Leave it to writer/director Dan Trachtenberg to once again emerge from the shadows with a surprise franchise extension.
In 2016, it was with his lean, scary and never-more relevant “10 Cloverfield Lane” and now, premiering exclusively on Hulu, is his surprise action/sci-fi/horror, “Prey.” The reviews have largely and deservedly been raves for Trachtenberg’s prequel to “Predator” (1987) and clever rethink of the entire franchise.
Many have stated that “Prey” is the best of all the Predator films and provides everything that the sequels have lacked. Is that the case, or is the collective enthusiasm for “Prey” overshadowed by what came before it?
Let’s begin with our first entry, the one that instructs us to “Get to da choppah!”
John McTiernan’s “Predator” (1987) was a game changer for its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose early, post-“The Terminator” box office successes were a mixture of B-movie missteps (like “Raw Deal”) or B-movie overachievers like this one.
While often mentioned as one of the most absurdly hyper-masculine, uber-macho, testosterone-crazy action flicks of a red meat chompin’ decade of the eighties, there’s more to it than that. While the pacing lags at times, “Predator” is awfully impressive, and its best passages are a master class of action movie filmmaking.
McTiernan, licking his wounds after the failed “Nomads” (1986), was more than up to the challenge of directing this reversal of “The Most Dangerous Game.” This time, the hunters become the hunted, and a jungle-set “Aliens” (1986), complete with a traitorous Burke figure (Carl Weathers instead of Paul Reiser), a one-on-one battle between a monster and the last soldier standing and the story of the world’s toughest soldiers being no match for an otherworldly killing machine.
Schwarzenegger’s Dutch is recruited to oversee a deadly mission, which he was hand-picked by a former collegue, played by Weathers, who now has a suit and tie desk job. It’s a laughable casting choice, as Weathers is so ripped and blindingly charismatic, he’s every bit the super stud as Schwarzenegger.
If this is what a desk jockey soldier looks like, then, in between filing reports, Weathers visibly hasn’t missed a single day at the gym.
Once the super-duper tough motley crew of Dutch’s team is assembled (which include filmmaker Bill Duke, screenwriter Shane Black and none other than Jesse “The Body” Ventura), the film displays a stronger first act than I remembered. In fact, a siege on an enemy village is a ferocious set piece, an early indicator than McTiernan is, no joke, one of the best action movie filmmakers alive.
The opening title sequence reveals the sci-fi element, and the film shortchanges itself by tipping its hat so early. If anything, the film is so engaging, they should have ditched the early tease, promoted this as a straight-forward jungle adventure and sprung the sci-fi element on the audience during the second act.
It would have worked.
In fact, the Predator is the most menacing and intriguing during the early stretches, when it displays its chameleon-like albitites and striking infra-red Predator Vision.
The bicep-pumping, chest pumping macho stuff enters this into self -parody early and the insistence on mimicking the plot trajectory of “Aliens” in a jungle setting goes like clockwork. The real saving grace of “Predator” (aside from Alan Silvestri’s thrilling score) is the rousing third act: the warrior vs. warrior jungle standoff, almost devoid of dialog for a long stretch, is when this movie isn’t just great but downright brilliant.
By stripping Schwarzenegger of hit and miss line readings, allowing his considerable physicality to counter the late Peter Baker Hall’s stature as the Predator and the battle of wits to take on Jack London survivalist feel, the film feels much richer, rawer, and fresher than it truly is.
While not on the level of Schwarzenegger’s greatest hits that followed (“Total Recall,” “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “True Lies”), “Predator” was another big step up the ladder for its star (though it was not, as he claimed on a morning talk show, “scarier than ‘The Terminator’”).
McTiernan had has own trio of success, as this followed “Die Hard” (1988) and “The Hunt for Red October” (1990).
The sequels aren’t all bad, though they’re a mixed bag overall. Stephen Hopkins’ “Predator 2” (1990) is a berserk, overly caffeinated (or, more likely, heavily coked up) blockbuster in the Joel Silver mode. Replacing Schwarzenegger with Danny Glover was a novel, forward thinking touch that works; so does the third act, another man vs. alien battle that gets pleasingly literal in an alien’s lair.
