‘Prey’ and the Evolution of the ‘Predator’ Franchise
One of the most brilliant things about Hulu’s newly released Prey is how well it thrives in its simplicity. This is the fifth entry in an increasingly muddled Predator series, seventh if you count the two Alien vs. Predator spin-off movies, and yet references or winking acknowledgments to the previous movies feel like they are kept to a minimum. There’s no setting up an epic, interconnected Predator Cinematic Universe, no cameos, and no fan service; all we get is a prop that eagle-eyed fans will note relates to the second film and an iconic line from the first movie delivered by one of Prey’s main characters. Coming in at a little over 90 minutes, Prey is relatively self-contained, and engages for long enough without overstaying its welcome. The same cannot be said of many other contemporary franchise films.
The film is technically a prequel to the main Predator lore, taking place centuries before Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny Glover battled the titular alien beast. In 1719, somewhere in the Great Plains, a young Comanche warrior named Naru (Amber Midthunder, best known for her role on Legion) is convinced there is a bigger threat facing her tribe than the typical wild animals they come across after she glances up at the Predator’s spaceship in the sky. Naru lives in the shadow of her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), a skilled hunter who will eventually be appointed War Chief of the tribe. After an expedition didn’t turn up much and left her injured, Naru, along with her loyal dog Sarii, still continues to seek out this mystery. She ends up encountering a Predator when she is confronted by a grizzly bear.
Naru is then captured by French fur traders and learns more about who and what the Predator believes is deserving of death. This is not as polished a Predator as we’ve seen in previous films, but it still remains menacing as ever. This Predator uses technology that looks more dated, perhaps owing to this being set centuries ago. Naru acquires knowledge, such as how to use a pistol and the Predator’s tendency to track its target using body heat, which will become helpful in her final confrontation with the beast. It’s then time to outsmart this creature in the film’s climax, where Naru has to use her acquired skills and talent to kill the Predator once and for all.
Prey is masterfully told and effectively presented, a gripping adventure that keeps one at the edge of their seat. Credit has to be paid to Midthunder, who certainly rises to the occasion in the lead role. Also of note is how hard the film tries to be accurate to its Native American characters, there is an authenticity presented even down to the character’s use of the Comanche language. A dub of the film in Comanche was released simultaneously on Hulu, making it the first Hollywood blockbuster for that to be the case. This franchise needed to be injected with a new perspective, something different and fresh, and it more than succeeds with Prey.
In fact, Prey feels like it shares the most in common with the first Predator movie and is perhaps second only to it in an overall ranking of the series. Released in 1987, Predator follows an elite mercenary squad containing the likes of two future governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jesse Ventura, alongside Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Shane Black, and others. Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the team’s leader, and the film’s protagonist. Once he and his armed gang of mercenaries slaughter a camp of guerilla fighters in a fictional Central American country, they must try to survive the wrath of the deadly Predator as they are killed off one by one. Dutch, as the last man standing, must find a way to kill the beast by using both the natural jungle environment and an ingenious set of traps to his advantage.
Predator is a lot of fun, it is easily accessible spectacle that combines elements of action, sci-fi, and horror. This mashup of genres is one of the movie’s key strengths, as many have noted. But the movie has its tongue somewhat in its cheek, most apparent in now-iconic moments like Dutch and Carl Weathers’ Dillon’s opening handshake and lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed” and “get to the choppa!” Just a year after Predator, director John McTiernan would shake up the action-movie world yet again by releasing a little movie called Die Hard. I like to think that Predator was his testing ground for so much of what made Die Hard click.
Predator’s direct follow-up, 1990’s Predator 2, moves the action from the jungle to the big city. In a Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future, Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) discovers something else is a factor contributing to murders during a citywide gang-related turf war, eventually discovering the culprit to be a Predator. Predator 2 is a serviceable enough sequel, not nearly as memorable as its predecessor, but it doesn’t squander its legacy either. Glover’s casting in particular feels quietly revolutionary in comparison to the burly, muscled men in the first one. Predator 2 could almost pass for a Lethal Weapon sequel where Glover’s Roger Murtagh tracks a Predator sans Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs. Overall, Predator 2 is mostly worthwhile, has some creative ideas, and moves the franchise forward in mostly positive ways, but can’t help but feel like a runner-up compared to its predecessor.
