Review: Prey

John Scalzi

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.

— JS

22 Comments on “Review: Prey”

  1. minor spoiler alert/plot error: I might be missing something historically speaking, but Naru didn’t think it odd that a device that injured her dog, made of an element she might not be familiar with (METAL) wasn’t worth bringing to the attention of everyone?

  2. Amber Midthunder was in Legion on FX, by far the strangest of the Marvel TV adaptations. Well worth checking out.

  3. while your observation that with this movie and reservation dogs, native american performers and settings are having a moment is spot on, i’d like to mention ‘dark winds’, a six-part mystery series that aired on AMC earlier this year and was pretty much one of the best series i’ve seen on TV in some time.

    it’s a mostly native cast anchored by zahn mcclarnon, who gives a phenomenal performance in the lead (and is sure to be ignored come awards season, cuz ‘MURICA.)

  4. Possibly another argument for releasing on streaming is that it’s easier to give the viewer the choice to watch in English or Comanche with English subtitles. I’m not a fan of subtitles myself (I watched Squid Game with English dubs too), but I know some people who like watching things in the native language, so this seems a nice option to have.

  5. Icarus, metal was certainly known to the Comanches by the time of the Civil War, if not long before. Yes, they shaped our view of American Indians as largely nomadic warriors who hunted buffalo and fought everyone in their path, but they adopted horses and guns from the Spanish, and engaged in trade as well.

    Scalzi, your analysis of why PREY would show up on a streaming service first makes a lot sense. My knee-jerk reaction would be an indignant “Why not put it in theaters? Isn’t it GOOD enough?” – but the answer is, as you say, it’s more than good enough, it’s just not commercially viable for theaters with a female, non-White, non-star lead.

    What it would take to make it commercially viable – casting Scarlett Johansson or Charlize Theron as a White woman living among the Comanches, with Ah-NULD leaning out of a flying saucer in the end yelling at the female hero to “GET IN DUH TIMESHIP!”? Is kind of awful to contemplate.

  6. Love your comments on the benefits in sending this movie straight to streaming (Hulu) over a theatrical release. Completely agree.

    I watched it last night and was very surprised on how much I enjoyed it. One of those “this movie may have saved the franchise” moments. In the very least, it sure didn’t hurt it. It breathed some fresh air into it all.

  7. It was the best since the original. Top-notch casting, acting, and production – and editing, this movie is “tight”, not overly long and no wasted moments – yet not a frantic pace either. (You know a movie is a little too fast paced, when you start counting the seconds between camera cuts that are supposed to be exciting – Mile 22 I am looking at you.)

    Frankly the absolute best, refreshing action movie I have seen in year.

  8. Ms. Midthunder is a delight and if you liked her performance in this you should check out FX’s Legion. Really solid cast, amazing visuals, really nice performances.

  9. Chiming in with another recommendation for Legion. Even though the second season lost me, the first season is top tier Noah Hawley.

    The whole cast was great but Aubrey Plaza especially stood out.

  10. My apologies…I don’t know how I missed the caption stating what year this movie is set in…I thought it was much earlier, but when I saw the French-Canadians trappers I had to check.

  11. The voyageurs ruined it. Completely inaccurate and ahistorical. Setting aside that the French weren’t active in Comanche territory yet in 1719, you just didn’t have bands of French maniacs wandering the wilderness, slaughtering bison and natives. These guys were fur traders, there for work, and had close, friendly, and often intimate relations with the native populations. They’d have been turned into giant pincushions, otherwise. Took me right out of the film. I guess it’s more palatable for Americans than making them Spanish or English, though.

  12. Definitely one of the better films in the series. We enjoyed it a lot, probably will watch again soon. One thing that was weird, there were no captions for the French speakers. Did that happen for anyone else?

  13. Very pleased with the movie. Definitely a starmaking turn for Amber Midthunder. (I think somebody above referred to her as Aubrey Plaza, and there is a bit of a resemblance; I hope that was a joke, though.)

    Beautiful photography; would’ve liked to have seen this in a theater (and glad I went to the movies for “Nope” recently).

  14. Manuel Royal: Nah, I was just rather clumsily pointing out that while the whole cast of Legion (including Midthunder) was great, for me Aubrey Plaza was the standout in that first season.

    Midthunder was great in Prey and with that name I immediately remembered the only other thing I’d ever seen her in…

  15. I’m just watching the ending credits, and consider the move a triumph from beginning to end. What a difference it makes, to have Naru prevail through observation and intelligence!

    I join those who’ve recommended seeing Ms. Midthunder in “Legion”, especially the first season.

    It’s impressive that this is the first acting role ever for Dakota Beavers as the brother Taabe.

  16. Previous commenter: “What a difference it makes, to have Naru prevail through observation and intelligence!”

    That’s what I really enjoyed about it to, and it harks back to the original where Dutch also prevails because of his wits.

    Dutch doesn’t defeat the OG Predator because he was jacked; it was because he was smart.

  17. What disappoints me is the “hulu” part. It’s not a service I subscribe to, so anything released only on hulu is something I’m going to miss out on, which is a disappointment, because I’d really like to see this one.

  18. THANK YOU for this nuanced and insightful article . I’m a great fan of American Indian actors & shows. The spousal unit and I watched S2E1 of Reservoir Dogs last night and the season is off to a good start.

    Since I’m a white person talking to (mostly) non-Indians, I’d like to share a couple of things I’ve heard: 1. Native Americans call themselves Indians. Yes it’s inaccurate but that ship sailed a long time ago. 2. Indians really don’t care much about baseball or football team logos but they’d really appreciate your taking an interest in delivering better social services to the reservations — especially education and medical care.