by Jarrod Jones. Few action franchises have a tidier formula than Predator: knock out two hours of the hunted pursuing the hunter, and fill out the rest of the running time with an astonishing body count. So, with that and Stan Winston’s this-is-how-it’s-done creature design going for it, how can it be that we haven’t seen a good Predator movie since Predator 2

It’s a simple matter of overthinking the formula. Aliens Vs. Predator and its equally dim-bulb sequel AVP: Requiem smashed together 20th Century Fox’s two marquee extraterrestrials but padded its bouts with belligerent plot mechanics. Predators did a better job of executing the formula but it lacked the visceral punch of Predator and its gonzo sequel. And then there’s Shane Black, himself a Predator alum from way back, who somehow managed to put the whole enterprise on its ass with 2018’s The Predator. (Now we don’t have to imagine what an entire Predator movie would be like if everyone was Hawkins anymore.)

Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey is a return to formula, and a confidently made one, at that. Intriguingly, it applies the gnarlier functions of the Predator series—namely, the spine-yanking, limb-decimating brio of the first and second films—to the tranquility of a period piece set long before the days of the minigun, say nothing of the United States of America. It’s a snug fit.

Set in 1719, Prey locks its bygone particulars into place in economical fashion. It follows Naru (Amber Midthunder) and her companion Sarii (portrayed by a very good dog named Coco) as she hones her hunting/tracking skills to match—and possibly surpass—those of her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers). When she goes out to hunt, strange thunder rumbles over the Great Plains. As she endures mockery from the more traditionally-minded boys in her Comanche tribe, they’re surrounded by the unearthly chitter of something that does not belong here. It’s not long before Naru makes a grim discovery: a different kind of hunter is stalking the perimeter of her home.

Before its inevitable showdown Prey gets busy establishing the strengths and weaknesses of its two adversaries. Naru finesses the use of her hatchet by attaching a thin rope to it while the beast from beyond tries out its murder-tech on Earth’s more natural predators. (Most of the beasts featured in this film are realized through computer effects, not always convincingly.) While the Predator has an entire arsenal of blades and projectiles at the ready, Naru is put at a profound technological disadvantage—though her powers of observation soon prove to be her most valuable asset.

The contrasts continue, at least visually: Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) largely shot this on location in Calgary (how nice is it to see a tentpole action film take place outside, I mean seriously), and he cuts his ample supply of earth tones with intermittent splashes of neon green and deep, dark red. It’s a gorgeous film to watch even as the fur begins to fly.

Yet, for all the new and exciting attributes Prey brings to the Predator franchise, it goes about showing off its monster like it’s business as usual. Naru may not know what she’s facing, but we do, and while there was some talk among Trachtenberg and 20th Century Studios about not revealing that this was a covert Predator prequel, the film makes no bones about giving away the goods as soon as possible. (Ancient alien camouflage only works sometimes, evidently.) Prey even pays a bit of franchise lip-service (and includes one incredible Easter egg) even though it absolutely did not have to. Trachtenberg gets so much right about the Predator formula that he almost lets himself get carried away by it. 

It’s frustrating that Prey didn’t find its way to a theatrical release—its use of natural light and on-location photography would have had one hell of an enveloping effect in a darkened theater. As it stands, Prey is still a top-tier streaming experience (it certainly gave Hulu one hell of a weekend); it flexes some serious (if dusty) franchise muscle yet remembers to put its true superpower—namely Midthunder, who is so good in this it’s absurd—at the fore. As Naru paints her face just before things get personal, Midthunder has all but outshined the 9-foot-tall killing machine taking aim at her heart.

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
Screenplay by Patrick Aison.
Story by Patrick Aison and Dan Trachtenberg.
Produced by John Davis, Jhane Myers, and Marty P. Ewing.
Starring Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp, Julian Black Antelope, and Dane DiLiegro.

Rated R because Predators like to rip spines out of fresh corpses, among other things.