Setting a “Predator” prequel in the early 18th century North American Great Plains might sound like a stodgy prospect. Instead, “Prey” proves an exhilarating choice, reframing the franchise’s “And Then There Were None” meets “The Most Dangerous Game” original construct into a more distinctive and primordial prism.
Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche girl who yearns to be considered a full-fledged warrior but is regarded more for her tracking and naturopathic skills. She constantly hones her trusty tomahawk but still struggles to land her target, whether it is a hare or a deer. Her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), on the other hand, is a proven hunter who earns his acclaim by killing a cougar that has been harassing their tribe.
Enter a mysterious beast whose descent from the skies Naru likens to a Thunderbird. It is actually a Predator, cloaked, equipped with superior armaments, and seemingly sent to prove his own hunting bona fides.
This Predator, perhaps also a youth by his species’ standard, starts out by slaying a rattlesnake, a wolf, and then a grizzly bear (in one of several heart-pounding sequences) before graduating to humans, including Comanche tribesmen and a band of French voyageurs. The Predator’s code dictates that it only kills apparent prey; during one sequence, the Predator chases Naru until she gets snared in a foothold trap and the Predator temporarily leaves her be. Although the Predator has vastly superior strength and technology, both it and Naru are on their own personal kütaamia, a rite of passage in which hunters overcome their prey. This commonality, the film’s overarching narrative, extols a spiritual nobility of the hunt. Contrast that with a scene where Naru happens upon a field full of buffalo carcasses, left to rot after being slaughtered by trappers solely for the value of their skins.
Director Dan Trachtenberg wisely considers that while humans in 1719 were not yet as technologically advanced as the soldiers in 1987’s “Predator,” the Predator would have been over 250 years less evolved, as well. So while the Predator has immensely better tech than 18th century Native Americans and French fur trappers, he lacks some of the weaponry seen in later “Predator” movies — for example, this Predator’s armor is not impenetrable, and although it has laser-sighted weapons they fire metal rods instead of rockets.
The film starts alarmingly slow, but it is a necessary pace for a protagonist who evolves from naive to damsel in distress to tribal hero. Anyone who denigrates the film’s premise as blind female empowerment does not comprehend its underlying message of maturation. Rather than just a bloody battle of interplanetary species, “Prey” distills the principal conflict down to a survival of the fittest, with the unlikely survivor being the one best able to develop her wits along with her weaponry.