There’s something both enlightening and frustrating about watching Prey, the new Predator prequel set in Comanche country in the 18th century, now streaming on Hulu (or on Disney+ in some regions, including Australia where I am). It’s such a revelation for an action film of this caliber to have a completely Indigenous main cast and an Indigenous perspective from start to finish — the first high-profile franchise film that can make that claim. As Native critic Johnnie Jae puts it, Prey exemplifies “what can be achieved when you intentionally involve Native talent in every step of the creative process.”
It’s a revelation to see how easy it is to do this, after decades of Hollywood’s marginalization of Native characters, racist tropes and whitewashing of history — and how wonderful the results are. Something about seeing it done in a beloved action franchise, with the big budget, special effects and stunts that come with it, highlights this incongruous and infuriating gap in film history. In other words Prey shouldn’t be as remarkable as it is.
Winding the Predator timeline back 300 years, Prey places the familiar alien hunter of many tired sequels and crossovers in a North America that is just starting to be colonized by Europeans, and pits it against a small band of Comanche hunters led by a fierce young warrior woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder). So it simultaneously wipes the slate clean, and makes the franchise more interesting than it’s ever been. It’s got all the action and suspense and orchestrated violence you expect from a Predator film, but it’s entirely set in a milieu in which the Indigenous characters are the heroes, the white colonizers are the unruly threatening hordes, and the alien villain represents the whole idea of invasion and conquest. Thus it uses a storied action franchise to explore themes of Indigenous history, culture, resistance, and survival— and emphasizes the power of Indigenous women to boot.
Prey was directed by Dan Trachtenberg, who proved his horror pedigree with 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Trachtenberg is not Indigenous himself, but one of the film’s producers, Jhane Meyers, is Comanche, and she was heavily involved in ensuring the film’s screenplay and production got all the details of Comanche culture and language right. Trachtenberg and writer Patrick Aison also worked closely on the screenplay with Comanche educator Juanita Pahdopony (who sadly died in 2020 before the film was completed). Star Amber Midthunder is an Assiniboine and Sioux woman, and all of the other principal cast are also Native.
Prey is the first feature film to be released in both English and Comanche versions (the Comanche version is dubbed). This groundbreaking move has been praised by Comanche advocates as a wonderful tool for promoting the language. In fact, Trachtenberg initially wanted to film Prey entirely in Comanche, which would have been amazing; but the more pragmatic move to film it in English ensured a bigger audience. Indeed, it’s broken viewership records for Hulu.
Prey falls short of being a great film. Despite excellent Indigenous representation and overall strong quality, it falls back on some pretty familiar action tropes. It’s torn between a new era and an old one, and it doesn’t always win this battle.
But it’s a very good film, and entirely worth your while, especially if you care about action movies with heart and brains and a clue about identity and oppression. It’s hands down the best Predator film since the original — better than all the other Predator sequels put together. And I’d rather see a flawed but inspired effort like Prey any day over just about any of the other lame genre exercises thrown our way week in and week out.
The original Predator is considered a classic of the genre for good reason. I saw it on its first theatrical run in the summer of 1987 (I saw it with my mom; she’s always been a big action-movie fan, one of the most endearing things about her). Though I was only 16, I remember being really surprised by how good it was. Despite my youth I was already jaded about the genre, probably from years of watching 80s B-movies on late-night cable.
The first act of the film, about a covert military operation in the jungles of an unnamed Central American nation, is very much like those B-movies — hardly distinguishable from all the Rambo knockoffs that dominated multiplexes in that era (including others starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar), as Hollywood attempted to exorcise the mass trauma of Vietnam. The corny dialogue and hypermasculine posing are so preposterous they come across like a satire of those films, years before Tropic Thunder did that explicitly.
