‘Prey’ offers a tense cat-and-mouse game with a few flaws

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If you’ve camped or hiked in a forest in the dark without electronic lights, you already know that the night woods are scary. The shadows are deeper. The noises are louder. A porcupine looks like a bear, and a bear could be a few feet away and you’d never know it unless it was peckish. In the absence of technology, we are just another vulnerable animal, prey to any carnivore more determined than us. But for thousands of years, squishy humans have used every tool at their disposal to fight off predators that find us easy prey. For Naru (Amber Midthunder, Legion), an early 18th-century Comanche and hopeful hunter, there couldn’t be a finer calling. But her tribe and even her family think she’s not suited for it and push her to become a healer until an alien hunter threatens them all.

Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane, The boys) creates a taut and mostly satisfying thread of adventure against the glorious backdrop of the Great Plains at a time when huge herds of buffalo roamed and filthy French fur traders roamed from Canada. If it weren’t for the spaceship and the 7ft Predator stalking a local Comanche tribe, this would be your average novel, probably with green pages and that fantastic smell of old pulp paper. But the is a predator, tall and lean and wilder looking than the 20th century hunts we’ve seen in movies past.

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Amber Midthunder’s Naru is an excellent protagonist, as determined to overcome traditional gender roles as she is her green-blooded adversary. She aspires to be a hunter and protector of her tribe. But knowing when to strike is as important as how. As Naru’s brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) makes clear, hesitating means going hungry or falling victim to mountain lions or grizzly bears claiming the same territory. Naru’s drive to excel constantly puts her and her canine companion Sarii (Coco) in danger, but her ambition never wavers despite multiple failures and the derision of tribe hunters like Wasape (Stormee Kipp). His willingness to think outside the box and his apparent vulnerability work to his advantage when the Predator, a hunter of hunters, makes an appearance. She is well versed in survival and natural medicine and understands the value of a good ambush.

The rest of the cast is also very good. Taabe, Wasape, and his mother Aruka (Michelle Thrush) are the only other characters to have evolved, but they’re excellent in their roles. As many others have said, the Comanche dub is awesome and you owe it to the cast to give it a try. I wish with every fiber of my being that they could have filmed in Comanche. The pristine audio quality makes it obvious it’s recorded in a studio rather than outdoors, and it’s entertaining. But I’m not complaining; there’s no way studio executives allowed Trachtenberg to film entirely in Comanche. It’s a miracle that they had the opportunity to create such a fantastic dub.

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10 Cloverfield Lane proved just how good Dan Trachtenberg is at building tension, and he uses it here to good effect. Naru’s tribe is as much a part of the landscape as any hawk or tree. They fit in. The French, by comparison, are as foreign as the Predator, big, sweaty, smelly killers who slaughter herds of buffalo for their skins and tongues, leaving the meat to rot. Their language is as incomprehensible as the clicks and grunts of the Predator – more so, if you’re a French speaker and are confused by the Québécois speaking actors rather than the traditional version. Their iron traps, muzzleloaders, and paper cartridges can enable mass slaughter of native species and peoples, but against the Predator’s advanced technology, they can just as easily be slingshots. In almost all cases, weapons are worse than useless thanks to their slow rate of fire and tendency to misfire. The alien slayer has a glorious array of weaponry this time around, from his laser-guided bolt launcher to bendable metal spears and a shield capable of cutting through stone. The 6’9 Dane DiLiegro playing the role has great physique and all the prosthetics don’t seem to slow him down as he charges through the forest. The mix of practical effects and CGI works well, and it’s hugely intimidating on screen.

This is about the only place CGI works, which brings me to my one big complaint about Prey. It takes place in the Great Plains. There are mountains and forests and, even in 2022, limitless wildlife. So why would you want to CGI every animal you put on screen? I understand that you can no longer let real grizzlies or mountain lions attack actors through lame contracts and “the safety of our cast and crew.” But why am I looking at a fake mule deer 3 minutes later? Why is there the most false hawk I have ever seen flying across the sky in 6 minutes? I guess it’s a financial decision, but if I took a camera and a 300mm lens outside today I could get you stock footage of a red-tailed hawk in an empty sky in a matter of hours and for far less money than it takes to create one. Pay a falconer to launch his bird into the sky and you might get it even faster. This feeds into what Andrew said about Nope, and reports from Marvel and others of visual effects artists delivering lackluster results through overwork and poor pay. Wildlife photography and animal manipulation take skill and patience, and it’s disappointing to see that sidelined for shoddy CGI work. There’s no reason a 2022 hawk should be as bad as Harry Potterit’s Hedwig. There’s something sadly ironic about emphasizing the disconnect between white people and wildlife in a film that only uses CGI animals, except for Sarii.

My other issues with Prey are minors. The mountain lion hunting scene isn’t great; the CGI is bad and I find it hard to believe experienced hunters gossip so much while waiting for a predator to strike. The Predator has multiple opportunities to kill Naru but chooses not to because she’s not a threat – fair, but she keeps showing up and the Alien Hunter isn’t a dummy. You would think that the third time he caught her with killers, he would have finally made it. Maybe we all look alike in heat vision and he doesn’t know it’s her? And I feel like the script could have made it clear that the tribe doesn’t believe in Naru’s hunting prowess without calling him so many times that it sounds like filler. Again, these are small complaints and aside from the bad animalistic CGI, they don’t detract from a great movie.

I loved Prey. Violent, gory, tense and – aside from the CGI wildlife – beautifully shot, this is easily the best Predator movie from the original. By stripping the Predator’s story to the bone and adding the friction between Indigenous peoples and European colonizers, Dan Trachtenberg creates a tense story of hunter versus hunter versus hunter. It’s very effective, and I’d love to see similar stories unfold in other pre-industrial cultures around the world. Who doesn’t want to see the Predator stalking Polynesian sailors from island to island or taking on armored knights from medieval England? The possibilities are limitless!

Prey is now available on Hulu in English and Comanche.

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