The new Predator film, Prey, has one of the best bear scenes in recent action-movie memory. A huge, scarred grizzly traps and harasses the movie’s teenage protagonist, Naru (Amber Midthunder), and her dog. This bear is incredibly fast—like real bears are!—and absolutely terrifying. Naru is done for—until a certain alien in a shimmering invisibility suit lifts the bear’s body up into the air like a stuffie, and the creature starts to look quite small—and dead—in comparison.
Filmed in Alberta, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in the Stoney Nakoda Nation, Prey, a prequel about a 1719 encounter between a Comanche band and a visiting Predator, takes full advantage of its gorgeous location and the charismatic megafauna (mountain lion! wolf! snake!) living there. One of the film’s producers, Jhane Myers, is a member of the Comanche and Blackfeet nations, the cast is mostly Native actors, and the visuals and music and material culture of the movie were created with Native involvement. (The Native characters mostly speak in English, but there is a Comanche-language dub of the film available on Hulu.) All of this adds up to a very interesting, unusually intentionally constructed background for the latest installment in a science-fiction story about alien visitors who see Earth as a hunting ground.
Some have called this “the first good Predator movie in almost forty years,” but that’s not quite fair. This franchise is extremely tonally uneven, it’s true. Arnold’s Predator (1987), the classic jungle story, gave us “if it bleeds, we can kill it,” not to mention “CIA got you pushing too many pencils?” Predator 2 (1990) is a city story, with Danny Glover as a very capable cop pursuing the creature through an extravagantly violent near-future Los Angeles. Then, it’s back to the jungle with Predators (2010), a “Most Dangerous Game” tale with a group of miscreants (Adrien Brody and Walton Goggins among them) transported to an alien planet to provide the Predators with sport. The Predator (2018) takes place in suburbia, features misfit soldiers led by sniper Boyd Holbrook , and tries (and often succeeds) to be funny in a way the others aren’t.
All of these movies are worth seeing, especially for people into science fiction who don’t mind seeing spines ripped out on screen. (The Alien vs. Predator offshoots are very much not worth seeing, but they did give us the immortal tagline, “No matter who wins, we lose.”) But Prey dispatches with a great deal of the previous Predators’ baggage, and tries to pare the fat. Dan Trachtenberg, the movie’s director, told Variety that he saw the movie’s story as “pure and elemental—very uncomplicated.” In large part, the gambit succeeds.
There is something confusing about the way Prey handles Naru’s motivations and challenges. She wants to hunt; her family and tribe discourage it, or so the capsule description would have it. But the film only somewhat commits to this Disney-esque story line (I got real Mulan vibes). It’s not entirely clear from the dialogue whether the people around Naru discourage her from hunting because she is a girl, or because she’s simply not good at it. Sometimes her mother says, “It’s just that you’re so good at so many other things!” Other times, the teenage boys she joins on the hunt try to forcibly stop her from coming along.
But—is she “bad” at hunting, or not? At the beginning of the film, she’s able to fling her axe into a tree with great accuracy, but unable to bring down a deer. Then, she moves back to needing to tie a rope to the axe to bring it back to her—something that we learn from a boy’s derision is seen as below a “real hunter.” Then, all in a burst, she finds herself able to kill French traders and Predators alike, displaying an intelligence and ruthlessness that you don’t acquire overnight.
The more interesting questions in Prey are not about gender, but about cultural contact. The Predator movies are always at their best when they think hard about how the creature’s deadliness and technological dominance psyches out the humans who perceive themselves as being at the top of the food chain. Those who would defeat the alien must get over their shock, first.
In Prey, there’s more than one layer to this dynamic. The French traders Naru encounters partway through the film are striking villains, who clearly think of themselves as predators at play in the world of the Comanche. We first find out about their presence when Naru’s dog gets stuck in one of their traps. The next sign is a field of dead buffalo, which you first think might have been skinned by the Predator, until you remember that the aliens canonically consider killing the defenseless to be beneath them. Naru finds a stub of a cigar, and you realize this was the traders’ doing.
The film leaves the French traders’ scenes in French, keeping the viewer in the point of view of the Comanche characters. These traders are large, bumbling, and dirty, predatory toward Naru, and cruel to her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers). There are not very many funny moments in Prey, but the running gag of the traders’ 18th-century firearms failing when people need them most is one. (One particular flintlock pistol, which a trader gives Naru in exchange for her help, connects Prey to Predator 2 in a way that doesn’t quite make sense to us yet—but may, in time.) When it comes to facing the Predator, Naru and Taabe, who think ahead and do brave (and cinematic!) things like leaping from horseback onto the alien’s head, have a decisive advantage over those who depend on guns.
The other Predator sequels bring elaborations to the universe of the aliens. We find out there are two types of Predator alien, and they fight one another; there are Predator dogs; some types of Predator have human DNA, and so on. Prey strips that stuff away. The Predator creature in Prey is supposed to be a bit more “animalistic” (as the actor Dane DiLiegro, who plays the alien, described it) than some of the recent iterations. Trachtenberg said: “I wanted to get away from any vestige of the ’80s, of it feeling too much like a man in a suit, too much like a professional wrestler lumbering around. I wanted this to feel much more alien.”
For those who have, like me, indulged in quite a bit of Predator content over the years, it’s a little hard to reclaim the sense of surprise the franchise once provoked. But this choice of location—in place, and in time—gives me new hope for Predator movies to come. More time travel, please! More interesting interplay between Predator tech and the human setting! More protagonists who aren’t the world’s ultimate cop/SEAL/sniper/body-builder badasses, but can put the hurt on an alien, nonetheless! I’m here for it.