Going back to my movie obsessed childhood in the ‘80’s, the Predator franchise has played a significant role in my enthusiastic embrace of pop culture. I still distinctly remember scouring an issue of Fangoria magazine (remember that one?) at 10 years old and coming across an article about the make-up effects that the first film boasted in that year of 1987. Now, while I found the write-up cool, what really fascinated little gore-hound me was the images of bloody destruction that this new-at-the-time sci-fi / horror hybrid promised (the image of a laser-gutted Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura still sticks with me). Unfortunately, I was never able to catch the blockbuster on the Big Screen, but a couple years after release, my dad, realizing that his nerdy son would PROBABLY like to see this new killer alien flick, made a point to record it on VHS when it first turned up on the boob tube. Of course it was a heavily edited-for-TV version (though he did manage to cut the stupid-ass, omni-present commercials out), but the bottom line was that I FINALLY got to see (more or less) the movie that many of my geeky little buds had dug into before me.
Dad was right. I DID love it.
Predator is a bad-ass 80’s classic that’s not just another cookie-cutter Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick like so many others he churned out that decade, but instead a masterfully crafted action / science fiction / horror mash-up that, under the assured guidance of director John McTiernan (Die Hard), manages to STILL hold up today, and who’s success at the Box Office guaranteed that the story of the cruel, sophisticated, trophy-hunting alien species would continue…which it did 3 years later with the under-rated, Danny Glover-led Predator 2 in 1990; a rip-roaring sequel that, much like the Alien franchise, I actually find more entertaining than the original (blasphemy, I know!), and further solidified my appreciation for the blossoming franchise.
But strangely enough, instead of striking while the poker was moderately hot, home studio 20th Century Fox (also home to the Alien franchise) did NOT end up moving forward with a 3rd flick in the 1990’s, most likely due to the second film’s approximate $57 million global take on a $35 million budget, which can barely be considered a ‘hit’ (especially when you factor in the usually insane marketing costs). Instead, the stories of the Yautja (the canon-established true name for the ‘predator’ species) retreated into a series of surprisingly cool comic books from publisher Dark Horse and also the video game market.
But alas, no new movies.
Until 2004…when Fox and director Paul WS Anderson (Event Horizon) opted to try their own version of the Alien vs Predator storyline that Dark Horse had run with after Predator 2 had cheekily slipped a ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ Xenomorph skull into a Yautja trophy case. Now for the record, I do NOT consider AvP canon (and the less said about the absolutely horrible 2nd one, the better), more of a cash-grab curiosity that serves as a mildly entertaining ‘what if’ scenario that doesn’t add anything substantial to the overall lore. The middling quality of these two off-shoots left a bad taste in the fan’s mouths and we were left wondering if there was any creative gas left in the Predator tank.
Luckily, in 2010, Fox released the Robert Rodriquez-produced, Nimrod Antal directed Predators (aka Predator 3), which many folks (myself included) saw as a MOSTLY successful course correction. While you can definitely see the obvious influences of, and call-backs to, that which had come before it, I found it to be a cool addition to the franchise that at least attempted to do something a little different with its narrative scenario and didn’t waste my time when I saw it. And it worked, to the tune of $127 million in ticket sales worldwide on a $40 million budget. While not earth-shattering money, it was enough to guarantee more juicy Predator action…which we unfortunately got in 2018.
The Predator was one that I initially had high hopes for, especially since it was being written and helmed by Hollywood wonder-kid writer / director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), who not only was an uncredited writer on the first film…he had the distinction of portraying ‘Hawkins’, the pussy joke spouting ‘nerd’ who ends up being onscreen Predator Victim #1, the first ‘real’ kill in the whole series! It SEEMED like a recipe for success…but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Black severely fucked up his chance to successfully continue the story of the Yautja and, after many Behind the Scenes issues and reshoots, shat out the atrocious garbage movie we ended up with, an entry that I literally find damn near unwatchable, given how stupid and juvenile the final product is.
My hopes for more cool Predator stories sunk to an all-time low, and I wondered just how the hell Fox (now owned by Disney and rebranded as 20th Century Studios) would again course correct after the undeniable disaster that Shane Black’s shitty movie turned out to be.
A couple years ago, I heard through the pop culture grapevine that movement had begun on a new title for the franchise, literally, in the form of a project named Prey. Delving a bit deeper, I discovered that they were planning to do this new addition a bit differently, with it taking place a few hundred years ago and focussing on the Yautja’s first trophy hunting foray Earth-side, as the beast was proposed to run amok through a tribe in the Comanche Nation and was going to feature a female protagonist. Upon learning that, my cynical side kicked in and I wondered just how ‘woke’ they planned to go.
Now this can be a touchy subject, in today’s over PC landscape and while I do agree that certain points of view are now outdated and that certain representations are certainly worthy of expansion and significance, I had to wonder if a Predator movie was really the platform for it, with the potential for obnoxious and on-the-nose messaging looming in the background. On top of that, I also had to question the logic behind making this flick a streaming title only, being made as a Hulu Original, while all the other entries in the franchise, even the pieces of shit that had no business seeing the inside of a theatre, had received the Big Screen exhibition treatment. That strategy seemed like a step down and left the impression of a cheap flick being hastily cobbled together and tossed out there, if for no other reason than possible rights retention. Sort of the digital equivalent of the bargain bin Direct to DVD flicks that you used to find collecting dust at your local video store.
