The Arnold Schwarzenegger-starrer Predator (1987), the first instalment in the Predator franchise, is undoubtedly a cult classic action film. Unlike the Alien franchise that had Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the lead, with which the Predator series has had crossovers over the years, the Predator franchise has predominantly relied on testosterone-heavy men and their state-of-the-art weaponry. The most iconic image from Predator is Schwarzenegger's character Dutch sharing an 'epic handshake' with Al Dilon (Carl Weathers), which has become meme fodder over the years. Interestingly, the franchise's latest outing, Prey, despite sticking to the same formula of hunters being hunted, skips the rest of the original and straightforward tropes for a plot with subliminal takeaways that aid in refreshing the 35-year-old franchise while also staying true to its core idea.
Just like the 1987 film, Prey is also the story of a group of people who believe they are the apex predator of their jungle only to discover that they are being hunted for sport by a highly evolved alien with a technologically advanced arsenal. But unlike the first film, which was about a military team with their choppers and automated guns, Prey is based in the Comanche Nation in 1719. Simply put, it is the story of how Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young woman, saves her tribe from the clutches of a predator. But the similarities with the series' previous iteration stops there as this film offers multiple layers as to why Naru going about with her mission is more difficult than the obvious reason - an alien killing machine that can go invisible.
Technically, Prey is a prequel to all the films of the franchise and though we have seen Predators helping ancient humans as flash cuts in the Alien vs Predator films, this is the first time we witness people from the past facing off the alien. Speaking of time, at its heart, this is a coming-of-age film as it traverses through the life of Naru who is stuck in a male-dominated society. Given how a person's sex decides whether they become a hunter or a gatherer in that era, Naru tries to prove her mettle by preparing for the kühtaamia, a rite of passage ritual and prepares herself by game hunting and trying to get included in her brother's gang of men who hunt down larger animals. Unsurprisingly, she is retorted with sexist and misogynistic remarks - at one point, some of the young hunters, seeing her following them, quip that their hunt is a short one and they don't need a cook. But, like every other story of an underdog, Naru has to rise to take on the Predator and save her tribe.
Director Dan Trachtenberg, known for making the brilliant 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), along with Patrick Aison, has proven their writing skills with the way they have shaped Naru's character. Unlike Dutch or Mike from the first two Predator films or the main human characters from the rest of the forgettable entries, we tend to relate and root for Naru, right from the get-go and not wait till she faces her adversary. Similar to the men in her tribe, even her mother offers nothing but scepticism over her endeavours and expects her to collect herbs to make medicines. Interestingly, this mix of abilities grants Naru the braveness to hunt and the knowledge to heal when needed and that ends up becoming her biggest strength. Keeping in tradition with the culture of the Native American tribe and their family values, the film gets its emotional quotient from Naru's relationship with her elder brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) who is the only one who believes in Naru and ends up becoming her support system. The makers get the casting right and almost the entire cast has Native American ancestry. Interestingly, the film is also available as a dubbed version in the Comanche language.
Coming to what makes this a part of a legacy franchise, we go back to the first two films' trope once again that involves a single Predator going on a killing spree. But what sets Prey apart is how instead of modern weaponry, our heroes are left to defend themselves with bows, arrows and axes. How they put this to use in the warfare makes for some of the best human-Predator fight sequences of the whole franchise. Thankfully, the film is R-rated and this gives them the space to come up with novel ways to behead, disfigure and kill lives in more creative ways that even compete with the Mortal Kombat games. Violence is dialled up to 11 and that's anything but an issue to fans of the genre.
Apart from the pivotal characters, the film also brings in another clan of folks in the form of Frenchmen who detest the Natives but involuntarily end up teaching Naru the art of gunmanship. All of that writing comes in handy in establishing a hero who is only otherwise armed with a tomahawk axe and her trusty dog. Speaking about writing, the film shines with its share of parallel scenes. Naru, in one scene, gets trapped in a bear trap just like her dog and in another scene, she self-medicates the same way the Predator does to its own wounds. The film also pays homage to the first classic by reusing the iconic 'if it bleeds, we can kill it' line. Over the years, we have seen many iterations of the Predators and that's excluding the ones with the mixed DNA of Aliens. Even then, the makers bring in a sense of identity to this one that's played by former basketball player Dane DiLiegro. Apart from the usual cloaking device, bombs and other weapons at its disposal, we also see a new head armour in this Predator. To showcase its status atop the food chain, there's a brilliant sequence of nature taking its course where one animal gets eaten by another only for that chain to end with a snake that tries to attack the Predator, only to be killed and skinned. I mean, they aren't called Predators without a reason! The biggest callback to the Predator franchise and subsequently, the Predator: 1718 comics, comes in form of a nifty little touch that the makers introduce in one of the film's last scenes.
On the whole, the film brings a much-needed fresh perspective to a franchise whose better days were actually a couple of decades ago. By elongating the timeline and introducing the alien race to a new timestamp, the film also aces in creating a new future that can give rise to new sequels. Prey plays to the strength of what's expected in today's cinema when it comes to aspects like representation, while also paying homage to the original with some brilliant action setpieces, making it a perfect addition to the franchise as well as to the list of best films of this year.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Rating: 4/5 stars
(This story originally appeared on Cinema Express)