To begin, it’s pretty damn good, if not the best “Predator” film than certainly the most nuanced, and the one that actually feels like real live humans dealing with a seemingly unstoppable adversary. The characters in this film are not roided-out mercs, cops or a murder’s row of assassins and psychopaths, they’re just people, in this case members of a Comanche tribe from the early 18th century. The protagonist, Naru (Amber Midthunder, who I had not seen before but would be happy to watch again) is not a super-fit super-soldier, but rather a smart and determined woman who chafes against tribal expectations, and who fights not just with muscle but with observation, intuition and understanding. She fights both harder and smarter, and she needs to do both to survive.
I liked that. To be clear, I don’t mind watching a Lt. Col. Beefy McChesterson punching an alien weightlifter in the face — it has its place and time, you know? — but in an era of super heroes smacking around super villains in the Inevitable CGI-Filled Final Battle, there’s a certain sameness to it all at this point. Prey does not lack for action sequences or violence (it’s just as “R” rated as the original), and no one who has come for that aspect of the series should walk away disappointed. But having human-scaled stakes, and the characters trying to save themselves and their tribe rather than the whole universe, is surprisingly welcome, especially when pulled off well, like it is here.
There’s been some discussion about the fact that Prey was sent directly to Hulu rather than getting a theatrical release, and what that all means for the film and its makers and cast. As a filmgoer, I would have been happy to see this film in theaters. Taking place as it does in the 18th century North American plains (and filmed in the modern day in Canada), the vistas are gorgeous and the scale of the movie fits a large screen. The action scenes are designed well enough to be intelligible on smaller screens, but seeing them on a large wall in surround sound would have given them a nice jolt. You can’t see this in the theaters, but you should probably see it on the largest screen you can, with a nice sound system if you can manage it.
That established, I at least understand, and think there might be some advantages to, Prey having been released to streaming rather than theaters. The first is a purely practical, economic decision: The Predator series has been, shall we say, extremely hit or miss in terms of quality and box office, and the most recent installment of the series (2018’s The Predator) was both a critical whiff and a financial bust, grossing just $53 million domestically ($160M globally) against a nearly $90 million budget. None of the “Predator” movies has ever cracked $100 million domestically, even the original, which brought in $60 million (in, to be fair, 1987 dollars), and the average domestic box office take for the series hovers around $50M.
Where the Predator movies tend to be best appreciated (and drag themselves into the black, financially) is in the home: video rentals when those were a thing, and endless cable and streaming viewings today. That being the case, there is a perfectly reasonable argument that 20th Century (now part of Disney) should just skip the essentially loss leader segment of its life (and its attendant millions in marketing and advertising) and go straight to where most people will see it anyway, and in the process give a boost to Hulu by providing it a “marquee” property of a sort that people will happily watch at home even if they might not have dragged themselves to a theater to see it. Now it doesn’t matter if Prey makes money; it only matters is if it attracts eyeballs and helps Hulu with subscriber retention and (to a lesser extent at this point) acquisition. It will certainly do that; I would not be entirely surprised if it ends up being Hulu’s most popular original film to date.
Second, I think its release on streaming lets the studio and filmmakers change the conversation around Prey to something other than its first weekend box office. Prey has a cast that, while excellent, are unknowns (Midthunder, the lead, is best known from genre TV and secondary film roles) and are all largely Native Americans. The former is a disadvantage when it comes to box office — people still go to theaters to see stars — and if the movie flubbed its first weekend box office, it’s likely the notoriously financially (and therefore not-so-secretly socially) conservative film industry would have taken the wrong lesson from the latter (“No one wants to see movies with Native Americans in the lead”).
With Prey at Hulu, the conversation about the film this week is not about the box office, but where it fits in the rankings of Predator movies (most rankings I’ve seen have it at number two, behind the original, which is a fair call), how Amber Midthunder is coming out of this a star (also a fair call), and how this movie and Reservation Dogs herald a new era of Native American representation in mainstream entertainment. These are much better conversations to be having than the inevitable small squib of “whoops, another Predator series stumble” if the film had finished in second place (or worse) at the theaters behind Bullet Train, which stars Brad Pitt, playing a Brad Pitt-like character doing very Brad Pitt-like things, Brad Pitt-ily.
All things taken into consideration, I think 20th Century positioned Prey as well as it could to be seen by the Predator series core audience, and then, through press and word of mouth, have a chance to build outside that core audience when it becomes known that, actually, Prey is not only a good Predator film, but surprisingly, a good film that has a Predator in it.
And it is that! A good film, with a fine cast — in addition to Midthunder, take note of newcomer Dakota Beavers as Naru’s older brother Taabe; he’s also terrific and I’d be happy to see more of him — and a solid story. And also, it’s got a Predator. A pretty nasty one at that. You’ll want to see how it gets handled.