This post originally appeared in my horror newsletter, Deep Cuts.
Of the ‘Big Three’ sci-fi-horror franchises, Predator films have always had more modest ambitions. No excess breath is drawn to lay down the basics of its rather simplistic theses; no queries about mechanical uprisings, no pontifications about the Creation of Life. As far as they are concerned, the Predator films like to form themselves around one simple concept: “predator strong, predator kill.”
It’s a concept that requires minimal mental dynamics and, as a result, allowed no-frill action to take centerstage. The 1987 original and subsequent films that played within this constraint saw varying levels of success, from unleashing an inbred class of dank bro-memes to making the franchise’s first legitimately good sequel. 2018’s The Predator tried to step outside these bounds and famously failed, making for a muddled, messy, and problematic ‘re-quel.’
Four years later, Dan Trachtenberg releases Prey, a thrilling and sensitive update to an otherwise squarish, knowingly simple-minded franchise. Where its predecessors exalt macho attributes, Prey upends them, with Naru (Amber Midthunder) — a headstrong, sharp-witted, and resourceful Comanche would-be warrior, if not for the dismissive men in her tribe — at the heart of the action. It’s not this big address about women’s place in survival, but it’s nice to see a direction where the conceit of “prey fighting back” is nestled in the sour parts of women living in a man’s world.
Making the 1700s Great American Plains the hunting ground for the franchise’s bloodlust-afflicted alien species adds a unique texture to the film. The encounters with the Yautja creature feel fresh. Trachtenberg makes room to establish its sicko fascination with being the apex predator which culminates in an incredible action setpiece where it bests a giant grizzly bear. And when it works its way to humans, it wastes no time to go ham.
But here’s the thing: the film isn’t yet again titled ‘Predator,’ or worse, ‘Bald-Faced White Colonizers.’ The film is about a sorely supposed ‘Prey.’ It’s about Naru, a righteous warrior dragged by her weaknesses, both true and merely perceived. The film tracks her growth from asserting her place in battle, to having her strengths weathered with doubt, to becoming a heroine worthy to sit alongside Ripley and Connor.