But then it transforms into something really compelling, as an unseen enemy hunts these soldiers like animals and slaughters them in horrible ways. Director John McTiernan, who a year later would deliver a truly canonical action classic in Die Hard, was already on top of his craft. The way he builds the tension, the stakes and the camaraderie between the characters is diabolically effective. The idea of humans as prey for an alien hunter of superior power and intellect is both fascinating and frightening on a primal level, and McTiernan milks that premise for every last drop of suspense. I rewatched it late one night recently and, though I was tired and though I know it backwards and forwards, I found I couldn’t turn it off. The many shots of the protagonists staring helplessly into the trees in the medium distance build a deliciously unsettling mood; and the POV shots of the predator’s helmet display with the heat vision now seem retrofuturist. As it winds towards its powerhouse finale, it becomes more minimalist — there is almost no dialogue in the final act — and just plain weirder.
As with his work on Aliens, Stan Winston’s now-iconic creature design communicates that primal fear with visceral, delightfully grotesque power. Schwarzeneggar himself is at his best. Arnie was never a great actor in terms of range or craft, but he’s always had a tremendous ability to transform his natural charisma into something endearing onscreen, with surprising intelligence, wit, and even vulnerability. The final shot of the film, a nod at Apocalypse Now with a wide-eyed Schwarzeneggar looking absolutely consumed by horror, is so unusually bleak for the action genre.
The fact that Predator features several great, well-drawn characters of color makes it a standout for its era, and probably helps explain why it’s so enduringly popular (and let me just say that any film is made better with the great Bill Duke in it). Among the supporting cast is Sonny Landham, playing a Native American tracker who has a memorable last stand with the alien; several involved with the production of Prey have cited Landham’s character as an inspiration.
Elpidia Carrillo’s role as a guerrilla and prisoner of the commando team led by Schwarzeneggar may be unfortunate on a political level (I’ll set aside my critique of the film’s awful Reagan-era militarism and anticommunism), but her performance brings memorable gravity to the proceedings. Her monologue in which she tells of “the demon who makes trophies of men,” a nameless terror that stalked her village during her childhood — and for ages before that — is one of the best scenes in the film, adding an eerie sense of prophecy to the otherwise bare-boned plot.
That monologue laid the groundwork for Prey, 35 years in advance. The idea is that Earth has always been a hunting ground for this rapacious alien species, and different peoples at different points in history have had to contend with it.
The thing about Prey is that it’s so good compared to the glut of Predator sequels, crossovers and other cash-ins, so true to the spirit of the original, and yet so bold in its reimagining of the milieu, that it basically functions as the great follow-up that Predator always deserved — only 35 years late. You can skip the rest of it and head straight to this one and you’ll be better off. And it’s a solid action-thriller that delivers the goods even if you miss all the cultural and historic references — though of course its Indigeneity makes it all the richer. It’s a case of win-win.
Kudos to the caretakers of the franchise for their decision to put a Native woman front and center in this installment, and to weather the inevitable backlash from the anti-“wokeness” clowns. The significance of this is clear when you read interviews with Midthunder. At the film’s UK premiere, she told reporters that an Indigenous woman action hero is “something that I don’t recall really seeing at all.”
Prey starts out on a very human note, establishing its hero, her family and her day-to-day life before it shows us anything scary or otherworldly, and that’s a good approach. It’s 1719, somewhere in the mountainous regions of the Northern Great Plains. Naru is a young Comanche woman who has been trained to be a healer by her mother Aruka (Michelle Thrush), but dreams of being a great hunter like the men in her tribe, including her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers). While out practicing her hunting skills with her loyal dog Sarii, Naru witnesses the ominous arrival of the alien hunter’s spaceship, which she interprets as a Thunderbird — a sign she’s on the right path as a hunter.
It’s subtle, but in these opening scenes, the film pushes back against a problematic narrative right away, by showing that the predator is in fact invading someone’s land — the Comanche’s. It is not “virgin” land as depicted in so many Westerns.
Midthunder is excellent as Naru, with the perfect mix of fierceness, stubborn wilfulness, vulnerability, and wry deadpan humor (the latter of which reminds me a bit of Aubrey Plaza). She carries the film through some of its missteps and weak spots, and shines during its best moments (literally shines at one point, when she paints the alien’s green phosphorescent blood on her face — such an instantly iconic image).
