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Prey strips the Predator formula down to basics, with style

Before Disney bought 20th Century Fox in 2017, the film studio had become known as a purveyor of durable genre movies like the Alien, Predator, and X-Men series — and also as an interfering cost-cutter, defined by its willingness to set pivotal action sequences in generic parking lots and Canadian forests. (See The Darkest Minds, Elektra, or X-Men: The Last Stand, among many others, for examples of the Fox aesthetic at its worst.) These reputations weren’t mutually exclusive; sometimes, a Fox movie would strike up a pleasing balance between muscular thrills and relative limitations, like The Wolverine, a smaller-scale superhero movie that makes evocative use of its initial, woodsy setting.

Prey is the latest Fox production to capture both sides of that Fox history, while also nodding toward the studio’s new identity as a Disney-owned content mill for Hulu. The latest entry in the Predator franchise that began in 1987 is a stripped-down version of the usual sci-fi hunt, coming straight to Hulu without hitting movie theaters first.

At first glance, it makes sense to send a new Predator movie directly to streaming. Like a lot of R-rated sci-fi series, this one hasn’t been popular in years. 2010’s Predators and 2018’s The Predator proved the series still has loyal fans, but also demonstrated that the audience is relatively small. Prey attempts to bring the series even further back to its roots than those films did — not that the other Predator movies have strayed especially far from the formula of giant, masked, mandible-faced alien monsters hunting humans who eventually fight back.

Photo: David Bukach/20th Century Studios

Still, there’s an admirable minimalism in the idea of a prequel that goes so far back in time that the franchise’s previous characters won’t be born for hundreds of years. Prey is set in the Great Plains of North America in the year 1719, following Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman desperate to undergo the training rites to become a hunter for her tribe. Her family and tribemates predictably disagree about her readiness for this task, encouraging her to help her people in other ways. But when a series of mysterious signs indicates that an unfamiliar creature is stalking their territory, only Naru is willing to hunt it down.

Prey’s early scenes flirt with minimalism without fully committing to it. Naru trains herself in solitude with a custom-made weapon — a throwing ax she makes retrievable by tying on a rope — and she fulfills her tribal obligations alongside her trusty canine sidekick. Meanwhile, an 18th-century Predator arrives on Earth and explores the Great Plains, mostly by observing smaller predatory animals in action, then taking them out. (Seems like easy pickings for an 8-foot alien with technology far beyond this world, but apparently this is the Predator equivalent of a tourist checking out local restaurants.) Eventually, the two cross paths more directly.

Before that inevitable, satisfying clash, Prey makes some concessions to less-adventurous audiences. Rather than making full use of a Comanche language, or simply avoiding dialogue whenever possible, the native characters speak primarily in English, in a vernacular that sounds suspiciously like contemporary screenwriters tiptoeing around their inability (or unwillingness) to approximate something older and less immediately familiar. This is part of a larger pattern: Whenever the movie has the opportunity to hold back for a scene or even a moment that plays slightly more lyrical or mysterious, director and co-writer Dan Trachtenberg tends to cut himself short. He may be out there in the woods, but he isn’t exactly communing with the spirit of Terrence Malick.

Members of Naru’s tribe line up and shout at something offscreen in Prey

Photo: 20th Century Studios

Trachtenberg, who made the similarly pared-down franchise extension 10 Cloverfield Lane, has one major thing to offer in Prey: efficiency. This is a movie about a young woman on a collision course with a spine-ripping alien dude in a cool skull mask. The other members of Naru’s tribe are there to naysay and/or become Predator fodder. A late-arriving band of fur traders also offers up some huntable bodies. Trachtenberg finds ways to present the efficiencies of their short, brief lives with a flourish: He sets up action with overhead shots, sometimes from far above for lay-of-the-land establishing shots, and sometimes giving the camera just enough space for a full view of obstacles like a particularly sticky mud pit.

He also makes series-best use of the Predator’s neon-green blood, as an accent color against the more muted, natural tones of the film’s setting. The action itself is shot cleanly and clearly. One scene pitting Naru against the fur traders is especially impressive, considering it doesn’t involve the movie’s iconic monster.

Both the strengths and the weaknesses of Prey place a lot of pressure on Midthunder, playing the only human in the movie who isn’t there solely for narrative convenience. She delivers a charismatic, athletic performance, popping off the screen with her watchful, expressive eyes highlighted by tribal makeup. What sets her apart from heroes of past Predator movies is telegraphed right upfront in dialogue, as her brother questions her desire to prove herself: “You want to hunt something that’s hunting you?”

He isn’t talking about the Predator yet at that point, but he might as well be. When the time comes, Naru must actively seek out the alien, who never identifies her as a hunt-worthy opponent. Like everyone else, the Predator underestimates Naru, keeping his eye on showier, less worthy prey. The simplicity of “women can kill as good as men” threatens to turn Naru into a Predator-fighting, bloodthirsty girlboss, but the no-nonsense scrappiness of Midthunder’s performance keeps that from happening.

It would be easy to overhype Prey because it’s a direct-to-streaming movie that could have passed muster on the big screen. It’s about as good as the other Predator movies, rather than being a game-changing revelation. It is a shame, though, that Disney didn’t opt for a simultaneous theatrical and streaming release, given that this August is a relatively barren month for wide releases. This movie would make fine summer drive-in fodder, in the tradition of some recent non-Fox woman-versus-nature features like Crawl or The Shallows.

Naru (Amber Midthunder) faces the Predator in Prey

Photo: David Bukach/20th Century Studios

Summer entertainment that actually works as an exciting, unfussy B-movie isn’t an area the modern version of Big Disney typically explores. It’s probably too much to hope that the Fox acquisition would diversify the types of movies Disney makes, rather than simply eliminating another group of titles from the release schedule.

Maybe that’s why Prey doesn’t feel shameless, even though it theoretically embodies everything that’s tedious and unspectacular about big-studio filmmaking: a franchise extension traded from one subsidiary to another, designed to induce nostalgia pangs and inspire Easter-egg hunts. (Hint: Besides the obligatory Predator dialogue riff, there’s a connection to Predator 2 afoot, too.) Trachtenberg’s film wields the elemental appeal of watching sci-fi/horror weirdness bend the boundaries of the human-against-nature conflict. Prey doesn’t worship the past — not of its country, studio, genre, or franchise. But it has a keen understanding of its place in all of those histories.

Prey debuts on Hulu on Aug. 5.

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