A scintillating return to form for a franchise that seemed doomed to mediocrity.
If one were to judge a movie franchise on the strength of its central premise alone, then there would be very compelling case to be made that the ‘Predator’ series is the best thing ever put to screen. A lethal team of human killers who drip as much charisma and machismo as they do baby oil and sweat placed in a breath-taking yet inhospitable environment and suddenly forced into a desperate battle for survival against a remorseless alien hunter. Plug in a few iconic action heroes, add in some witty one-liners and what you have right there looks like a formula to churn out exhilarating sci-fi action/horror classics on demand. In the two and a half decades since the John McTiernan original burst into theatres with the force of a 5’10” (allegedly) Austrian bodybuilder/Republican governor, the creature after which the franchise is named has ascended into the ranks of the most recognisable pop-culture icons and spawned a whole host of comics, video games, and action figures; all the while remaining one of the most intimidating antagonists in fiction. So why the hell has it taken so long to make a good sequel?
To say that the prior instalments in this saga have not lived up to the standards set by the original would be a bigger understatement than remarking that Michael Jordan was pretty good at basketball. The Danny Glover-led second outing had some interesting ideas but is far more cult-classic than actual classic. ‘Predators’ from 2010 is underrated but entirely unknown to all but the biggest fans of the franchise. It appeared to many (myself included) that the death knell of the franchise had been sounded when 2018’s ‘The Predator’ emerged as the bastard offspring of a Marvel movie and a malfunction VFX program rather than anything resembling competent movie-making. I am not a theist by any stretch of the imagination but I had begun to suspect that nothing short of divine intervention could revive this faltering behemoth.
Well as it turns out, God does exist, and his name is Dan Trachtenberg. Perhaps that is somewhat of an exaggeration on my part but it does accurately capture how far into the jaws of the cinematic afterlife this film’s director had to reach to get the critics back on his side.That being said, it is not all that surprising that Trachtenberg should be the one to pull this feat off, given that his only other feature length project 2016’s ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’- another excellent sci-fi horror. Yet while that film ratchets up the tension using claustrophobia, paranoia and the fear of the unknown, this one is unable to apply those same methods, as everyone and their paramilitary rescue team knows at this point what to expect from a Predator movie. Instead, Trachtenberg gets the adrenaline pumping by fully utilising the Predator for what it is: one of the most effective dealers of death ever created.
One of the main problems that has plagued the franchise’s later instalments (especially the painfully average cross-overs with the other famous kind of murderous alien) is that each film has been unable to resist the urge to redeem the Predators in some way, making them sympathetic antiheroes rather than straightforward villains. This has never made sense to me at all. The original jungle hunter used incomprehensibly advanced technology to mow down hopelessly overmatched primates and was such a sore loser that he detonated a nuclear device when he lost. The Predators are supposed to be the bad guys. Making them anything less than brutal sociopaths would be like creating a sob story about the moron who killed Cecil the Lion. ‘Prey’ is smart enough to realise this, and at no point does the viewer feel anything but fear and loathing for this iteration of the creature.
As majestic as it is to watch the Predator turn Comanche warriors and French trappers alike into fine red mist, the movie only earns the right to revel in the violence because it is anchored by a truly superb performance by Amber Midthunder in the lead role of Naru. At once immensely stoic and deeply impassioned, Midthunder ensures the film’s emotional and thematic beats all land as they should. Even more impressive is her physical commitment to the role, fighting with dexterity and finesse that more than matches the brute strength of her predecessors. The movie’s themes of female empowerment are not delivered with great subtlety, but that is hardly out of the ordinary for a series that once dropped a CIA-esque backed guerilla squadron into Latin America, back when Ronald Reagan was still in office. I would not think it hyperbole to put Naru into the very upper echelon of badass female protagonists, right alongside Ellen Ripley and Furiosa.
As well as thrilling action and strong character development, ‘Prey’ also has the decency to look amazing. The impenetrable forests and rolling plains of Calgary, Alberta provide a jaw-dropping backdrop against which the massacres occur and make the period setting far more immersive. Furthermore, credit must be given to the filmmakers for avoiding any lazy stereotyping surrounding Indigenous American cultures and for breaking ground by releasing a version fully dubbed in Comanche simultaneously with the English language release.
At its core, ‘Prey’ is so entertaining because it knows what makes any Predator film engaging but is also intelligent enough to not simply retread what has come before it. It’s fast paced, a visual treat, and has enough gore to satisfy even the most desensitised horror fan. Truly spine-rippingly good filmmaking.
Rating: 4.5 trophy skulls/5