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Prey Review: The Ultimate Hunt

EDITORS' RATING: 10/10
Pros
  • An amazing ensemble cast
  • Amber Midthunder shines in the lead role
  • The Predator design is fantastic
  • The action scenes are great
Cons
  • I only wish it was longer

The creature known as the Predator is one of cinema's most adaptable movie monsters, even if the executives behind the franchise didn't always know it. The Predator franchise has been around for 35 years at this point, waging war against Xenomorphs and hunting humans in jungles and in cities, but even as several of the "Predator" sequels have proven entertaining, they've missed some primal ingredient that the original 1987 classic had. Removed from its science fiction context, the Predator is a great creature, and a great creature can work in any environment provided the right opponent is standing in the opposite corner.

Enter Dan Trachtenberg, a filmmaker who's already proven his gift for extracting maximum tension from minimalist genre storytelling. After the pulse-pounding energy of his bunker thriller "10 Cloverfield Lane" worked wonders with just a handful of characters and one location, Trachtenberg turned his attention to making the Predator scary, and vital, once again. With the help of a talented cast led by a bravura performance from Amber Midthunder, some wonderful production design, and just the right amount of gore, Trachtenberg's "Prey" becomes the best Predator film since the original and a true showcase for what the creature can still do with the right filmmakers.

Predators of the plains

While John McTiernan's original "Predator" film sought to deconstruct the idea of the '80s action muscle man by placing a group of gun-toting hulks in the middle of a dire situation where their guns did them no good, Trachtenberg's approach with "Prey" is to return to a time when hunting, from a human perspective, really meant something. On the Northern Great Plains of the early 18th century, Naru (Midthunder) and her Comanche community consider hunting to be something sacred, something not just vital to their physical survival as a people, but to their spiritual survival as a group and as a part of the Earth. Naru, who spends much of her day collecting medicinal plants with the help of her trusty dog, is very aware of this dynamic, and wants to be a part of it. While her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) heads out with the rest of the men on hunting trips and journeys to bring down threatening predators, Naru longs to be granted the sacred hunt that will truly test the abilities she's been developing on her own in the forest surrounding her village. What she truly wants is to prove her worth by hunting — and killing — something that could kill her back.

Naru is about to get her to wish, but of course, it's not a bear or a mountain lion she's really after, even if the men of her tribe sneer at her for even thinking that something bigger might be stalking them. Using all the skills she's harnessed over years of living off the land, Naru must set out to save her people even if her people don't realize they need saving, and she must do it against a creature that doesn't play the rules of any animal she's ever encountered.

Trachtenberg seeds this tension between what Naru knows and what her people know by first giving us a clear view of exactly who she is and what she wants. Helped along by Midthunder's fierce eyes and deep commitment to the world the film has built, the early minutes of "Prey" could almost be a historical drama, stripped of any science fiction elements and focused entirely on a young woman who yearns to prove herself. It's an immediate, texturally effective storytelling tool, and it works even better when Trachtenberg starts to ratchet up the terror.

Predator and prey

With the setting and the tactile quality of the story firmly in place, Trachtenberg and his team begin to introduce their monster, beginning with the iconic Predator cloak of invisibility and then digging deeper to reveal a scary new design, new weapons, and a creature that thinks, moves, and kills in a way that sets it apart from previous entries. But "Prey" never feels that far removed from the original "Predator" film in terms of what it wants to deliver to the viewer. Whether he's taking his cast on a perilous night hunt with more than a few twists or ratcheting up the brutality in a mist-filled fight sequence, Trachtenberg is very aware that we came here to see the Predator chew up some humans, and he delivers that and then some with some of the most inventive sequences in the entire franchise.

The real star, though, from the very beginning, is Midthunder. Fulfilling all the promise she showed as a reserved warrior on "Legion," she takes Naru to often dazzling levels of emotional and physical complexity, often going minutes at a time without speaking, and elevates the entire film with the stakes we can feel in her eyes. To Naru, facing and defeating the Predator is not just a challenge or a means of survival, it's a chance to serve her people, to grant survival of the spirit and survival of the flesh to an entire community, and you can see that in every decision she makes. Even when you think you know what happens next, watching her embody this character gives the entire film a sense of lingering tension that never lets up. Add in Beavers in a phenomenal debut performance, and brutal work by Dane DeLiegro as the Predator, and the film delivers an ensemble firing on all cylinders, right down to Coco as Naru's loyal dog, Sarii.

Thanks to an intense focus on craft, phenomenal performances, and a creature who truly feels like one of cinema's great monsters again, "Prey" is the kind of movie summers are made for, a thrilling ride you'll want to immediately start over and watch again.

"Prey" debuts on Hulu on Friday, August 5.