As for the rest, it’s aggressively awful. The killer Jamaicans terrorizing L.A. are a low point (apparently the end of the Cold War briefly made the filmmakers consider someone other than Russians as the bad guys).
Likewise, the violence, which is so vile, it makes the bloodiness in the original look restrained.
“AVP: Alien Vs. Predator” (2004) isn’t as bad as remembered, as it has Lance Henricksen making a welcome return to the Alien/Predator franchise, a strong lead by Sanaa Lathan and, par for the series, a one-on-one final battle that delivers. Otherwise, aside from a few striking moments, its C-grade junk.
Far worse is “AVP: Requiem” (2007), which might be the worst film I ever saw on Christmas Day. By sucking both the Alien and Predator franchise of character and style, loading the cast with interchangeable victims to-be and featuring a scene where a birthing ward is flush with women getting murdered by chest bursters, this scrapes the bottom of the barrel and just keeps on scraping.
The Robert Rodriguez-produced “Predators” (2010) is a big improvement on the empty “AVP” attempts to get the franchise rolling. This stand-alone is often criticized for having a mega-buff Adrien Brody in the lead; while many considered it miscasting, Brody earns his way into the film, which has a fantastic opening scene, a great set piece involving the hunt of an alien creature (not the Predator) and then fizzles out by the end.
Rodriguez reportedly concocted “Predators” in his youth and aimed to make it the equivalent of “Aliens.” Not quite, but he gets halfway there.
Shane Black’s “The Predator” (2018) is the most curious of the “Predator” sequela and easily the most disappointing. A reboot with an ensemble cast, more aliens and the baffling choice of having an autistic boy as a main character, its tonally out of whack and uneven from start to finish.
Black, having co-starred in “Predator” and written several standout action movie screenplays (ranging from “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and, my favorite, “The Long Kiss Goodnight”), seemed like an ideal writer/director for the project and his prior “Iron Man 3” signaled a return to form.
This is a rare off day for him, and everyone involved. “The Predator” is both overplotted and not very interesting.
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On the other hand, “Prey” astonishes not only with its action and widescreen visuals, but with its redirect of the narrative. By declaring itself a set-300-years-earlier prequel, it allows itself to reposition the series, effectively going back-to-the-basics of the first film and providing social and historical commentary with its Comanche tribe protagonists as the focus.
Lead Amber Midthunder’s Naru, an axe-wielding, untested and fearless warrior, is the equivalent of Schwarzenegger’s Dutch. The hard-to-miss but not overly heavy-handed suggestion that “Prey” is an allegory for colonialism works.
What doesn’t is how contemporary the dialog sounds, though maybe having most of the dialog spoken in English is the real problem. Unlike the performances in “The New World” (2005), the illusion that we’re watching the “Naturals” interact in an untouched environment doesn’t always connect.
A few missteps aside, Trachtenberg is a great storyteller, the key set pieces absolutely deliver and the final reveal, provided as an illustration right before the credits kick in, creates a sting that references both human history and the other Predator movies, particularly “Predator 2.”
Now Watching: Predator 2 pic.twitter.com/LaSAXehzbY
— Noir (@TheRisenKnight) August 26, 2022
I hope we don’t get a “Prey 2” or “Prey: Rematch” or whatever easy pitch that is probably being made right now in a Hulu boardroom. If the Predator series comes back (and really, it’s more of when than if), I hope we get a fresh perspective that matches Trachtenberg’s take.
Rather than checking the boxes of franchise expectations, “Prey” considers the essence of survivalist adventure tales, reflects what made McTiernan’s film so impactful and manages to include Native American representation in cinema that gives texture and historical context to what could have just been a monster smash and bash.
We’ll always have “Predator” to greet us on an unending loop on basic cable, but what you’ve heard is true: “Prey” is the best of the Predator movies.