The ending of Predator 2 teased that the Predator species hunt xenomorphs, the species featured in the Alien franchise. Soon enough, the Alien vs. Predator concept became a popular spin-off in the form of comic books and video games. Naturally, a movie of these two icons of sci-fi horror going at it had to be made. The first of these efforts, 2004’s Alien vs. Predator, is decent enough, and when the focus is on the two extraterrestrial species going head-to-head, it can be a lot of schlocky fun. I watched the movie right after it came out when I was a teenager, and that feels like the perfect time to watch it. It’s not concerned with plot or characters as much as living up to the potential of its title. Because of that, I didn’t even bother with the sequel, 2007’s Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.
The series tried switching it up a little with 2010’s Predators, invoking the “sequel is the title of the first movie, but plural” idea that Aliens used way back in 1986. This time, the conceit is that some of Earth’s best soldiers, warriors, and mercenaries have been taken to an alien planet, where, as always, Predators hunt them down for sport. It features an all-star cast containing Adrian Brody, Lawrence Fishburne, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Alice Braga, Danny Trejo, and even future two-time Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali in one of his first movie roles.
It’s certainly a bold, different take on the material, which had gotten somewhat stale in the intervening decades since the first two movies. The cast mostly gels, and it felt like the most ambitious Predator movie up to that point. When Predators works, it can be compelling, held up by the intriguing nature of its premise. But it suffers from a lot of what burdened Predator 2: expanding the lore and universe while not being as memorable in its own right. New creatures are introduced to threaten our cast of characters, but they don’t linger as much as the classic Predators do. It was a creative idea to flip expectations and have the humans on an alien world, but the result doesn’t feel like it lives up to its potential.
And then there’s 2018’s The Predator, easily the low point of the entire series. Writer/director Shane Black, who already had cult hits like 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 2016’s The Nice Guys, as well as Iron Man 3 under his belt, wanted to pay homage to his early role in the first movie by taking the reins of the franchise. The result is a befuddling, stupid mess of a movie. The mercenary characters featured in The Predator, in contrast to those in its direct predecessor, feel like stereotypes and have little in the way of personality. The humor is often unfunny and awkward. Even basic tenets of filmmaking, such as editing, seem to go out the window in this movie. Much as the case was in Iron Man 3, there’s a little boy character whose precociousness ruins an otherwise adult-oriented action movie.
And don’t get me started on the main drive of the film, that being that the Predator is trying to locate people with autism, believing them to be the next step in human evolution. It’s as hokey and conceited as it sounds. The film is little more than an excuse to introduce new monsters into the Predator lore, like the massive “Upgrade Predator” that threatens the main characters. Its last scene even teases a new way to fight the Predators in a sequel that will thankfully never see the light of day. Watching The Predator was a frustrating experience, to say the least, and I had assumed the movie was an absolute nadir that the franchise would have a difficult time recovering from.
For cinephiles, tracking the evolution of this series over multiple decades is certainly worthwhile, and Prey most certainly both inherits and lives up to that legacy. This was a series started on a simple premise of a hostile extraterrestrial killing capable military men and their fight for survival. That turned into admirable efforts like Predator 2 and Predators that added to the mythology but didn’t rise above their expectations. The franchise veered very shlock-heavy with the Alien vs. Predator movies at a time when many other franchises were being resurrected or rebooted.
That gave way to the absolute low point of The Predator, a movie that gleefully embraces every tired trope of the modern blockbuster era while offering nothing in return except for a tone-deaf plot about autism and a lack of any compelling characters.
Prey feels like it returns the series to its true form, getting back to the roots of what made the first one resonate so well by making us sympathize with a lone warrior up against a Goliath of an evil alien entity. Because of that, I hope that Prey has ended up breathing new life into a franchise and concept that I love.