Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Stars: Amber Midthunder, Julian Black Antelope, Dakota Beavers
At the time of writing the internet (or nooks of it anyway) is blowing up following the decision at HBO Max to remove exclusive ‘content’ previously assumed safe from such easy and casual erasure. Such assumptions were and always have been foolhardy. The very impermanence of such catalogues is clearly linked – now more than ever – to profits, losses and tantalising tax deductibles. This just a few short days after Warner Bros. openly declared their decision to shelve Batgirl entirely. With Netflix’s profits a’tumbling, these seem like newly precarious times for streamers, studios and creatives alike. The assurance that your efforts will see – and remain in – the light of day has lost all credibility.
And now here’s Prey.
The Predator franchise has been through hell. Never the haughtiest IP, it has nevertheless scraped the gutter through varying attempts at resurrection. Only a few years ago Shane Black took a bar that was lying on the ground and somehow crawled under it. But for all these iniquities, the dreadlocked alien has always made it into cinemas. Not so for Dan Trachtenberg’s intriguing prequel, which shuffles us back in time to 1719 and Comanche territory.
Trachtenberg’s involvement is perhaps the first glimmer that we might be onto a winner. He has past form. In 2016 he surprised us by reconfiguring another monster property, delivering modern sci-fi classic 10 Cloverfield Lane surreptitiously to our doors. That film ended with a gung-ho female warrior headed directly toward an alien firefight. This wasn’t his intended follow-up, but Prey makes a kind of sense with this in mind.
Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche woman with dreams of joining the hunt. Alas, that’s generally something of a boy’s club. Though she shows willing and skill, even her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) sides with tradition. However, when a hunting party starts losing members in the dense woodland of the Northern Territory, Naru witnesses some out-of-this-world violence that convinces her there’s a new, ahem, predator at large.
Prey eschews a lot of the obnoxious elements that others have felt compelled to add to the rather simple formula that made John McTiernan’s 1987 film such a crowd-pleasing classic. While I have a shameless love for the anarchic excesses of Stephen Hopkins’ cyberpunk orgy Predator 2, anything this franchise has offered this century has fallen short thanks to an assumed need to embellish. Trachtenberg and his creative partner Patrick Aison resist such an urge, cleaving closer to the bones of the original. A warrior who is outmatched in terms of technology and firepower must rely on their wits to survive against a camouflaged killer. Simple!
Midthunder (and to a lesser extent Beavers) are the film’s aces; the human element that makes this all worthwhile. Naru is defiant and resourceful, while her brother Taabe has belligerent tendencies that clearly run in the blood. Still, for all his patriarchal bruhaha (so 18th century), Taabe is stoic and majestic in battle. The parred down storyline has garnered relief and praise (including that last paragraph you just got through reading!) but, with the stakes so low for this franchise, Trachtenberg and his team succeed mainly through simply not-fucking-up.
There are still limitations worth noting. Chiefly there’s little sense of occasion about Prey. You could chalk this up to it’s debut as a streaming entity. That we’ve been denied the process and rituals of visiting the cinema. Buying the ticket. Finding our seats. Experiencing all that build up in the dark. But it’s more than that.
Trachtenberg and Bear McCreary made brilliant music together (pun intended) throughout 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s notable wordless sequences, both at the top and tail of that picture. There was no missing a sense of occasion there. The same isn’t true of Prey. Here partnered with composer Sarah Schachner, there feels like a conspicuous lack of awe about Naru’s alien encounters. It isn’t that all dramatic scenes should be telegraphed through their music, but Prey is underscored, mainly, with ambivalence. Encountering a Predator ought to be momentous. Here it’s… mildly surprising?
This sense of lack extends also to the rather flat lighting and disinterest in the wondrous natural environments that the film calls home. Atmosphere is of short supply and, aside from one or two floaty Malickian shots looking for the light in the trees, DP Jeff Cutter treats that great American frontier with disappointing indifference. Even the hushed minimalist observations of a Kelly Reichardt flick conjure a special kind of reverence. Prey gives the nonchalant impression that this might as well have been shot on a sound stage. An overreliance on CG animals doesn’t help any either.
These are traits of modern filmmaking when a product is intended for direct-to-streaming obscurity. Think of the way all those moody Netflix originals kinda look the same. I doubt anyone intended Prey to end up as little more than this week’s brief ‘content’ discourse, but it certainly feels like it belongs at that level, and that’s more than a little disappointing. Additionally, good as they are, both Midthunder and Beavers feel like conspicuously modern actors. Perhaps it’s in their body language or intonation, but something almost intangible reads as false whether they’re together or alone. Both have great physicality and Midthunder gives good glare… but I guess Dakota Johnson isn’t the only one who knows what an iPhone is.
These churlish complaints may seem exactly that, but they do subtract from the effectiveness of the whole, more so than any narrative mechanics that ought to cause greater friction (one situation is essentially retooled several times over). This is a solid B-picture in most respects, but it’s the little details that start letting it down.
A smart finish and tidy running time help Trachtenberg out. And, at this point, coming in with a mid-quality product is an absolute fucking triumph for the Predator series, so he should come out of this with his head held high.
On his own shoulders, too.
But if we’re pooping parties here, Prey only just delivers what it needs to, in spite of a lot of good effort from departments both in front of and behind the camera. And maybe the sense of occasion that’s missing is down to how we’re being asked to ‘consume’ it? If you put everything on streaming, where does the magic happen? And what will we do when it’s all ultimately yanked…?