Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Prey’ Makes the Hunt Exciting Again

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Prey is a gorgeous movie that does such an excellent job of being what it wants to be that it can leave an old crank like myself a little giddy. Set in the Great Northern Plains among the Comanche people, Prey is a riveting sci-fi action movie. At times it is mesmeric and observant, with action scenes that are never messy and dumbed down.

It also understands that when one is forced to choose between white colonists and a blood-thirsty alien species; it’s a draw.

Dan Trachtenberg has made neither a prequel nor an origin story. Instead, he has made a movie with the Predator as it hacks and slashes its way through the Great Northern Plains in 1719. Instead of a cigar-chomping Marine or a loose cannon LA cop, the prey is a young Comanche woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder). Co-written by Trachtenberg and Patrick Aison, Prey dares to focus on Naru to the point that the Predator (Dane DiLiegro) doesn’t enter the story until about thirty minutes into the movie. 

This is not that unusual with these movies, but in today’s day and age, it feels almost restrained. Instead, Trachtenberg and Aison make Naru an everywoman. Nevertheless, they stay true to the formula that has best served these movies: A character pitted against a seemingly unkillable alien vastly overpowered with the aid of tech designed for gruesome kills.

The opening line of Prey is beautiful in its simplicity. “A long time ago, it is said, a monster came here.” Here there are dragons. Or, in Naru’s case, alien species use Earth as a hunting reservation. Not unlike some other species I know.

Midthunder carries the movie so easily that it’s hard to believe this is her first starring role. She plays Naru as a stubborn yet insecure young woman hellbent on proving herself not just to her tribe, but also to her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and herself. According to the film, there is a ritual amongst the Comanche tribe of a trial, the hunt. It’s a rite of passage, the moment where a Comanche hunts something that could track you. 

Even someone with a rudimentary grasp of narrative storytelling can appreciate the clean parallels Trachtenberg and Aison are drawing. For example, Naru’s desire to partake in the big hunt corresponds with Predator arriving. Her mother, Aruka (Michelle Thrush), asks Naru why she wants to hunt, “You’re good at so many things.” Her response is simple, “Because everybody thinks I can’t.”

I have become intimate with this sentiment after ten years of marriage to my wife. Midthunder’s delivery of the line had me grinning from familiarity and the knowledge that few things are as powerful a driving force as plain down-home pettiness, alien or no alien.

Much of what I enjoy about Prey has less to do with the story, though it is a solid piece of genre fare that relishes seeing violence doled out to colonialists. But what captivated most me was the sense of place and time that Trachtenberg and his cameraman, Jeff Cutter, so expertly craft. 

Trachtenberg and Cutter fill Prey with many pastoral shots to convey how vast and expansive Naru’s world is. These landscape panoramas show Naru and her loyal dog Sarii as tiny dots along the bottom of the screen. The yawning nature around them dwarfs them.

When the Predator arrives, both Naru and Taabe are scared, but life on the Great Northern Plains is filled with rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and wild bears. All of which Naru and the Predator encounter. The scene with the grizzly bear is a tense action scene in which everything that can go wrong for Naru does go wrong. But she survives thanks to her quick thinking.

Naru’s mother, Aruka, tells her early on that the trial isn’t about hunting but survival. Trachtenberg and Cutter spend most of the runtime of Prey showing us Naru and her brother survive. We see Naru practice throwing her tomahawk, then getting the idea to make a rope and tie it to the tomahawk, giving us a sense of her inventiveness. In other words, we are allowed to see her think and act.

Add to all of this Cutter and Trachtenberg’s sense of voyeurism. Prey doesn’t feel like we are peeping into someone’s world; it is more like being thrust into it. Cutter and Trachtenberg cleverly switch between points of view, but always in a way that makes it easy to understand the point of view we’re being shown.

This is especially true if you watch the Comanche dubbed version of Prey. I’ve seen both versions, and both are good, yet I would highly recommend the Comanche edition. The Comanche dub allows Prey to wash over you like the fog of a dream. It evokes more than it tells a story, and that is one of the movie’s many, many charms.

The Comanche dub makes Prey more immersive, thrusting you into a time and place. In contrast, the English version has Narua and the others speaking English with the occasional Comanche word spoken. It doesn’t ruin the movie, this has been the practice of Hollywood for decades. But compared to the Comanche version, it feels more protracted, especially when the French trappers appear.

In the English film, the trappers speak French; their dialogue is subtitled because Naru doesn’t speak French. But after capturing Naru, one of the Frenchmen speaks to her in English. The film makes it clear it’s meant to be Comanche, but the dubbed version makes the moment more natural and seems more committed to forcing the audience to give themself over to the movie.

Sarah Schachner’s score works in both, but in the dubbed version, it feels almost hypnotic, like a nightmare. One scene has Naru drowning in a mud pit. The scene is reminiscent of all those scenes of heroes stumbling into quicksand I remember from my youth. Schachner’s score gives the scene a mixture of haunted fate and gnawing intensity as Naru struggles to survive.

Perhaps it’s the way Prey shows how its characters struggle to survive that is so engaging. Trachtenberg and Aison give us moments where Naru and Aruka discuss medicines, Aruka working on cleaning Buffalo hide, and even Naru sharpening the blade of her ax. I’ve mentioned how movies are about motion, movement, and action, which is true. But action can be internal as well as external. 

There’s something deeply human about watching another human go through the motions of a daily task—an almost communal celebration of the minutiae and process of day-to-day tasks. Trachtenberg and Cutter give us moments of characters just existing that make the world of Prey feel lived in, the Comanche dub making it all the more complete and fleshed out.

Beaver and Midthunder’s sibling relationship flows through Prey like a roaring river. It propels the movie forward in little ways that are far more interesting than the perfectly calibrated plot mechanics. Taabe and Naru have mutual respect and love for each other but, true to nature, can not resist a certain sense of orneriness. 

Prey works because they work so well together. Taabe is Naru’s biggest supporter, sticking up for her in front of the others, but is also her harshest critic. For her part, Naru is the same; both push each other to be better. 

The final battle may be over too quickly for some. However, I couldn’t care less; I was glued to the screen. I Loved how everything Naru had learned and discovered throughout the movie came to a head in one drawn-out fight. 

Prey is an exercise of making a straightforward genre film with social commentary that, albeit a tad shallow, is nonetheless an expertly made film. But I’m okay with this. For me, it’s not what a movie is about; but how the movie is about what it’s about. And I love how Prey told its story.

Images courtesy of Hulu

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