Something so many action filmmakers forget: you need a human being the audience actually cares about at the center of the action. There needs to be stakes; and action heroes, whether women or men, need to be vulnerable as well as capable and strong. Midthunder creates those stakes with a performance that’s as down-to-earth, relatable and funny as it is inspiring. I hope a sequel happens if for no other reason than to see her expand on her work here. (A sequel is teased in the animated graphics of the closing credits, but of course that doesn’t guarantee the financing and the rest will fall into place.)
When one of the tribe is attacked and dragged away by a mountain lion, Naru demands to go along with the search party that includes Taabe and several other young men of her village. They reluctantly agree, on the grounds that they may need a healer. This escalates one of the story’s main conflicts: the male hunters of Naru’s village believe she’s not cut out to be one of them, and she’s determined to prove them wrong.
When I first watched Prey, I found this plot element to be a bit borderline. It’s a mistake to equate Western patriarchy, which has for centuries been closely associated with the oppression of women under capitalism, with Indigenous gender roles. Western feminists need to be careful when they critique gender roles in other societies — especially societies that are oppressed or colonized by Western nations. I think it’s fine to show Naru as a strong, ambitious woman who wants to break free of her expected role in Comanche society, but I didn’t like the idea that some audiences might conflate Western and Comanche views of gender.
It turns out I was not far off the mark. In her otherwise glowing review of the film on “Indigenerd” pop culture site A Tribe Called Geek, Johnnie Jae gets into those very issues:
I rolled my eyes and expected the cringe of White Patriarchal values and Feminist ideals of “Girl Power” to whitewash and erase the inherent strength and power of Indigenous women pre-colonization. Native women were not oppressed in our communities or seen as less capable because of their gender. There were and still are traditional roles held by men and women, but it was not unusual for women to be skilled hunters or even warriors. They were not denied the opportunity to use their skillsets to benefit the entire tribe simply because of their gender.
Thankfully, the movie quickly moved past that angle…
Midthunder herself echoes this:
I think a lot of people thought our movie would be some super-woke, F-the-patriarchy kind of a story, and that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not a girl defying what men say she can and can’t do. It’s literally an individual who feels called to something and the people who know her don’t think that is her calling. That is so much more personal and, I think, as the character, harder to deal with than anything.
(Note that Midthunder is really threading a needle there, because she’s responding to the toxic gatekeepers who predictably complained about the film’s “wokeness,” saying that a young woman could never be a match for a predator; but she also seems to be pushing back against the more shallow applications of “wokeness” among Western liberals.)
My sense is that Trachtenberg and Aison play up the feminist angle a bit in order to appeal to modern viewers, but they handle it deftly enough that it doesn’t stumble into cultural insensitivity towards Comanche society. Having thought about it and having read some Native commentary by Jae and others, I think this is justified. The result is a depiction of a strong Native woman as a kickass action hero and that’s terrific. And incidentally it’s a great answer to the hypermasculinity of the original.
Elsewhere, the creators use a certain cinematic license with other aspects of Comanche culture — for example the orange totsiyaa, the brightly colored flower petals that are shown as a traditional healing herb, and which become an important plot point. As Jhane Myers confirms in this interview, the plant is fictionalized — totsiyaa simply means flower in Comanche. “We just kind of enhanced some things,” she says. It works because it reflects the importance of plant medicine in Comanche society — a nice example of Indigenous culture translated to a sci-fi setting.
As most viewers will be able to predict — and this predictability is one of the film’s weaknesses— the rescue expedition encounters evidence of a predator far more dangerous than a mountain lion. But, also predictably, no one listens to Naru’s descriptions of a strange figure in the distance, or her appeals to take the threat seriously. So she sets out to track it alone, save for Sarii.
At this point the film’s commentary on invasion and colonialism becomes overt. On her solo expedition, Naru finds a field of dead bison who’ve been skinned en masse and carelessly left to rot. At first she assumes this was the brutal work of the creature she saw. This is a brilliant little conflation that brings home the real-life violence, terror, and devastation of the European invasion of North America — and how alien the invaders must have seemed.
