When the buzz around Prey (2022) first started to go around social media I became very excited having wrongly assumed audiences had rediscovered Norman J. Warren’s film from 1977. Dan Trachtenberg’s film Prey is vastly different than Warren’s. It’s the latest installment in the Predator movie franchise and its first prequel. Trachtenberg distilled Predator (1987) to its two fundamental dramatic principles. Firstly, the film is a survival thriller in which man is dethroned as the resident apex predator. Secondly, the spectacle of fear and mortal endangerment in such a scenario is more impactful when the hero has a place already in the hearts and minds of the viewer.
Prey, set in 1719, follows a young Comanche woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder), and her dog, Sarri, as she tries to prove herself as a hunter and warrior to her tribe. This historical context adds a new urgency to the concept of the survival narrative. The film takes its time to explore Naru’s strengths and weaknesses as a fighter via encounters with a Puma, a Bear, and even some fellow Comanche before introducing the famous alien antagonist. Naru’s arc as a character fits a very familiar trajectory. Naru is essentially another in a long line of heroines who have followed the mold of Disney’s Mulan (1998). This serves to strengthen Disney’s image as a purveyor of politically progressive entertainments as well as to establish Naru as a very specific brand of character type.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in Predator (1987) he was this larger than life presence in the mind of the public; the ultimate action hero. To see Arnold Schwarzenegger suffer at the hands of an alien hunter and to show fear was shocking. This very simple tactic imbued the titular Predator with a power on screen that it would never have had otherwise. Amber Midthunder is not yet the mega star that Arnold Schwarzenegger was, nor does she possess a larger than life persona. But by making Naru a familiar Disney heroine type Trachtenberg accomplishes the same thing as John McTiernan before him. I grew up scared of the Predator because Arnold Schwarzenegger was scared of the Predator and now a new generation will fear this brutal monster because a Disney-style heroine does.
Yet, all this does is to update Predator for audiences in the 2020s. Aspects of the original film, such as its sense of humor about itself, have been lost or discarded. In their place Prey offers viewers CGI animals and gore as well as a Predator that, in terms of design, doesn’t look quite finished. The special effects in Predator and the underrated Predator 2 (1990) easily surpass the technical achievements in Prey as far as maintaining the illusion of reality goes. When Naru battles the Predator it is almost like watching Bob Hoskins throttle Roger Rabbit.