Letterboxd Review: Prey (2022)

Consider the last few weeks, in terms of straight-to-streaming, at-home blockbusters. Netflix spent $200 million to give audiences a movie that was trying desperately to fill the void of five different kinds of action flicks, and succeeded in none of them. HBO Max just up and decided to indefinitely shelf their big $90 million comic book action property. Meanwhile, Hulu releases this elegantly simple, rip-roaring good time for likely a fraction of the cost and it becomes the most watched, most acclaimed thing on their platform. Hmm. Almost like building a movie to be a movie instead of the launch pad for a cinematic universe yields a better final product.

While 1987's Predator was clever and unassuming, keeping the majority of its screen time reserved for the titular monster's mayhem, it also relies heavily on the charisma of its action figure cast, and the broken expectations when their squad of invincible commandos are stopped dead in their tracks by something more bloodthirsty than them. Then, as the years wore on and Predator expanded into a "licensed property," a content generator, we learned more about the alien race and their devotion to big game hunting, more and more bombastic and ludicrous gadgetry, and some sort of genetic enhancement plot meant to build a new trilogy...or something. Ugh.

Thankfully, director Dan Trachtenberg has spent a few years developing Prey, a bold new addition to the Predator family that has a clever remedy for the bloatedness of the latter days of the series. Set three hundred years ago in the Great Plains, the new film retains the mystery of the original and dispenses with the need for lore or self-conscious wisecracks. Instead, it takes its time building the life of its central protagonist and allowing the audience to invest in her goals before shattering her world with the interstellar manifest destiny of a Predator ship, and the arrival of another hunter intent on playing the most dangerous game. There's very little dialogue, but plenty of time spent filling out the world with lingering dread and small spikes of adrenaline before isolating us in the adventure. There's something to be said about returning the Predator to his roots as an invader. An unwelcome trespasser using superior firepower to reduce people to trophy game.

Because the movie is such a big swing tonally, Trachtenberg is able to submerge an audience in a plot similarly as straightforward as the original Predator and just as engaging. Amber Midthunder plays Naru, a Comanche girl who dutifully gathers herbs and mixes medicines while insisting that she can become a great hunter alongside her brother Taabe. When the Predator drops in and begins slaughtering everything from rattlesnakes to a camp full of French fur-trappers, Naru prepares to hunt the hunter. It's a refreshing and relevant new take on the basic Predator plot, and the authentic use of Comanche culture, specifically the K├╝htaamia coming-of-age ritual (the hunting of something that can hunt you right back), lends an emotional depth to what would otherwise simply be a kick-ass adventure. I opted to watch the film with the all-Comanche dub of the movie, and I can't recommend it enough, by the way.

Midthunder absolutely pops as Naru, capturing the character's strong will to defy expectations along with her determination to survive. Despite lots of wholly unsurprising online claptrap about literally any female protagonist being somehow unqualified to lead a fight against a respectable movie monster, Midthunder excels here at both the physical demands of being a full-fledged action hero as well as just a captivating presence on camera, making the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton proud. She also has excellent chemistry with on-screen brother Dakota Beavers, who gets his own moments to shine as a young man balancing his respect for his sister's skills with his tribe's gender norms and expectations of him as a leader. I'd be remiss if I didn't also praise the American dingo who plays Naru's dog Sarii. She is, in fact, a very dang good girl.

Trachtenberg made a name for himself with the similarly-themed 10 Cloverfield Lane, a claustrophobic paranoid thriller with its own fierce young woman at the center of the plot. Now, with the opportunity to shoot the Calgary wilderness instead of a dank cellar, the director and his returning cinematographer Jeff Cutter gleefully feed the audience as much production value as possible, capturing their natural setting in as many western-inspired vistas and omniscient, malevolent aerial drone shots as possible. It inspires a feeling of vulnerability and dread in the vastness of the open wilderness, and the depth of field is an intimidating display. That's just the background; the foreground is filled with some of the gnarliest kills the franchise has ever had, as well as some impressive axe-throwing skills from Naru. While the menagerie of CGI animated critters that run afoul of Naru and the Predator aren't going to win any special effects awards, I can certainly appreciate how ridiculous it is to expect a real-life bear or rattlesnake to fit into the fast-paced fight choreography and eventual firefights.

Many viewers this last week stared longingly at this excellent movie and said "Damn, this should have been a theatrical release." I wonder...would we have gotten this movie? Would a theatrically released sci-fi action movie meant for all four quadrants have been allowed to live the life of a Comanche woman--played by a lesser known actress--for thirty minutes before getting to the fireworks factory? Could such a movie let the Predator build up his presence in the form of several pulse-pounding attacks before actually coming face to face with human resistance? Do the monolithic media corporations allow their precious intellectual properties to sit and establish a tone like this one anymore? I submit if Prey were churned through the amount of test audiences and studio notes deemed necessary for a theatrical release, it would not be as terrific as it is, and it certainly wouldn't be a box office smash. Instead, we get one of the best movies of the summer, and it gets to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond...an apex predator among its streaming brethren.

Rating: ✰✰✰✰ 1/2

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

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