Hulu and Disney+ have just rolled out the latest and potentially greatest installment to the “Predator” franchise, “Prey.” The film is a prequel to the first “Predator” film and is set 300 years in the past in the Northern Great Plains region of North America. The film follows a young Comanche woman named Naru, played by Amber Midthunder, as she struggles to prove herself as a hunter to her tribe. The film features an entirely Indigenous cast (except the fur trappers, of course). Although the film was primarily shot in English, it was also dubbed over entirely in Comanche. Originally the film was meant to be a “surprise” release, meaning audiences would not find out that it was related to the Predator franchise until they began viewing the film, but marketing and Twitter leaks made that impossible. It’s clear that everyone who took part in the making of this film intended to breathe new life into a struggling franchise — critics’ ratings for the film’s predecessors are comically low, and one would expect a prequel to follow the same fate. However, “Prey,” just like its heroine, has defied all expectations.
Rolling Stone called “Prey” a “survivalist thriller-slash-proto-Western-slash-final-girl horror flick.” It’s all of those things, but also an authentic coming-of-age tale (as authentic as a “Predator” movie can get). There is an honest sense of vulnerability and growth from Midthunder that steely muscular action heroes like Schwarzenegger are simply unable to embody. She is small in stature and her dark eyes flash with defiance and fear in equal measure. Naru is the antithesis of the typical “Predator” hero, and that turns out to be the film’s greatest strength.
At the start of the film, Naru is weak. She is unprepared for the hunt and feigns confidence in her abilities but falters when it counts. She is desperate to prove herself, but her skill is unhoned, her talents untapped. She is outshone by her brother, Taabe, and ridiculed by the other male hunters. As the film progresses, we watch Naru come into her own. She adapts her ax to suit her fighting style by tying a rope to the handle, which she uses as a sort of boomerang, flinging it into trees and rabbits and then calling it back into her hands. The rational part of my brain wants to point out how unwieldy and dangerous that would be in reality, but the louder part of my brain was completely enthralled by Naru’s grace as she unfurled the ax into the limbs of seedy French fur trappers.
Naru’s strength as a protagonist lies in her ability to see things others do not, a skill that is identified by Taabe. She is not your stereotypical action protagonist. She is not physically strong, and she does not enter the heat of battle with guns blazing. Naru survives by dodging and hiding; the first half of the film is made up of constant near-misses. During one of the most intense scenes in the film, she narrowly survives a bear attack by hiding in a beaver dam. Naru is defined by her ability to sit and wait for the perfect moment to strike. When the other hunters attack, she hesitates and observes. This is what keeps her alive, and what eventually clues her in to the Predator’s only vulnerabilities.
In previous “Predator” installments, it is all about hunter versus hunted. In “Prey,” these lines become blurred. The Predator and the prey come together as one. The alien overlooks Naru because it does not see her as a threat, although Naru is tracking the alien the entire time, waiting for her chance to strike. The alien she tracks becomes a part of her and her fighting style. It is not just a beast to conquer. It becomes part of her identity, permanently altering her sense of self. She paints her face in the Predator’s blood, uses the Predator’s weapons to deliver killing blows. This is all part of the kühtaamia, the rite of passage that makes one a true hunter. In order to prove yourself, you must hunt something that can hunt you back. Other hunters track mountain lions or bears, but Naru chooses a highly advanced alien that hunts the most vicious predators for sport.
“Prey” subverts the typical narrative of the franchise, and although the violence is excessive (I mean, it’s a “Predator” movie, after all), it is sometimes justified, maybe even rewarding. Naru is confronted by a field of dead buffalo, skinned and left to rot on a plain. Later, the alien tears into an encampment of French fur trappers who committed the crime. I’m typically not a huge fan of gore, but I couldn’t get enough of this violent sequence. Overall, the film is a powerful, refreshing revival, unexpected in the best way possible, and both critics and audiences agree. Why, then, did the film fail to make it into theaters?
The answer is disappointingly dull. In an interview with Uproxx, the director, Dan Trachtenberg, appears just as disappointed as the audience is. The short answer is that Hulu wanted a “big” release, a “giant cinematic experience,” and “Prey” happened to fit the bill. Trachtenberg also says that they filmed the movie to be a “big theatrical experience,” and whether you watch it on a laptop or a flatscreen, you will certainly understand what Trachtenberg means. Even filtered through my tinny laptop speakers, the guttural clicking of the Predator and the roars of a giant bear made me jump in my seat. I can only imagine — and mourn — how it would have sounded in a theater. Overall, the lack of a theater release feels like a waste of what could have been a thrilling cinematic experience.
One also must wonder if Trachtenberg’s answer is a cover for the truth. Were they reluctant to risk flopping in the theaters? The all-Indigenous cast features many relatively unknown faces that lack the pull of bigger stars. Additionally, the storyline is about a female character overcoming gender norms to prove that she is a strong and valuable hunter, which could have dissuaded typical “Predator” fans from seeing it in theaters. These factors may have led the studio to refuse to take a leap of faith for “Prey.” Joke’s on them — “Prey” is one of the most successful “Predator” movies since the original.
In lieu of purchasing a ticket, you could donate the equivalent of a movie ticket to the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee. The GoFundMe has already surpassed its goal, further demonstrating how the film has touched audiences. The film most likely will never hit the big screen, but that doesn’t diminish its success. “Prey” has set the bar high for all future Predator releases, and I will be astounded if another “Predator” installment manages to surpass “Prey.”