Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
For the most part, gone are the days of action-thrillers with a simple yet effective premise. Once upon a time, the genre thrived in that regard, with groundbreaking examples like First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Robocop (1987), Die Hard (1988), Speed (1994), The Rock (1996) and Face/Off (1997). Not long after that, the genre became fixated on extremely dense, overly complicated storytelling. This isn’t to say one style is better than the other, but there was something highly enjoyable about action films that didn’t waste any time. Additionally we couldn’t even rely on the sequels of these to-the-point thrillers for that type of efficiency, as their respective franchises would get more convoluted with each new entry. So when it was announced that Predator (1987) would be getting a new prequel simply titled Prey (2022), that seemed too good to be true.
Set in the early 1700s, Prey is the story of Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman who has been trained to be her tribe’s healer. This is a dead end for her, as she dreams of being a warrior and hunter like her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). The gender role imposed on Naru by the tribe results in many of the warriors mocking her for her attempts at hunting, and her mother tries to dissuade her from such ambitions. Regardless, she is intent on proving herself, and decides to track, hunt and kill a mysterious animal without the aid of the warriors or her brother. However, this mysterious creature is not from this world, turning out to be the infamous Predator who hunts the deadliest Prey for sport. Naru isn’t strong, nor does she have the greatest weaponry, so it’ll be up to her skills, intelligence and ingenuity if she’s to best the alien.
The original Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John Mctiernan (of Die Hard fame) is an undisputed masterpiece of the action genre. Its script is fairly simple, but it was held aloft by its quotable dialogue, memorable characters, nail-biting tension, imaginative set pieces, clear camerawork, clever direction and escalating narrative development. The deeper into the action we went, the less the film relied on exposition, which made the experience all the more engaging and detailed. Additionally, it was a fun, funny, exhilarating and terrifying ride, making it one of the most re-watchable movies ever made. That kind of brilliance is near-impossible to recreate, which explains why no subsequent Predator film ever came close to the first film’s brilliance. Yet against all odds, Prey has managed to replicate the original’s unique formula almost perfectly.
For starters, a key element to a Predator film’s success is to take a unique setting, fill it with capable, colourful characters, and then drop a Predator in there. The original may as well be a Vietnam War film and Predator 2 (1990) may as well be a detective mystery, yet the villain in both just so happens to be a Predator. While Predator 2 had the right idea, the way it utilised the film noir genre didn’t create the same theme of survivalism (which is the other key element). As such, Prey’s 16th century setting is a stroke of genius, as it forces the heroes to be entirely survivalist. These aren’t muscle bound navy seals with the best weaponry, meaning the action is entirely built around clever tactics instead of explosive fights. Granted, the combat is very visceral, but the grassroots nature of it all makes it surprisingly tasteful even when it’s meant to be gruesome.
While the action definitely ramps up to the highest possible levels by the third act, it’s fascinating to see how introspective, subtle and minimalist the build up is. Naru’s arc drives the entire narrative, resulting in even the smallest moments being layered with character motivation. When the film cuts to an entirely different matter, the action still informs the main conflict in tense, nuanced and visually creative ways. This level of care extends to the period detail, which is shockingly well researched; something we don’t necessarily expect from a straightforward action film. Even the spoken dialogue avoids unnecessary modernisms, despite translating the Comanche language into modern English. In truth, it would’ve been far more impressive if the entire film was spoken entirely in Comanche, but that’s simply one of the genre’s unavoidable constraints.
With that in mind, the action genre hasn’t restricted Prey from being tonally rich. The original Predator is exciting and goofy in equal measure, but Prey successfully goes in a different direction, exhibiting a far more spine-tingling feel. This is achieved through its enjoyable level of dread, which is compounded by Naru’s clear underdog status. In theory, there’s absolutely no way this highly advanced alien threat could lose to a female tribal warrior, resulting in higher levels of narrative tension than any recent action film, let alone any previous Predator film. Consequently, seeing Naru prove to be a match for the terrifying creature is unbelievably satisfying, both in a purely cinematic and an emotional sense.
Obviously, it’s impossible to watch this film and not compare it to the original Predator, as Prey does slightly veer into being a soft remake. While this ensures long time fans will notice the various references and recycled story points, none of it detracts from the main story, allowing for new fans to enjoy the Predator narrative as a fresh experience. In order to give something new to the faithful, many moments subvert the expected plot beats in interesting, fun and sensible ways. Not only does Prey take things back to basics, but it also makes a conscious effort to be as original as possible despite its status as a prequel. From this perspective, Prey is as unique as it can be while still being derivative.
After so many failed attempts at a Predator sequel, the level of catharsis you’d feel after watching Prey is indescribable. Prey is almost the perfect version of exactly what it set out to be, which is also frustrating cos it seems so simple on the surface. Clearly, delivering a great film of this type isn’t as easy as it seems, because it’s taken more than 30 years for anyone to figure out the secret sauce.
Best way to watch it: Without blinking, so you don’t miss a single detail.