After premiering to mixed reviews in 1987, no one could’ve predicted that Predator’s impact would last as long as it has. There were some fun-enough sequel attempts, and one thrilling cross-franchise collaboration (we don’t talk about the second AVP film) but overall, it’s always left something to be desired. I’ll get into my reasons for that, but this is all to say that Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (2022) is perhaps the most interesting addition to films set in the Predator universe. The shot composition of cinematographer Jeff Cutter, when combined with Amber Midthunder’s fantastic performance, results in a well-executed delve into the film’s themes, which are themselves unique in comparison to the other movies in this franchise.
Set in 1719, viewers follow the journey of a Comanche woman, Naru, as she struggles to break out of her role as healer and become a hunter like her brother, Taabe. Her attempts meet sexist backlash throughout the film, which only gets worse once dead bodies begin to pile up. Ignoring Naru’s cautioning, people continue to act as if there isn’t any real threat. Many say it’s only a lion, even though she insists it’s not, which leaves her no choice but to face the mysterious animal on her own if she wants to protect her family. Despite continuously being told she can’t hunt, Naru’s ultimately successful in killing the ultimate predator (an alien that prides itself on deadly strength and cunning), leaving audiences with what can be interpreted as a critique of patriarchal determinism, showing how women can break free of society’s pre-determined roles and rules. This level of social commentary was sorely needed in a franchise which had previously been largely defined by a stale hypermasculinity characteristic of most 80s action flicks. Along with its refreshing take on gender relations, the political undercurrents of Prey (2022) also appear to be wildly different than those of Predator (1987).
Set in a Central American jungle, Predator follows a group of CIA mercenaries as they try to stop a “Soviet invasion” of the country, ultimately encountering the same alien as Naru. In the original film, the predator can be seen as a stand-in for communism, not unlike the how The Blob (1958) was used to represent ‘Soviet power,’ a literal alien force encroaching on the so-called freedom and democracy of the West. It’s easy to see how films like Predator (1987) fed into a long-standing tradition of red-bashing and blind patriotism, serving as the cultural arm of a larger sociopolitical project, helping justify things like the Monroe Doctrine, which was a U.S. attempt at exercising control over Latin and Central American politics. This is what makes Prey so exciting: as the first film in history to offer a full dub in Comanche, it takes the problematic genre conventions of alien action films and turns them into a commentary on colonialism, femininity and resistance. All of these thematic elements are really brought out by the film’s visuals.
In the newest addition to the franchise, Cutter’s cinematography is completely driven by natural light, prone to taking really wide shots of the landscape, often showing how small humans are compared to their surroundings. This emphasis on place carries an almost political valence, showing landscapes untouched by colonialism, imbuing them with an almost-magnificent grandeur. Angela M. Catanzaro and Claudia Castello also deserve some attention for their fantastic editing: the fast-cutting action sequences feel like a shot of adrenaline, and in moments when Naru’s walking through nature, there’s a kind of calm slowness that makes fast scenes seem faster. As far as the acting is concerned, Amber Midthunder shows a fantastic range and controlled subtlety, never doing more than what a scene needs. Her organic approach really helps create an immersive experience for viewers, locking us right beside her moment-to-moment.
Overall, it’s a helluva fun watch, and is an exceptionally unique addition to the Predator universe. One almost wonders if a movie like Prey could have been made in 1987, or if it indicates a larger cultural shift not just in contemporary film, but art overall. By giving often-overlooked stories the spotlight they’ve so often been denied—be it Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) or Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)—the film industry seems to be reevaluating whose stories are worth telling, and which histories are remembered, which has brought a lot of political and historical implications I don’t think they foresaw. I can only hope it’s a trend that continues; regardless, you should stream Prey (2022) on Hulu while you can!
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