‘Prey’ is a whole new animal

Stone age and space age in one shot. Images courtesy Hulu.

9/10 I was about a month late to the Hulu original Prey, but it’s obvious from the first few seconds that this is one of the best films of the year and almost certainly the best movie in the entire Predator franchise.

The Great Plains, 1719- Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman who dreams of becoming a great hunter, witnesses a Yautja ship descend to Earth, which she interprets as a mythological thunderbird cuing her to prove herself to her tribe by hunting the most dangerous game around. She joins a rescue party searching for a peer who hasn’t returned from such a quest, hoping to kill the mountain lion herself, but she and her tribe mates find themselves prey to something much more dangerous. 

Prey is an absolutely gorgeous ode to the American wilderness. Shot on Stoney Nakoda land west of Calgary at the foot of the Alberta Rockies, director Dan Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter use anamorphic lenses and natural lighting of the 14-15 hour Alberta summer days to tell a story about competing relationships with nature. Prey’s subtext is rich and much more dramatic than its main narrative, and a lot of that is because you can see it – the subtext is the land, and the land is the star of every shot.

There’s been a movement in high-profile 2022 cinema to get back to taking viewers to places we’ve never been before – many of my personal favorites this year, The Batman, The Northman, You Won’t Be Alone, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, they all take viewers on a thorough adventure to another place and time. This is a role of film that Hollywood has seemed to grow lax on, particularly as Disney became dominant over the ‘10s and all their franchises, no matter how far, far away of a galaxy some are set in, started to lose all sense of scale and definition.

Prey takes us somewhere we’ve never been before – somewhere we’ve been infrequently since Westerns fell out of fashion, but that genre is tied to the deserts on the other side of the mountains, not the lush, quiet greenery of the Midwest – but somewhere we’ve never been before in terms of language. This is the first ever Comanche-language feature film, an idea they toyed with at first, but realized during production in English that the best version of the film is in Comanche. The cast, which is full of American Indian actors, got to dub their own characters for the Comanche track.

This is another wonderful choice that suddenly appears to be a trend in 2022. Language, a major environmental factor in any real-life adventure, is also the key to a culture and the ownership of a story. Prey brings a language to the screen that has never been there before – as did You Won’t Be Alone, which resurrected a dead dialect of Macedonian. The forthcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will probably feature at least some Mayan dialogue.

Prey is a snarly, desperate film full of characters who are fighting for their lives. Even in scenes of mass casualties, every background character seems to value their own lives, adding a ton of weight to both action and horror elements.

Against this grand, tameless backdrop, Prey tells a story of intelligence, technology and competing worldviews. All parties are in different millennia of technological development, and they all hunt for different reasons – the encroaching French fur traders slaughter for commoditized body parts, the yautja kills for sport, the Terran predators kill for food and the Comanche kill for a combination of all three. The contrasts drive their conflict in a way that feels natural, as if the film would play out by accident once all of them were in the same area.

This process plays out to some degree in almost every scene once we get going – the predator, searching for the most dangerous game on an unfamiliar planet, observes entire food chains play out at his cloaked feet. He’s visibly dissatisfied with snakes and wolves for their lack of weaponry, but when he discovers humans, the menu ranges from stone arrows to muzzle-loading antiques.

The heroes of the Predator franchise have always had to out-think their highly advanced adversaries, and in addition to its beautiful display of technological disparity, Prey is also adept at visualizing Naru’s thoughts. Her scientific problem-solving approach is both what outcasts her from her peers, who can solve most of their problems by rushing in screaming, and what enables her to defeat the predator, but what makes the movie so powerful is, much like the original Predator, it never cheats on this for a moment. Naru takes losses for most of the film and no one throws her a real lifeline. She does all the mental and physical work to beat the predator herself, and we get to see all of it.

Comparing Predator to the rest of the series isn’t really fair. It’s a very specific reaction to shlocky ‘80s muscle movies that were nearing the end of their run when it came out, but could arguably be seeing a comeback in films like The Northman and The Batman. Other films in the series aren’t nearly as tied to any aesthetic, which is part of why they all fail.

Prey is a different animal altogether, using the conflicts inherent to the Predator mythos to tell a story about human history and how and why violence is used. This is a good film and an important film – any old garbage would become an important film if it had a Comanche language track – and an update to the franchise, both as a sequel and as a new adventure, that makes so much sense it feels like a film that always existed.

Prey is streaming on Hulu. The Comanche language track is a separate stream, not an audio option, you have to look underneath the stream for “Prey (Comanche dub)” to access it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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