Where the Alien franchise has long strived to tell thematically grand stories about mankind’s inherent foibles and ultimate insignificance in an indifferent universe, the often-connected Predator movies have essentially been tweaks on one initial elevator pitch: What if the most dangerous dudes on the planet were hunted by something even more dangerous?
Since the 1987 original, subsequent sequels of wildly uneven quality have pitted the titular Predator against everyone from Danny Glover (hell yeah!) to Adrien Brody (OK, sure) to Jacob Tremblay (uh … what?). And while Prey — streaming on Hulu beginning this Friday — is yet another tweak on the original’s formula, it deserves points for having one of the series’ more inspired premises: A Predator faces off against a female Comanche warrior in 18th-century America.
True to the franchise’s roots, there isn’t much more to Prey than what that single sentence describes, and that’s not necessarily an issue. At their best, the Predator films are lean survivalist horror stories that really just need to get a few things right. The Predator itself needs to look rad, the kills have to be sufficiently grisly, and our hero needs to be smarter than the audience. Prey manages to clear all three of those hurdles while never quite soaring past them, passing the rather low bar to become the best Predator movie in over three decades.
Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young female warrior in the Comanche Nation who is consistently overshadowed and undermined by its male members, including her well-meaning, but overprotective, brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). As Naru tries to prove herself equal on hunting-gathering missions, she begins to see large, fearsome animals maimed and gutted in shocking ways. Who could possibly be responsible for this? This first act is easily the weakest section of the movie, as it establishes a mystery to which the audience already knows the answer and on which the characters must catch up. Given that this is the seventh movie to feature a Predator in it, mystery is no longer an option; it’s like making a Halloween sequel where the audience is supposed to be surprised Michael Myers is back in Haddonfield stabbing people.
This is also the first Predator film to eschew a theatrical release and go straight to streaming. While that’s by no means the same death sentence for a series as going straight to video was back in the day, there’s no denying that this production looks markedly cheaper than any other entry. The sheer amount of shoddy CG animals and digital blood continually prove distracting during some otherwise-impressive and tense set pieces. Further killing that immersion is the incredibly clunky anti-colonialist subtext, which one might hesitate to call subtext given most of it is just spoken plainly out of the characters’ mouths. That anti-colonialist message feels especially ironic when spoken in anachronistic English by a Comanche warrior in the 1700s.
Luckily, this is one of the rare modern action movies that actually peaks in its third act. Once Naru and the Predator inevitably set upon their collision course, director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) proves adept at staging clear and inventive combat sequences. Much of the credit can further go to Midthunder, who makes for a formidable and believable physical match for the Predator despite being half its size. Not since Arnold Schwarzenegger duked it out with the dread-locked alien 35 years ago has one of these showdowns actually felt thrilling, and that in itself makes Prey a worthwhile hunt.