'Prey' revives the art of action storytelling

August 14, 2022
Amber Midthunder stars as young Comanche woman, Naru, in 'Prey'. Photo: IMBD

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Starring Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers and Dane DiLiegro
1 hr, 39 mins
Streaming on Disney Plus

Images of meat linger throughout Prey. The new film from Dan Trachtenberg (director of 2016’s excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane) is steeped in the language of hunting, of killing and of flesh. This is perhaps most evident in an early shot that seems to encompass the whole food chain: beginning with an ant devoured by a rat, the rat seized by a snake, and the snake speared by a hunter.

This could be a scene from any number of classical, hardened “man-versus-nature” movies, but there’s one glaring difference; The shot is framed so we can see much of the action through the hunter’s body — for the hunter, you understand, is invisible.

Prey is a respectful, authentic, collaboratively-told story of warriors in the Comanche nation — and a Predator prequel.

The 80s action classic had a simple enough premise — take an Arnold Schwazenegger flick and, halfway through, turn it into a slasher movie. The titular alien was an iconic-enough villain. Despite years of mediocre sequels, demand for a new Predator was always high. Maybe this time — fans repeatedly reasoned — they would get it right.

With Prey, it seems, at last, they did.

Set in 1719, the picture follows Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman trained as a healer, who longs to join the hunt. A skilled tracker with a keen mind, it’s clear from the start that she has the makings of a great hunter — but the rest of her community doesn’t see it that way. Even her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who believes in her more than most, doubts she has the grit to land a killing blow.

But what Naru does have, without qualification, is a keen and wary mind. She sees the thunder of the Predator’s ship in the Comancherian sky. She spies tracks like those of a bear, but walking upright. And she finds a rattlesnake skinned, half-alive, twitching in the bushes. She knows there is something else in the forests of the Great Plains. And that it is dangerous.

From there, the story unfolds along relatively familiar lines. The Comanche come under attack — from the Predator and French fur trappers — and Naru must secure her people’s safety. There is some fairly broad commentary here on the horrors of colonialism — likening the monstrousness of the “settlers” with the alien “invader” — but Prey’s most radical act is its simply being made. Here we have a film co-produced by the Comanche Nation, filled before and behind the camera with First Nations’ talent, and centred on the bravery of an indigenous woman.

Midthunder delivers a physical performance easily on par with the trails blazed by Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton. Among her own people she slouches uncertainly, staring up from beneath dark hair with wide and wavering eyes. And yet, when it comes time to hunt, her whole body stiffens — she grows lithe, sinewy, fast — and those same eyes burn with furious intelligence. She creates a character with real physical ability, but who is just this side of having proven herself. You believe she can defeat the Predator, but you’re never sure that she will.

The film around her is good too. Action cinema has been in something of a fugue state for the past decade, with the most profitable movies in the world — the Marvel Cinematic Universe — sub-contracting its action scenes to underpaid and overworked second units and VFX departments. The result is a choppy mess which functions on the pure level of sensory distraction. Lots of things are moving, lots of limbs are flailing about — but no punch really lands, and no danger really threatens.

On the other end of the spectrum stands John Wick and his acolytes — action pictures designed to show off their choreography and style, often set in neon soaked grunge-scapes and filmed in distracting long-takes. These films are often entertaining to be sure, but there remains something bothersome about their sheer physical perfection. Great action movies of the past weren’t interested in showing off with their style (or even necessarily with their stunts) — just in using classical filmmaking to make you believe their protagonists are in mortal danger, and that they’re skilled enough to escape it.

Here is where Prey excels. Structurally, the screenplay from Patrick Aison ensures that no action scene feels arbitrary or inconsequential — every story beat subverts or counters what came before. Take the moment where Naru realises she’s downwind of a bear. She immediately takes action, readying her bow — only for it to snap. As the bear charges, her loyal dog runs away, distracting the creature — and so on and so on. Every development raises (or at least changes) the stakes — this is action storytelling — a discipline many assumed lost in contemporary Hollywood.

These moments are given to us in unshowy, clearly choreographed set pieces, which are framed and edited carefully (credit cinematographer Jeff Cutter and editors Angela M Catanzaro and Claudia Castello for their restraint). The digital cinematography feels crisp and sleek — lending this period piece a contemporary sheen. The production design and costuming is deeply informed by Comanche tradition — for which we must thank the guiding hand of producer (and Comanche woman) Jhane Meyers.

So much of this movie is remarkable. It is a carefully directed, cleverly told blockbuster that centres First Nations talent in its cast and crew. It is a feminist action flick that never feels the need to justify itself — Naru simply is a born action hero, just like Ripley before her. It is a late entry in a major Hollywood franchise that never succumbs to fanservice or unimaginative nostalgia. But it is not getting a theatrical release.

For whatever reason, Disney has chosen to dump this movie on its in-house streaming service with no recourse to theatres. I hesitate to recommend any film one needs a contract to see — even one as well-made as this. It’s a shame. Here we have a movie which is well-made and politically astute in all the ways Disney claims to desire, and it ignominiously denied the chance to play on the big screen — surely a blow for the largely unknown First Nations cast, whose careers, I fear, won’t receive the boost they should thanks to the picture’s “lesser” status.

But if you have Disney Plus and like action movies — give Prey a watch. Despite the cold indifference of its release, this is that rarest of beasts in the modern Hollywood landscape: a movie made with love.

It deserves our love in return.

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