The further you go back in time, the more practical physical strength becomes. When the elements conspired against decent living conditions and lions roamed the outskirts of villages and trees needed chopping for basic warmth, you wanted to be strong enough to defend your little square of the universe. Transplanting the world of Predator to such a time as 1719 North America (as out-of-place text clarifies at the beginning), Prey buys into more than it bargained for. The extremes of machoism stretched into a parody of Hollywood hero-worship, examined through soldier’s honor and socially condoned bloodlust – that’s what Predator (1987) did to the action movie genre. But in this new context, bloodlust is a virtue, a genuine tool of survival. The heroine can become as glamorously violent as a Predator and the film still reads as a believe-in-yourself story. Disney’s funding (it's technically a Disney series after the Fox merger) has contributed to turning the ultimate counterargument to fighting into a self-help text about fighting back. Without even a whiff of satire, this makes its carnage more condonable (and carnage has its moments!). But it also makes it more typical.
The period shift is an inspired choice to make Prey bleed with some new blood, at last giving the original film’s colonial connotations a more complete diagnosis. In the context of 1700s America, the Predator represents more of what the world already contains, rather than a uniquely evil cosmic entity (the film’s most recognizable point of interest is that the Comanche tribe is already preparing to leave their lands in response to invaders before the Predator even arrives). This symmetry provides the film with some justification for its violence as a form of violent rebellion. But Prey is not as dramatically cut-throat as it appears to be, a burden that falls on Patrick Aison’s screenplay (his first after writing four episodes of four different shows). Territorial systems, each with uniquely violent rites of passage, exist in a three-way conflict in Prey, yet none are explored in enough detail to make sense of the comparison beyond the most superficial equivalency. The universality of ritual is one of the major themes of the entire Predator concept, after all. Prey acknowledges this but only on its way to gory catharsis (the crushing detail-orientation of Apocalypto provides one example of how much more alive a period can feel by spending more time on cultural particulars).
The Comanche language, dubbed in later, helps the film maintain some authenticity (Hulu released the dubbed cut in tandem with the English one). Yet the dub comes at the price of immersion since the actors spoke English on the set; tragically, the more genuine language has a less consistent visual. Hulu also included only Closed Caption subtitles, which interrupt moments of atmosphere-building with little reminders such as [ax thumping] or [dog snuffling expectantly]. The combination of distractions turns the choice of which cut to watch, which should be a no-brainer, into a personal one. Director Dan Trachtenberg ably adapts his claustrophobic senses to the outdoors while reigning in a diffuse series into this 99-minute set-piece, delivering some of what he did with 10 Cloverfield Lane – an honest, standalone resurrection of a series’ interest. But it should have been recorded in the language best able to tell its story.
Adding to the frustration of observing a visually engaging movie that talks itself out of its own atmosphere, the characters lack urgency (in either language), as though they are all as secretly familiar with Predators as the audience. When two trapped characters helplessly watch the Predator eviscerate a hunting party, they talk plausibly about their escape; not even their heart rate seems elevated. It would be like Marion and Indy watching the Nazis get their spiritual comeuppance at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and chatting about their next move. Prey thankfully doesn’t have any out-of-place humorous asides, which is refreshing in the age of MCU quipsters (it’s even farther removed from the SNL smirking of Shane Black’s The Predator than the first film). But their emotional stability rarely cracks away to reveal a thump of tension or even one good scream. For regular viewers of the genre, it's all very casual.
The Predator appears often but without heft compared to Amber Midthunder's weighty presence in nearly every frame. They mismanaged the drama of the monster's image as though there was no reason to hide what everyone already knows (an effective scene where the Predator fights a bear would have been a perfect first reveal). A humanizing closeup of the monster could have added much-needed presence to an ambiguous face, but the camera never lingers, giving him so little personality (less than any predator in the series) that the characters may not even know that it has one. This nonchalant feeling comes partly from the overuse of CGI touchups on an effect that at one point appears to have been fully practical. These manipulations are expected in a blockbuster, but they're even more out-of-place in 1719 than in another film. The effects struggle overall to clarify what Stan Winson and co. accomplished with brutal tangibility in the first two films (even these animals would be right at home in the “live-action” Jungle Book). And subjective believability is not the only issue. While animation effectively extends some of the Predator's features, such as its improbably muscular calves and throbbing throat, its change in proportion to look less human also makes it less relatable. Remember that in this series, the humanity in the monster was not only practical – it was also thematic. For this monster, practical realism is more important than distended jaws or shiny teeth.
