This is one of those movies that I want to like more than I actually do. It addresses some of my issues with a movie monster, has some great individual sequences, but I don’t think it actually comes together all that well. It’s got a couple of ideas that it introduces and never explores with any real depth while feeling structurally off, especially considering its first act. I can see why some audiences are eating it up, it provides the kind of pseudo-scifi monster action they would expect. However, I don’t quite get invested, and I think the film suffers a bit for that.
My problem with the Predator as a movie monster is that he’s always been unfair. Eight-feet tall with highly advanced technology, I never saw how it would be fun or dangerous for him to show up on Earth, cloaked with plasma weapons, and blow supposedly dangerous prey away without ever making it a fair fight, it only getting fair if the quarry is smart enough to figure it all out. Well, this Predator is still cloaked from the beginning (I think it’s a desire to hide the monster, a somewhat fruitless affair since he’s just a small variation on a monster we’ve seen half-a-dozen times already in the movies), which is unfair, but he only escalates his weapons as his prey become more dangerous. When he lands, he’s discovering the food chain of the planet, killing snakes and then wolves before he gets to larger game, and he does all of that with just his knives. I like that.
The actual story revolves around the young Comanche Naru (Amber Midthunder) who wishes to prove herself a warrior as capable as the men, especially her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). My largest structural problem with the film is in this first act where Naru tries to help Taabe and the other hunters track down a lion that’s become a danger to their small village. My problem is that they deal with it (in a visually striking scene where Naru and another warrior hang out in a tree before being attacked). It becomes the excuse for why Taabe becomes declared the warrior chief of the village, a title that seems to have no affect on anything in the film except that Naru knows it was her plan and her spear that led to the beast’s death at Taabe’s hands. It’s a small feminist critique of male power, and it never really plays into the rest of the movie.
This becomes a structural problem when a new natural threat is introduced, a bear. Instead of a natural progression of following one, smaller threat into the larger, main threat of the Predator, the movie has a threat, completely deals with it, and then, about twenty minutes into the film, introduces a new threat (the bear) that carries us to the Predator. It’s really weird. Anyway, Naru decides to go out and prove herself by chasing down this bear, getting into huge trouble because she tries to take down a thousand pound bear with a bow and arrow, and barely escapes except for the help of the Predator, who has found an even bigger prey to hunt. She escapes with the Predator just behind her but gets trapped in a French fur trader’s bear trap, immobilized, and the Predator stops the pursuit. She’s no long a threat. It’s no longer sport. See? The Predator is much improved.
Then we get the fur traders. The big reason they’re in the film is to provide cannon fodder for the Predator in the film’s finale. I really like the use of the French because it allows for the difference in language between the Comanche and the European settlers to remain while keeping up with the idea that the Comanche are actually speaking their own language but we hear English. The use of languages in foreign cultures is a small, but interesting question, and I think Prey found a good way to handle it simply by choosing the French, which still precipitates the need for a translator, Raphael (Bennett Taylor).
I think there’s supposed to be something equating the French with the Predator, especially with the use of a field of a couple of dozen buffalo skinned and left to be pecked at by carrion as an important moment earlier in the film. This is supposed to help us turn against them emotionally and feel no remorse at their later killing, but it’s unclear what this point is actually supposed to be beyond a very thin “killing is bad” equation which doesn’t work very well (it’s the difference between trade and sport in my mind).
Anyway, the point is the action, and the action is really pretty. Set at some kind of magic hour that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with ashes falling out of the air, it’s the Predator going full-Predator, up to and including the use of his trademarked trilogy of red laser dots. Used as bait, Naru gets spared, enough to witness what’s happening and prepare mentally for the final bout where she uses all she’s learned to take him out. It’s solidly built stuff, and it works.
I appreciated the film a bit by the end, but that weird disconnect between the first act and the unclear (probably more simplistic, to be honest) use of the French put me off a bit. The action is good, Midthunder is a pretty decent lead (though Beavers is all around a more interesting actor and has a better and more badass character in Taabe), and it consistently looks really pretty. It’s better than The Predator, that’s for sure, though. Dan Trachtenberg made a minor thriller masterpiece in his first film, 10 Cloverfield Lane. His sophomore effort shows continued promise, and I still look forward to whatever he has in store next. I hope it’s something original instead of tied to a franchise, though.