It’s a darn shame that PREY will not be coming to a theater near you soon. It’s not just the wide shots of the gorgeous vistas to be found on the Canadian Great Plains that make this so very big-screen worthy. Nor is it the nifty effects that we’ve come to know and love with the Predator franchise. It’s also the larger-than-life exploits of its heroine, Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman who would like to use her talent as a hunter to contribute to her tribe’s well-being rather than spending her life gathering medicine and cooking, even though she excels there, too. She gets her chance, of course, but somehow facing down with the iconic extra-terrestrial Predator three centuries or so ago becomes just another proof that the tribe at large should take her seriously.
And, yes, that does seem like a stretch for the franchise, but screenwriter Patrick Aison has devised a compelling scenario, with some pointed but not overbearing correspondences, that makes the alien just another danger lurking in the real world. Director Dan Trachtenberg has brought an elegance to the storytelling that uses understatement rather than flash, emphasizing mood over carnage, though there’s plenty of that. The lynchpin is Midthunder. She’s tough (and she knows it) without trying. She’s also, without a doubt, the smartest person on screen at any given moment in any given situation (and she knows it). Also, without trying. Even better, she has an arch sense of humor. Midthunder is a minimalist, but she leaves no doubt about what Naru is thinking. Take the the attitude, and expression on Naru’s face as comes up yet another another day of woman’s work. It tells a rich story of a woman at the end of her tether of frustration who is about to do something about it that will shake everyone up.
The film begins with Naru and her faithful dog finding something even more ominous than a strange visitor from another world. That would be the steel trap left by white hunters passing through her tribe’s territory, and that will come into play later. Meanwhile, there are also strange lights in the sky, that Naru believes is the legendary Thunderbird returned, and she decides, to general derision and scoffing, to make that her prey in the rite of passage known as the Big Hunt. It’s not specifically forbidden to girls, but it’s not done, either, as the tribe’s preening and braggadocious male hunters remind her.
Naturally, the strange lights are the Predator, who takes part in a nifty circle-of-life style of introduction as Naru tags along with her brother, (Dakota Beavers) and his friends to hunt a mountain lion. It’s a good thing she’s there. She’s the only one who understands that the strange tracks they come across are not just an unusually large bear, but something that needs to be tracked. Further naturally, no one listens to her until it’s too late.
The film takes great pains to recreate Native American life of that period while not romanticizing it. It depicts it as a life in harmony with nature, but one that is precarious. It also uses the rituals of war and of the hunt as an effective way of building suspense before the Predator makes his first move. We know what scared the mountain lion away from a kill, and that left that oddly skinned snake carcass, the male warriors don’t as they psyche themselves up for an adventure. As for the Predator, he’s once again a ripple in the landscape until covered in the blood of a freshly killed bear, or ash from a fire.
The action is fierce, be it that bear chasing Naru after she goes out alone to find what made those weird tracks, or the white men who kidnap her and her brother only to use them as bait to attract the Predator into a death trap. (It works, but not the way they planned.) The juxtaposition of flintlocks and axes against the chittering Predator, unspeakably Lovecraftian beneath the helmet, and his hi-tech arsenal raises all the right questions about the chances mere humans can have against it.
If you think about PREY too hard, it may just fall apart from a credibility standpoint. So, don’t. It’s worth the suspension of disbelief. Satisfying as an action film, and fascinating as a glimpse into Comanche culture, PREY never relies on just spectacle. There is a human scale to the carnage that evokes an emotional response more than mere special effect could do. The quiet moments of human connection, and barbarity, are as powerful as the epic battles, and make the stakes involved in them all the more precious.