother, Aruka (Michelle Thrush), cooking and being practical, while her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), gets to head off on hunts, killing rabbits and deer for the larder and even taking on the occasional larger animal, like the pesky mountain lion that’s been causing havoc amongst the tribe. Naru practises with her weapons at every opportunity, even devising a brilliant technique employing an axe on a length of home-made rope. She wants to be ready if Taabe ever grants her the opportunity to hunt alongside him.
Then one day she sees something in the sky, something she thinks is a vision of the Thunderbird. Of course, it really marks the arrival of the alien hunter, dropping by for another of his brutal safaris. Pretty soon, he’s attacking and killing everything that moves – and it’s only a matter of time before Naru and he are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival…
There’s so much to enjoy here – Midthunder is terrific in the central role (it will be interesting to see where she goes next) and Jeff Cutter’s sumptuous location cinematography sets the scene perfectly. The action sequences are brilliantly devised and filmed, but, unlike the original film, Prey has plenty to say about the nature of hunting, how different it is when people depend upon it in order to stay alive. This point is eloquently enforced when Naru chances on a whole field of skinned buffalo, the victims of a large group of French hunters, who we meet later in the film and who clearly embody the true nature of savagery. Furthermore, there’s a cleverly constructed plot here. Everything that happens to Naru is shown for reasons that will only become fully evident in the film’s final moments. Keep an eye out for Chekov’s quicksand!
Most critics have placed Prey as the second best film in the Predator franchise, but I’d go further than that. For my money, this effort leaves Arnold’s macho swagger in the dust.