But then it released…and people started talking.
What they had to say was surprising…and encouraging.
SO, on a tipsy Saturday night a week after it dropped, my wife (also a Predator fan) and I plopped our asses down and decided to give this intriguing prequel a day in court.
Prey takes place in North America, circa 1719, and we are introduced to ‘Naru’ (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche girl who yearns to be taken seriously by her tribe as a hunter, not satisfied with being merely a gatherer, as is seemingly expected. There is further incentive in the form of her older brother ‘Taabe’ (Dakota Beavers), a well-regarded hunter / warrior who, as siblings tend to do, mocks her attempts and seeds doubt in her abilities. But ‘Naru’ is determined and, along with her loyal dog ‘Sari’, she trains on her own and, using her intelligence and pluck, devises smarter methods of fighting and hunting, methods that prove invaluable later on. When a member of the tribe goes missing, a mountain lion is suspected and a party is sent to find the young hunter and to kill the threat. Through a series of circumstances, ‘Naru’ finds herself a part of this group and before long, she starts noticing that certain tracks and clues are suggesting that there is more at foot than just a rogue animal on the prowl. And sure enough, the dreadlocked alien creature we all know and love arrives on the scene…and shit gets crazy!
I’m not going to lie…the scuttlebutt about Prey turned out to be correct and I’m super happy for it. This movie is a surprisingly solid addition to the franchise and an overall cool science fiction / horror flick that thankfully does not skimp on the spraying red or subtle and interesting additions to the established canon. I’m also overjoyed to report that the potential ‘woke’ element is NOT exploited and instead we are given a flawed but determined and likeable female protagonist who grows naturally as a character as the narrative unspools, as opposed to being an idealized ‘Mary Sue’ who MUST be respected simply on the merit of her being female. The same also goes with the portrayal of the Comanche tribe / characters. They felt (to Caucasian me, anyway) like real characters who just incidentally happened to be Native American in the particular time period. There didn’t seem to be any overly compensating message focused exclusively on their racial status and history, they were simply a community in the hunting area unfortunately chosen by the creature. If there are ANY stereotypes that could be accused of being heavy-handed, I’d say the near cartoonish portrayal of a group of nefarious French trappers that turn up around the mid-point come the closest. But then the Yautja arrives to the party and fucks them all up in gloriously gruesome fashion…so that’s ok.
On a technical level, Prey is pretty slick. I loved everything to do with the Predator, including the FX changes to its stealth technology, the simplicity of its weapons and the slight adjustments to it’s look, making just a bit more monstrous. It also feels dangerous, whereas some of the previous flicks went so far as to make them borderline friendly with humans. This time this thing comes off like a terrifying force of nature and director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) managed to bring back the horror vibe of the first two flicks, making the Predator something to be genuinely feared by the characters involved. Speaking of Trachtenberg, I found myself appreciating his slick, moody cinematography and pacing, along with a couple effective moments of ‘set-up, pay-off’, something many films today lack. The music, while not iconic or memorable like Alan Silvestri’s classic theme for the first film, was effective and I found myself noticing the robust design of the sound effects throughout the flick’s lean 1 hour 39 minute run-time. We were also quite happy with how the 3rd Act cleverly played out, leading to a satisfyingly earned conclusion.
As Negatives go…I really don’t have any. I think this is as close to the course correction the series needed as we’re going to get and I’m happy with that.
All in all, Prey is a surprising gamble that Disney took and it paid off, in my opinion. It’s a well-constructed and pleasantly lean entry to the franchise that gives us a completely new and interesting setting for the monster to run amok in and unexpected characters who we come to like who must fight to survive the rampage. Those characters are brought to life by a group of Indigenous actors that committed to the material and due to the lack of Star Power (but not talent), BECAME the besieged characters, guiding us through the harrowing narrative with charisma and welcome hints of gravitas.
The progressive side of me also wants to raise a glass to the admittedly brave choice (in these overly racist days of ours, sickening and sad as that is) to populate almost the entirety of a cast from a Big Name and well-established science fiction franchise with actual Native Americans, even going so far as to create a Comanche Language Only version, to which I say…why the hell not?! Positive representation and respect, people! I’d say it’s deserved, and it’s also about damn time.
I’m also pleased to report that Prey embraced the almost exclusively R Rated flavour of the previous entries and didn’t back away from the gruesome, gushing gore that we all secretly watch these for. There are some gnarly kills on display and more than once, our jaws dropped open in morbid delight as peeps got fucked up good. Just what the doctor ordered!
If you’re a fan of the Predator / Alien franchise universe, I’d say you owe it to yourself to check out Prey. Don’t be frightened off by the Streaming Release only status – this is a movie that easily could’ve and should’ve gotten a Big Screen unveiling. The quality, in both story and execution, warrants it and I suspect that it would’ve done well. But regardless, see it on the biggest, loudest system you can, because there’s a lot to love about it. I know that I’ll be seeing it again someday (curious about other Easter Eggs I may have missed) and I’m sure many others will feel them same way if they dive into this one too.