Naru soon realizes it was French fur traders, not the alien, who laid waste to the bison. If anything the alien’s desecration of the country’s fauna is more elegant and spare, if no less monstrous.
The white fur traders are depicted as filthy, foolish, and mindlessly cruel, which may be rendered slightly cartoonish for cinematic effect, but given the invaders’ real-life savagery, perfectly justified. I’ve often imagined how Natives must have marvelled at these dirty, shabby, clueless and dangerously unpredictable interlopers stumbling around their land.
So there are two intertwining commentaries at work here: the outer-space alien as metaphor for the brutality and indeed the horror of the white invader — with his incomprehensible technology and his coldly detached view of humans as no more than animals. And then the depiction of the actual white invaders, with all their greed and mindless destruction and dehumanizing abuse (at one point, Naru and Taabe are locked up in cages by the traders). These twin symbols enhance each other. It’s a simple but brilliant approach to the social dimension of the film, and it adds a very satisfying weight to the action and suspense, going a long way towards overcoming some of the more predictable moments.
Naru spends the second half of the film caught in between these two very different invading forces, defending her land and people, and coming to the realization that this is her test as a warrior. The fact that she’s doing so without the use of the automatic weapons that are traditional for the franchise is a terrific subversion of the series’s militarism. And again, it’s an allegory for real-life Indigenous and anticolonial struggles, which have always featured tremendous bravery and ingenuity against a much better-armed enemy.
When at one point the predator targets the white men, there’s a strange satisfaction and an added layer of complexity — the alien as metaphor for the colonizer is set aside just for a moment, and it’s as though he’s actually helping defend Comanche land himself (before he reverts to being the villain for the climactic scenes). This interview with creature designer Alec Gillis confirms that the visual similarity between the predator and the Comanche was intended.
There are a lot of other reasons to watch Prey besides the social, the political and the historical. The locations, in Stoney Nakoda First Nation land outside Calgary, Canada, are gorgeous. The creature design, by Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. (who both worked on the original Predator), is a great reinterpretation of Winston’s original design, making the predator seem somewhat more primitive — which feels right given it’s set centuries earlier. The supporting cast is great, especially Beavers as the tough but loving older brother — unbelievably, this is Beavers’s first acting job ever. As the alien, former pro basketball player Dane DeLiegro does a good job in a physically challenging but thankless role under a mountain of latex. Even with the requisite genre clichés, it’s a visually cunning film; for example, the scene in which Naru contends with a grizzly bear is a direct reference to The Revenant. The way it’s done it strikes me as a clever tribute, not a ripoff, like good sampling in hip hop.
Maybe I’m being a bit fussy pointing out the clichés. Because of all the awesome things the film does for Indigenous representation I’m inclined to set aside my minor misgivings.
And don’t listen to me about this; if you want to know how huge this movie is for Native audiences, check out some more reviews by Native critics, including journalist Vincent Schilling, and the great Youtube commentary by Native Media Theory’s Elias Gold, embedded above. I especially like Gold’s points about all the symbolism around hunting in the film (both the heroes and the villains are hunters); and how the screenplay lets the characters live and breathe and be complex individuals, which is so refreshing compared to most Native characters onscreen. (I have to say I’ve really enjoyed working on this article just for the opportunity to delve a lot more into Native pop-culture criticism.)
Let’s face it, it’s a franchise that has certain conventions, and within that framework it surpasses all expectations. If you’re a fan of Predator (and provided you’re not some racist, sexist jackass), rest assured that Prey knocks it out of the park. Overall it’s a gripping and powerful viewing experience and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I watched it.
This power is in large part because of Midthunder’s wonderful performance in the role of a wonderful lead character. Naru is a survivor in this story. As she says at one point, “It knows how to hunt. I know how to survive.” Indigenous women have survived so much. The analogy between the remorseless alien killer and the real-life forces of oppression is a potent one. Despite its flaws, Prey is such a breakthrough in showing us, through the lens of science fiction, how badass Indigenous women are in real life.