Set in the Comanche Nation 300 years ago, this is the story of Naru, a fierce and highly skilled warrior, raised in the shadow of legendary hunters who roam the Great Plains. When danger threatens her camp, she sets out to protect her people. The prey she stalks: a highly evolved alien predator with a technically advanced arsenal…
Reviewed by Tim Robins
Prey is an entertaining riff on Predator, the 1980s sci-fi-horror-action movie about a paramilitary team stalked by an alien whose only motive is to hunt, kill and collect the skull and spinal column of its victims. Predator led to a number of sequels of varying quality, from the underrated Predator 2 (1990) to the risible reboot, The Predator (2018), which seem designed to extend the franchise to appeal to a younger audience and sell them toys.
Prey was being developed while The Predator was in production, although it shares nothing with that film other than it features, surprise, a Predator. The film debuted on Hulu/Disney plus, becoming, according to 20th Century Studios, the most-watched premiere on Hulu in the United States. The film also gained approval from critics, some hailing Prey as the best Predator film since the original.
The film’s story is set in 1719 North America among a tribe of Comanche aka Numunuu and has been praised for its authenticity although, to my eyes, the film was very obviously shot in Canada and the tribes people seem encamped in one of that country’s temperate rain forests rather that the Great Plains of America.
As the offspring of an honorary chief of the Gitxsan Nation, I was interested to see that the production team struck a note of authenticity and there are signs of considerable attention to detail in the costume design and aspects of village life
The inclusion of horses was a later addition to the script. The Comanche became known for using and trading horses, although in 1724 they were reported as still using large dogs to transport buffalo hides.
For all the attention to historic detail, Prey is informed by thoroughly modern sensibilities. I rolled my eyes at the marketing which stated the film follows “a Comanche woman who goes against gender norms and traditions to become a warrior”. Perhaps, although this statement smacks of 21st Century Hollywood more than 18th century plains tribes people, among whom women did hunt alongside men.
Also, there’s no historical basis in the view that work such as foraging or using herbs for healing was in any way as disparaged as the domestic sphere was in 20th century America. The character of Naru – the plucky Comanche made good – has therefore been created to serve thoroughly modern requirements. Never -the-less, one can only raise a quizzical eyebrow at the poster art, much of which obscures the gender of Prey’s protagonist.
Prey’s star is Amber Midthunder, as the gender role-defying Naru, a young woman who longs to become a warrior. Accompanied by her dog and with the grudging support of her warrior brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), Naru sets out to prove herself against the predators that inhabit her homeland including a mountain lion and a grizzly bear. But the alien Predator and ruthless French fur traders are waiting in the wings. Crumbs! Midthunder really held my attention and gave a committed, and compelling performance as the lead.
The direction is as taught as a pulled bow string. The characters are engagingly established and the rhythms of day-to-day life are well established before we are drawn inevitably towards conflict with the Predator, as usual hiding itself with a cloaking device. The Predator is no kind of hero. The core appeal of the film and its predecessors is in seeing hopelessly overwhelmed humans get taken out in a variety of gory ways before someone takes the Predator down using little more than human ingenuity.
There is an amusing moment where the fur traders all have to reload their weapons with the Predator waiting mere feet away from them. And there’s a sequence involving a bog-pit, which will bring back happy memories for anyone who recalls the TV series like Tarzan and Daktari, where quicksand was an ever-present danger.
I want to give a shout out to Dark Horse Comics, who did much to develop The Predator as a character while they owned the license, even exploring the same time period in Predator 1718. The comic is linked to Predator 2, in which the Predators give an 18th century flintlock pistol engraved with the name ‘Raphael Adolini’ to the LAPD protagonist as an acknowledgement of him beating one of their number. ‘Predator 1718’ explains that the Predators gained the pistol from Captain Adolini in a fight against mutineers.
Prey uses the character of Raphael Adolini, played by Bennett Taylor, but provides a different backstory to the pistol. Adolini is working for fur traders, so-called “Voyageurs” – French Canadians who lived a hard but glamorised life transporting goods across North America as part of the fur trade.
Prey sets up the Numunuu as honorable warriors, attuned to nature, pitted against the bloodthirsty Predator and the Voyageurs. It’s a simplistic opposition. The Numunuu were ferocious nation builders who delighted in torturing captives and scalping them alive. The women of the tribe were particularly violent in this respect. I note this because the conflict in Prey could have been played out as a battle between equally ruthless adversaries. Instead, we are asked to empathise with the Comanche as at-one-with-nature tribal folk.
There’s been talk of placing the Predator in various other historical settings. That seems a good enough idea. The character works best when pitted against underpowered humans so take your pick – Romans, Mongolians, Trojans, Welsh etc.
But before the series goes any further more attention to the specifics of historical situations would be useful or there remains a risk of the formula being trite. In Prey, the Predator’s final battle is pretty fantastic and not based in physics, let alone history. In the end, Prey offers us spectacle over common sense – but that is, of course, what we all want, I guess.