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Is Prey the best Predator movie since the original?

“A long time ago, it is said,” an unseen voice says, “a monster came here.” The year is 1719, that’s how Prey begins, probably the best Predator movie since the original, and there have been a lot of attempts to replicate the success of the first one, from standalone features to face-offs against Xenomorphs.

The Predator franchise is the ugly step-child of horror monster canon. Fans know about it, are aware of it, but don’t necessarily give it the credit it deserves. With the original film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the sequel with Danny Glover, a bunch of Alien vs. Predator crossover films, and an attempt at a reboot in 2018, it is the one franchise that lacks consistency. However, director Dan Trachtenberg gives the film a new edge by inserting the titular monster in an 18th-century setting to see how the people hold up against the advanced technology of the warrior creature.

The timeline here has taken a sharp turn, sending the series 300 years into the past where a singular Predator has come to earth to hunt what else, other predators. While he starts small, snakes, wolves and such, he soon learns that the most dangerous game is man, naturally.

Set in 1719, Prey tells the story of Naru (Amber Midthunder), a Comanche tribeswoman who dreams of being recognized as a fierce and skilled warrior by her people. Determined to prove her worth, Naru heads out into the wilderness to hunt and kill an animal, such as a mountain lion, that’ll earn the respect of her peers.

However, the creature Naru winds up tracking is none other than a Yautja, commonly known as a Predator, a bloodthirsty and highly-evolved extraterrestrial with a deadly arsenal of weapons who hunts other species for sport. What ensues is a fraught game of survival as the duo engage in a lengthy battle to determine who the true apex predator is.

The more interesting questions in Prey are not about gender, but about cultural contact. The Predator movies are always at their best when they think hard about how the creature’s deadliness and technological dominance psyches out the humans who perceive themselves as being at the top of the food chain. Those who would defeat the alien must get over their shock, first.

In Prey, there’s more than one layer to this dynamic. The French traders Naru encounters partway through the film are striking villains, who clearly think of themselves as predators at play in the world of the Comanche. We first find out about their presence when Naru’s dog gets stuck in one of their traps. The next sign is a field of dead buffalo, which you first think might have been skinned by the Predator, until you remember that the aliens canonically consider killing the defenseless to be beneath them. Naru finds a stub of a cigar, and you realize this was the traders’ doing.

The film leaves the French traders’ scenes in French, keeping the viewer in the point of view of the Comanche characters. These traders are large, bumbling, and dirty, predatory toward Naru, and cruel to her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers). There are not very many funny moments in Prey, but the running gag of the traders’ 18th-century firearms failing when people need them most is one. One particular flintlock pistol, which a trader gives Naru in exchange for her help, connects Prey to Predator 2 in a way that doesn’t quite make sense to us yet—but may, in time. When it comes to facing the Predator, Naru and Taabe, who think ahead and do brave (and cinematic!) things like leaping from horseback onto the alien’s head, have a decisive advantage over those who depend on guns.

Curiously, development on Prey began when 2018’s The Predator, the most recent film in the series, was in the middle of its production cycle. Despite their developmental proximity, though, they only thing Prey – conceptualized in 2016 by Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison (Kingdom, Treadstone) – and The Predator share is their existence in the same cinematic universe.

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