“A long time ago, it is said,” an unseen voice says, “a monster came here.” The year is 1719; neither Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Jesse “The Body” Ventura will be so much as a glimmer in anyone’s eyes for centuries. The place is the Northern Great Plains of what will one day be called the United States of America. For the Comanche Nation, this is home: the forests where they hunt, the streams where they fish, the ground where they find roots for medicine. It’s where Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young woman, wants to prove she’s as good as — if not better than — her male peers who go out into the wilderness with bows and arrows, the tribe’s next-gen warriors armed with weapons and purpose. It’s also a place that attracts invaders, notably French trappers who’ve been killing the local buffalo and leaving those iron bear-traps the Comanche have seen strewn around.
And it’s where, one day, a visitor comes crashing out of the sky. No one sees him, not at first — you don’t see the thing until it wants you to see him, and by that point, it’s too late. Naru knows he’s there, however. She’s noticed the large footprints in the mud, which suggest this intruder is bigger than a grizzly. She’s observed the oddly fluorescent green blood splattered on foliage and tree bark. She’s felt him silently stalking her hunting party, waiting patiently to strike. When he finally does appear, Naru doesn’t recognize this creature with the stringy dreadlocks and clacking jaw-mandibles and otherworldly tech. But we do.
It was just supposed to be a high-concept star vehicle circa 1987: What if the Austrian Oak fought the ultimate extraterrestrial killing machine? And we got the guy who made Die Hard to direct it? Yet somehow, Predator morphed from a fun romp in the jungle with Ah-nold & Friends to the beginning of a franchise, and two sequels, one reboot, numerous comic-book adventures and several team-ups with Alien‘s Xenomorph later, the giant, interstellar game-hunter is a bigger celebrity than most of his human costars. T-shirts, action figures, books, video games, his own Funko Pop line — the Predator is a sci-fi/horror-movie hall-of-famer now, nestled between Freddy Krueger and Gort, the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. We hope his agent, his manager and his publicity teams are all getting decent commissions.
What the alpha from outer space didn’t have was a proper follow-up to that first movie, one that took advantage of the hunter-versus-hunted dynamic in the same lean, mean way without lazily pressing the “remake” button. That changes now. Prey, director Dan Trachtenberg’s addition to the Predatorverse, isn’t just an intriguing expansion of the series or a cool intellectual-property detour; it’s something close to a B-movie masterpiece, a survivalist thriller-slash-proto-Western-slash-final-girl horror flick that, like both its iconic alien and its indigenous Ripley 2.0 heroine, is extremely good at what it sets out to do. No disrespect to those who have soft spots for 2010’s Predators or Shane Black’s giddy 2018 hit-refresh entry The Predator. Both have their brutal, livewire charms. It’s simply that this prequel manages to capture the spirit of that Schwarzenegger original while completely rejiggering and deepening the Most Dangerous Game notion at the center of it all. It instantly establishes itself as a series highlight.
Part of that has to do with Midthunder, a young actor with Sioux ancestry, silent-cinema-starlet eyes and a physical presence that can project vulnerability or steely self-assurance. If you’ve seen her work on Legion, the surreal FX TV show that took the X-Men universe into uncomfortable, uncharted territory, then you know she can ground fantasy while still adhering to an anything-goes genre’s playbook. A team player, but someone who can handle an action scene or three on her own if need be. Here, as Naru, Midthunder gives you a woman who’s a true fighter and a tracker, handy with a thrown tomahawk and resourceful enough to customize it with a return-delivery service via a rope. She’s also consistently underestimated by everyone around her because, well, she’s a she. Even when the creature starts picking off her Comanche war party after dominating some of the area’s natural apex predators (a rattlesnake, a bear, European interlopers), he leaves Naru alone — why bother with someone who isn’t, in his beady eyes, a threat?
It turns out that her combat skills have indeed been honed and refined more than everyone realizes, and while Midthunder doesn’t turn this young Native into a superhuman — Naru is barely able to extract herself from a quicksand pit — she does make you believe this woman is superior when and where it counts. Watching Midthunder jump, slide, sprint, notch arrows with lightning speed and eventually go from hunted to hunter, you get the sense that you’re seeing the actor become a full-fledged action hero as much as you’re seeing Naru come into her own; it’s such a kinetic performance, and yet still so attuned to who this woman is and the world she navigates.
It helps that Trachtenberg knows how to film man-vs-intergalactic-serial-killer stand-offs as well, without devolving into the usual quick-cut chaos mash-ups that now often passes for set pieces, and that he can frame a shot and pace a dread-inducing sequence for maximum impact. He’s done franchise duty before — see: 10 Cloverfield Lane, which revisited the world of kaijus run amuck from a claustrophobic thriller’s perspective — but this feels like a step up. And given that he has a Grade-A breakout star in addition to a famous monster of filmland at his disposal, Trachtenberg goes all in on trying to make as big, yet as creatively fertile a blockbuster-style movie as possible.
(About that “big” part: Prey is most definitely a large movie, with widescreen vistas and rippling special effects and more than a couple of moments designed to turn an audience into one collectively gasping mass. It’s also a straight-to-Hulu joint, which likely has to do with the fact that it’s a Fox property, inherited from a purchase of the company, by patrons who probably bought it just so they could get those sweet, sweet X-Men rights in their pocket. As with so many Fox projects, there’s the sense that the folks in charge just want it in their rearview mirror and don’t care if thy cut off their nose to spite their mouse-eared face. You should see this on the streaming service ASAP, after it drops on August 5th, regardless. But note that it’s definitely our loss and no one else’s gain.)
And the other part of it is that, handed an I.P. that’s revolved around a Darwinian survival of the fittest, Trachtenberg and cowriter Patrick Aison chose to harken back to a time in our nation’s history before there was much of an our equation at all. Dropping a sci-fi/horror mainstay into what is essentially a revisionist Western template, one which favored the Native viewpoint over those who considered the notion of manifest destiny to be a mandate, adds a bit of novelty to the usually futureshocked franchise. Ditto the idea of those with “primitive” weaponry going up against something that’s retrofitted a bear skull to be a bleeding-edge, laser-sighted helmet. (A beautifully creepy touch, BTW; the addition of the skull makes the familiar sight of this killer feel freshly horrifying.)
But it also makes you rethink this creature who drops out of the clouds in an entirely different context. He’s just another foreign power who’s come to conquer, a cosmic variation on the colonialists who’ll appear in bigger numbers and with more complex agendas, another hunter who views those already living on the land as little more than prey. This particular hunter, however, has encountered someone who views staring down a predator to be not just a rite of passage but a birthright. “This is as far as you go,” Naru informs her enemy, before engineering a coup de grace. “No more.” And you don’t need to be a true believer in all things Predator-y to feel that declaration resonate in the most unexpected and exhilarating termite-art ways imaginable.