Prey is quiet. That is perhaps the Predator prequel’s most apparent quality. The silence that follows Amber Midthunder’s Naru into the wilderness is palpable. The film’s precolonial setting helps as well, of course, replacing the explosions and gunfire of previous Predator movies with a quieter and more intimate form of warfare. It is a prequel that sees the original film’s indulgence in bravado and macho posturing replaced by the quiet dread of life’s first journey into the unknown.
There are still parallels to be drawn between Prey and 1987’s Predator, even beyond some of the prequel’s more direct references. Both films see their protagonists cut off from their own society, traversing an unfamiliar wilderness where they are hunted by the Predator, which remains a largely invisible threat throughout. Structurally, both the original and its prequel open with a rescue mission, which leads the protagonists into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Predator, culminating in a gruelling final showdown between two hunters. In many ways, Prey is a reimagining as much as it is a prequel.
Prey does well to follow in Predator‘s footsteps by keeping its Feral Predator cloaked or otherwise obscured for most of its screen time, with the film’s abundant quiet often punctuated by the creature’s distinctive vocal clicks. By only allowing the audience these fleeting impressions of the creature’s presence, Prey maintains edge-of-your-seat suspense throughout. This tension comes to a head in a final confrontation that decisively answers the film’s central question: who is the hunter and who is the hunted?
At its heart, Prey is a coming-of-age story – albeit, a cold and unforgiving one. Amber Midthunder delivers a stunning performance as Naru, who yearns to prove herself as a hunter. As her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) explains, in their Comanche tribe, one can only earn the role of hunter by undertaking the trial of hunting that which hunts you. As she leaves the safe and familiar world of her tribe behind, tracking the Predator, Naru is put through the wringer. Every test and trial she encounters helps her understand the deadly prey she now pursues.
While Prey may be considered an unconventional Predator story in many ways, having the central conflict revolve around a girl’s journey into adulthood is perhaps the most surprising element of all. However, this bold decision pays off. When Naru finally confronts the Predator, the audience is not yet again watching one seasoned killer duke it out with another, but is seeing the pinnacle of Naru’s development as a character. She’s no physical powerhouse like Predator‘s Arnold Schwarzenegger, but instead relies on the skills, wits and instincts she has honed over the course of the film to take on a truly terrifying adversary. And Prey‘s Predator is terrifying.
Prey director Dan Trachtenberg decided he needed to redesign the Predator for his prequel movie, reasoning that with Prey taking place 300 years ago, the Predators should also be a little more primitive than has been seen before. The stripped-back, less-armored look results in a Predator that appears more savage and more monstrous, earning its “Feral” nickname. The creature is huge – Naru notes at one point that its tracks suggest it is bigger than a bear, something the Predator itself soon demonstrates in horrific fashion. The iconic Predator mask seen in previous franchise entries is gone, replaced by a fearsome skull mask, worn like a trophy. And when the mask comes off, Prey‘s Predator proves it is still one ugly motherf*****.
The untamed, hostile landscape in which the Predator and Naru pursue each other is in many ways the star of the movie. This wilderness is utilized in every scene to elevate Prey‘s predominantly visual mode of storytelling. A dead, gray wasteland serves as a backdrop when Naru and Taabe are offered up as bait for the Predator. The parting of the long grass marks the advance of the camouflaged creature as it pursues Naru. Naru’s emergence from a mud pit marks a moment of rebirth, seeing her learn to rely on only herself for the first time. Moving the narrative to a time when much of America’s landscape was still wild ultimately enhances the film’s primal hunter/prey dynamic.
The cast of Prey are dazzling. Amber Midthunder does a spectacular job contending with the challenge of playing a lead who has little dialogue. Much of her story is told in her actions, her body language and her expressions and it is a mark of her talent that she brings Naru so fully to life. Also particularly deserving of praise is Dakota Beavers, who makes his debut in Prey. A franchise blockbuster of this scale is no easy task to take on for a first acting role, but Beavers brings such brotherly warmth, humor and strength of spirit to Taabe that anyone could mistake him for a seasoned Hollywood star.
Prey puts the fear back in the Predator franchise. All of the adrenaline-pumping action is still there, but worked into a narrative that runs on suspense, where it seems that at any given moment the Predator or some other terrible danger could strike. In Amber Midthunder’s Naru, the film finds a protagonist who is not just another action hero, but for whom the conflict with the Predator is a deeply personal and spiritual moment. Consequently, Prey‘s quiet hunt through the wilderness, in which the roles of predator and prey become interchangeable, is perhaps the most terrifying and most emotionally satisfying story the Predator franchise has ever produced.
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