The vibrant outdoor photography is an exciting reaffirmation of talent by Jeff Cutter, who translates his sickly-claustrophobic palette in 10 Cloverfield Lane to the American frontier with grace (especially in shots over Midthunder's shoulder). But like the effects, his work is often too clean to sell the period. Sarah Schachner’s score slips in and out of the film without incident, lacking the memorable highs of Silvestri’s theme work but servicing the action well enough. Despite its airy atmosphere and potential grandeur, or even the work of its hard-hitting fighters (Midthunder really sells those hand-to-hand encounters), Prey feels paced with pieces missing, as though it's never clear where everyone is until a scene needs them all together. Even the final confrontation begins by seeing the Predator “over there” on a whim – the film’s dramatic cycle leaves gaps in its single-minded quest to "get to it," pitting Naru (Midthunder) against one random threat after another like pop-up surprises in a theme park ride (Snakes! Bears! Quicksand!). In comparison, the original film's pacing broke necks and sawed through bone while still managing to find more downtime than Prey, even with characters whose heart was presented as satirical.
The switch in title from Predator to Prey signals a change in the thematic direction of the series, evoked by the protagonist’s switch in gender but capitalized by the colonialist setting. If the series up to this point has been an action-packed parable of cautionary violence that accidentally dips into empowerment, Prey intends explicitly to be empowering. That in itself is a viable ambition. But visual overstatement makes the point seem like a self-contradiction when compared to the series' past by turning a character with a genuine historical plight (regardless of her abilities) into someone who can slit jugular veins while spinning into impaling someone else’s liver and splitting them down the ridge of their brain in one continuous motion, showcased by clean, perfect frames "augmented" by visual effects (and a noticeably more muscular stunt double). She's as brutal as any alien monster, her only flaw being that she lacks the chance to "prove herself," though the film barely acknowledges the potential thematic connection between her badassery and the Predator's. Even more bafflingly, the monster seems like a praise-worthy character at times, as the film takes its time with his enticingly gooey murders in slow-motion sequences seemingly designed to help fans catch every detail with the overstated glee of those "vs" horror movies. “You think I am not a threat,” Naru assures, “That is what makes me dangerous.” Like many fans of Predator, the character mistakes capability for virtue, and like many Hollywood reboots, such as the ill-fated Mulan (2020), the film uses a personal affirmation as a thematic smokescreen to avoid deeper issues like the limit to how proud a protagonist of a Predator movie can be about their capacity for violence before they become a cautionary tale.
The question of whether Prey's changes work as extensions or reductions of the series’ themes is worthy of a post-movie discussion but too big for an underachieving screenplay. It tries to move a satire to a new setting while paradoxically making not only the protagonists but even the Predator itself more obliviously badass than ever before, which was the point of contention of Predator from the very beginning ("If it bleeds, we can kill it" even makes a thunderously awkward reappearance, this time read as a statement of resourcefulness instead of overconfidence). Even the film's most ambiguous actions feel more worthy of applause than terror, not only by an audience hungry for catharsis but by a screenplay hoping to scrape by without having its catharsis examined.
Disney’s habit of turning anything it owns into a self-help narrative makes a more awkward transition to Predator than to the average intellectual property. Remember that the Predator itself is the ultimate advocate of self-help. No change in scenery and no amount of Naru's powerhouse facial expressions can buff up narrative content that misses a point even Alien vs Predator was smart enough to make: that if the Predator was real, he’d be proud of her too.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Studios