Filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg’s Predator prequel Prey succeeds by daring to embrace what prior sequels did not: Simplicity. The basics of Predator cinema boil down to skull trophies and rival combat, but most of all, the thrill of an uninterrupted hunt. With brutal ease, writer Patrick Aison translates Predator codes to hunter-gatherer dichotomies in Native American cultures. There’s nothing scarier than the laws of natural hierarchies on display in their most elemental forms, and that’s what Prey recognizes with menacing regard. There’s nothing wrong with going bigger, but there’s always been something missing in previous Predator continuations that get preoccupied elsewhere. Trachtenberg understands what Predator fans crave, and executes without mercy.
Set in the Northern Great Plains of 1719, Prey pits a Predator challenging any species’ alphas—wolves, bears, people—against a Comanche tribe. Taabe (Dakota Beavers) leads other boys on hunts while his sister Naru (Amber Midthunder) practices her deadliest skills in secrecy. She’s dismissed by most for her gender, but not by Taabe. Naru’s chance to defeat a lion (thanks to Taabe) and earn her warrior’s rite of passage fails when a Predator’s alien technology distracts from afar—which no one believes. Only Naru can protect her family and tribespeople from the unknown Yautja threat since no one will listen, which will be the warrior-wannabe’s ultimate test.
Let’s not pretend Prey is a subtle war waged against gender norms. Naru challenges her tribe’s adherence to domesticated roles, where men collect meat and women stoke fires under pots. Aison’s story is about insatiable determination, about not letting others dictate your fate and readapting Predator from the reverse empowerment of macho dudes—which flexes similarly entertaining muscles. Trachtenberg never shies away from heavy-handed representation strides, but it’s neither forceful nor disingenuous. Naru’s cunning and tracking skills are paramount to her success, as are her helpful allies in Taabe or timely distractions from other more dispensable Comanche search parties. Trachtenberg humbly honors bloodthirsty and bone-crushing Predator mechanics while fiercely challenging the same genre norms Naru faces in Comanche Nation.
Trachtenberg’s attention to period details—from French fur trappers to Comanche combat strategies—favors originality. Almost the entire cast is Native and First Nation talent, and a Comanche dub will be available to the public upon release; composer Sarah Schachner beats rapturous rhythms backed by incensed howls and war cries that embolden the atmosphere. This 300-year-old action thriller is still intensely heart-pounding despite arrows and axes being the Comanche’s only weapons against an earlier-era Predator. There are technology downgrades on both sides (human vs. extraterrestrial), but that doesn’t bridge the extraordinary gap between Naru and her bug-ugly foe—which only enhances her uphill journey.
There’s a scene between Naru and the French that gets a little wonky, with characters speaking through “translations” in the English version, but outside this understandably weird situation (American markets might pass on subtitles), Trachtenberg spotlights Comanche authenticity.
And it’s this environmental freshness that is Prey’s secret weapon. Given how we’ve seen Predators mutilate their way through law enforcement, military soldiers and Xenomorph enemies on repeat, the parallels between Predator culture and Native American traditions is slick connective tissue. The uncomplicated pleasures of Predator fight sequences shine on the merits of combat and combat alone. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter gorgeously and harrowingly accents predatory instincts reminiscent to Jaws, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and—picturesquely—the live-action The Lion King. Plus, we get to watch the Predator maul white invaders in graphic fashion—not a bad 100 minutes.
As for the hallmark sci-fi carnage, Prey features ingenuity on Naru and Taabe’s part to counter the Predator’s assortment of fatal goodies. Naru attaches a rope to her battle ax so she can yank it back for a swift retrieval, and she works alongside the goodest of pooch sidekicks—an A+ canine companion pivotal to Naru’s survival. She fights with a mighty heart, and Midthunder commands the screen, whether she’s evading a bounding animal or staring down an invisible Predator with nothing but courage in her eyes. When Taabe arrives for some tag-team throwdowns, the duo executes tandem combos that tactically confuse the Predator. Online haters who pre-judged Prey because “gUrLz CaN’t BeAt PrEdAtoRs” look like even bigger stooges, because Naru projects a howling spirit and unstoppable conviction that never, for a second, makes her seem out of any element.
Regarding the Predator, creature actor Dane DiLiegro gives us an agile and powerful Yautja. There’s a more primal aesthetic to his monster’s bone-modeled face covering, but the same bracelet tech and exploding gadgetry does impeccable damage to poachers and Comanches alike. Prey holds nothing back, as sharpened steel detaches limbs like Ginsu through vegetables or circular disks decapitate their target and the thick tree trunk behind. The only knock is that Prey uses more computer-generated effects than I’d hoped, even when the Predator removes its mask.
Special effects wizards Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis notably contributed their talents behind the scenes, yet, sometimes a maskless Predator reveals animated features despite a rather impressive practical model underneath (we all shudder remembering 2011’s The Thing). It’s not always, and even the digital gore still delivers proper shock-and-ick factors, but the Predator is a king-shit level horror creature based on its costume appeal. I’ll admit, it was a slight bummer to see these post-production decisions.
Nevertheless, Prey is inarguably the best Predator since the original. The film gets so much right, paying homage to John McTiernan’s 1987 masterwork—through cigars and direct quotes that it’ll have fans hooting—and adding Indigenous representation with real cultural strength. Trachtenberg and Aison keep things simple, and that’s the special sauce. The performances are tough-as-nails, action sequences absurdly gory and intensity streamlined like a high velocity arrow. By going back to beginnings, Prey sheds pounds of franchise dead weight for a leaner, meaner Predator prequel with all the spine-tearing, one-liner-spouting gladiatorial conquest that fans desire—computer-generated or not.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writer: Patrick Aison
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush, Julian Black Antelope
Release Date: August 5, 2022 (Hulu)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.