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Prey (2022)::rating::4.5::rating::4.5

Prey is the Predator prequel we never knew we needed.  That first film was a campy, mud-soaked masterpiece of 80s mega-violence.  Everything since has followed the formula of the Jurassic Park franchise:  The second installment was…okay, I guess.  All the other sequels and spin-offs sucked deep-fried donkey ding-a-lings.  Going into this peculiar prequel, I would’ve been content to neatly fold this entire franchise into an origami swan and plop it into the nearest dumpster.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the trash bin:  Turns out, the makers behind Prey get just about everything right.  That starts with the decision to swipe left on the last three or four installments, which were–what’s the technical movie term I’m looking for…hogshit?  (Seriously, whoever decided Adrien Brody was an acceptable action substitute for Arnold Schwarzenegger needs a field sobriety test before they can pitch any more ideas.)  Director Dan Trachtenberg strips away the franchise’s B-movie trappings, and reimagines it as a thrilling, visceral piece of historical fiction.

It’s 1719, somewhere in what will eventually be the Plains States.  At this point, this land is still the domain of Native Americans, so Comanches supply the central characters.  Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a smart, headstrong young woman who dreams of being a fierce warrior.  Unfortunately, it seems that misogyny crosses over time and cultural boundaries.  The boys her age cruelly dismiss Naru, despite her obvious skills.  (“We don’t need a cook this far out,” one of them snarks during a hunt.)  Taabe (Dakota Beavers), her older brother, is milder in his brush-off:  Naru is simply not ready to be a killer, he says bluntly.

An early brush with danger seems to confirm Taabe’s suspicions.  The tribe believes a mountain lion has mauled one of their young warriors.  On their search, the beast attacks, and Naru freezes.  Knocked unconscious, she awakens at camp to find Taabe has slain the lion, and is now a tribal hero.  Naru is embarrassed, but she’s also insistent: When they were on the hunt, another creature was lurking in the distance.  It was massive, powerful, and it could be coming to kill them all.  Naru takes Sarii, her loyal Carolina dog, and sets out to hunt the monster that’s hunting them.

In terms of plot, that’s a lot of meat on the bone for a Predator flick.  Trachtenberg (who receives co-story credit with Patrick Aison) takes generous room to flesh out his story.  He also gives us believable characters, who say and do things that make sense. Naru is a fully-realized individual, a rarity for a horror protagonist.  As played by Midthunder, she’s resourceful and talented, but also proud, naïve, and recklessly ambitious.  When she makes mistakes, they’re for reasons that fit her personality.  All that adds up to a character we can root for, in a story that generates genuine suspense.

More good decisions:  Cinematographer Jeff Cutter loads up on magnificent wide shots that capture the mythological beauty of the Western frontier.  (Alberta stands in for the Dakotas.)  We see rolling mountains, golden prairie, and frothy, frigid rivers.  While horror-fueled action may occupy the center of this film, postcard scenery supplies the perfect backdrop.

But wait, there’s more:  Sarah Schachner’s thundering score echoes prime Hans Zimmer, and gives Prey an extra jolt of caffeine.  Also, the special effects from Industrial Light and Magic enhance the action, while never upstaging it.  CGI is hardly ever understated these days, so this film’s tasteful aesthetic is a breath of fresh air.

Best of all, Trachtenberg and company go out of their way to make Prey‘s Native American plot feel like more than mere novelty.  The film is quietly respectful to Comanche culture, and obvious care was taken to ensure authenticity.  (English and subtitled Comanche versions are available on Hulu.)  Comanche characters are played by indigenous actors, all of whom bring depth and humanity to their performances.  This movie could’ve been a cheap gimmick–another cool poster in search of a decent story–but everything is done just right.

I’ll even forgive its hubris of setting up an inevitable sequel.  (Watch through the mid-credits, if you care to know more.)  If future installments are this good, they can crank out as many as they want.  The Predator franchise was prime for extinction, until the makers of Prey figured out how to work smarter, not harder.  As a result, they deliver the best movie of the entire series.  Yeah, I said it.

100 min.  R.  Hulu (U.S.); Disney+ (International).

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