The Predator franchise has been an odd mismatch of different ideas since the 1987 original mixed together action, sci-fi, and horror slashers to create a pop culture staple that’s still standing strong today. John McTiernan’s tale of survival against an unstoppable, unseeable, technologically advanced enemy holds both a legacy and a level of quality that only appears to have gotten stronger with time despite sequels and spin-offs of diminishing returns. Perhaps it’s due in part to the surprising fact that over the course of 35 years, there have only been five main Predator films now with the inclusion of Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey – an exceptionally modest sum compared to the action movie franchises of today.
Only three years after Predator hit theaters, Predator 2 switched things up by moving from the jungles of Central America to the urban jungle of Los Angeles. With a less hyper-masculine but equally as fun cast, the sequel had the right idea to bring together different genre elements once again, leaning more into the Predator’s slasher side (the subway scene is the film’s high point), incorporating gang wars, hotshot cops, and even a bit of mysticism and futurism into its plot. Still, it simply doesn’t compare to the original and is held back by a noisy and muddled third act. Audiences at the time seemed to agree, as the film made less at the box office despite costing more and the franchise would mostly lay dormant for nearly two decades.
After the cross-franchise indulgence of two Alien vs. Predator movies in the 2000s (the first of which has a charming novelty to it while the second is just plain horrid), a third film titled Predators pitted a new ensemble cast against the extraterrestrial hunters once again. In a simple yet clever twist, the humans are taken to an entirely different planet to be killed for sport and get caught in the middle of two competing tribes. Though a strong premise and talented cast still doesn’t make Predators all that engaging or very interesting. It’s a sleeker film than Predator 2 and was a bigger box office success but still feels like the more forgettable of the two. 2018’s The Predator, the fourth in the series, is the textbook definition of a mess.
The question of how to make another great Predator movie or whether it’s even possible at all has now been hanging in the air for over three decades, but the answer appears to have finally arrived with Prey. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, who turned heads with his own genre mashup in 10 Cloverfield Lane, and with a script written by him and Patrick Aison, Prey takes the series back to its adrenalizing survival roots and delivers a lean, mean, and badass thrill ride that very quickly sails past its predecessors to become a genuinely worthy follow up to McTiernan’s original film.
Set centuries in the past, Prey follows a young Comanche woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder). Skilled with a tomahawk that she whips around on a rope and always accompanied by her faithful dog, Naru has aspirations to become a respected warrior among her people. She looks up to her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who we see complete a rite of passage with a successful hunt that Naru failed at. She decides to set out on her own, unbeknownst to her that a visitor from beyond the stars has arrived to prove themselves in the same way.
Prey’s distinct setting is not only an inspired choice on its own but is also one of the ways the film brings the series back to some of its original ideas. We’re now back in a completely natural setting (the jungle swapped out for the forest this time around) and back to exploring humanity devoid of advanced weaponry, much like Arnold Schwartzenegger’s final Tarzan-like brawl against the Predator in the first film. Themes of literal predator vs prey dynamics are made all the more blatant with shots dedicated to seeing an ant getting eaten by a mouse, that’s then eaten by a snake, and so on and so forth.
The Predator in this film (played with refreshingly genuine menace by Dane DiLiegro) is also stripped back in its technology. While it still has its iconic camouflage and laser sights, it’s not equipped with any kind of energy weapons. Instead, it’s armed with projectiles and a killer set of claws that it whips out for close combat. Again, it’s an inspired creative choice that’s not simply cool and different but also in line with the film’s themes. Naru and the Predator act as parallels to each other in more ways than one as they face off.
But what really sets Prey apart from the majority of the franchise is the simple fact that Trachtenberg directs the hell out of it. The tension is wonderfully built up, the action is ferocious, and every frame looks gorgeous; the film certainly holds some of the very best imagery of the franchise. A scene of Naru trying to free herself from a bog has just as much effective intensity as a scene where the Predator is after someone, and the film never shies away from its more grisly bouts of violence. A certain sequence involving a bear and another of three male warriors taking on the Predator are standout moments. Like the original film, Prey could play just as strongly as a pure silent film; its visual-driven storytelling is exceptional.
Dan Trachtenberg also delivers on a tight, fast-paced runtime and continues to be proficient at setups and payoffs in his story. However, Prey getting things rolling pretty quickly makes you long for a bit more time with Naru back in her village to further establish her life and relationships with everyone, and none of the characters are really given the chance to actually grapple with the ramifications of what they’re experiencing. The film’s second half isn’t quite as engaging as its first, although it does manage to bring things back with a strong finale.
Watching the film in English takes a bit of getting used to, as obviously these characters wouldn’t be speaking English at all. In fact, it pretty much goes against the film’s own themes of anti-colonialism, but thankfully there is in fact a Comanche language dub available on Hulu with all original actors coming back to perform their own lines – the first time in history this has been done. It probably feels a bit more correct to enjoy Prey in that version, which you’ll certainly want to do so immediately after watching it in English. Prey is the first Predator sequel (well, prequel) that demands a rewatch, and the most inspired and thrilling the franchise has been since Arnold first trekked into that jungle in ‘87. Don’t sleep on it.