Hunter Hunted: Arley Sorg and Josh Pearce Discuss Prey
Josh: I hyped up the previous Predator movie because it was so over-the-top and ridiculous, just straight out campy fun. Prey is a completely different pace, and I actually enjoyed it a lot more.
Arley: We were talking about how Nope is a departure in vibe from Jordan Peele’s previous movies, and I felt like this was a departure in vibe from the usual Predator movie. Especially the first third or so of the film, it’s very character focused. In the original Predator, you don’t care about who Arnold Schwarzenegger is—he’s a generic commando in a band of generic commandos. You don’t care about the environment. The main thing that you go to a Predator movie for is cool scenes, and cool action. And this movie is like, we’re going to give you culture, we’re going to give you character, we’re going to give you an actual story arc, and we’re also going to give you some cool things.
From the get-go, from the title, this film is an inversion of the Predator franchise. A young Comanche woman, Naru (Amber Midthunder), navigates the hazards of her village life—mountain lions, bears, gender roles, bear traps, French trappers, the needless slaughter of all the buffalo, etc.—with only her trusty throwing axe and her faithful dog at her side. She wants to be a hunter like her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and the other men in her tribe, but doesn’t have a real chance to prove herself until an alien hunter (Dane DiLiegro) drops into their ecosystem and upends the food chain.
Clearly, Naru and crew are not ludicrously sized competitive bodybuilders, UDT-frogmen-turned-professional-wrestlers, or NFL linebackers tromping through the jungle, carrying equally ludicrously sized machine guns and grenade launchers. They instead have realistic body types and 18th-century weaponry, which leaves one wondering exactly how they’re going to fend off an interstellar threat. But even the more advanced monster in Predator was ultimately brought down by low-tech booby traps, a bow and arrow, and environmental elements. The audience spends enough time with the Comanche characters to establish how knowledgeable these characters are about their surroundings and how proficient they are at different forms of combat. By the time the final action kicks in, we believe that they do have a fighting chance.
And whereas the commandos spent the entirety of their film frantically flailing for mere survival and getting to the chopper, Naru draws a line in the sand. (In the original film, the only character who stops running long enough to make a deliberate stand against the Predator is Billy, played by Sonny Landham, who actually self-identified as half-Cherokee.) In Prey, Naru makes a conscious decision to go back out and hunt the creature down. That the word “predator” isn’t mentioned is telling—there is no Predator in this movie. In the end, there is only Naru and her prey.
Josh: I said in our review of The Predator, where Olivia Munn takes off all her clothes in a decontamination shower, and then the Predator comes in, I was expecting it to be an incredible fight scene or survival scene in which she has no resources and she’s completely vulnerable. That’s what Prey kind of felt like. They have nothing that’s going to stand up to a Predator, so what do you do? Olivia Munn could only hide. But Prey took that scenario and ran with it: What do you do in this situation? What can you use to your advantage?
The alien in Prey has a different look from the one in Predator, reflecting the hundreds of years of evolution between the two films. Its helmet is bone-like, and it carries a shield that looks kludged together. Although it still carries a triple laser-targeting system, its shoulder weapon fires flechettes instead of plasma, and the creature makes heavy use of blades. Any being with interstellar travel capability would be expected to at least have a gun, so perhaps it is trying to match technologies with its targets in order to be sporting, or perhaps this particular alien hasn’t yet earned its space blasters. (We ignore here any tenuous canon established in Alien vs. Predator and its sequel.) It is unadorned when it first lands on Earth, and takes as one of its first trophies a wolf’s skull. It also seems to be an untested warrior—at any point where it begins to lose a fight, it simply cheats by switching on its cloaking device. So, regressed appearance, but still an ugly fucker.
This is not to say that they’ve nerfed the monster in Prey—the alien still makes hash of a group of gun-wielding Frenchmen, and rips a full-grown bear in half with its bare hands. The makeup and creature-effects departments certainly did a good job on the extraterrestrial. By comparison, unfortunately, the terrestrial animals are rendered with sub-par, cheap-looking CGI—rattlesnake, wolf, mountain lion, and bear are distractingly cartoonish. (But at least Naru’s dog, Sarii—portrayed by an American dingo named Coco—is a real, trained animal, and she steals several scenes.)
Arley: I loved what they did with the buffalo because it was such a quiet demonstration of how fucked up shit was, especially with the invasion of white folks. One of the important things that’s happening culturally is the reversal of older, so-called classic narratives. Native Americans in cinema were portrayed as barbaric, savage, violent. So there’s this deliberate narrative reversal, where Prey demonstrates the savagery and violence of the white people who are, you know, putting people in cages and killing things for profit. They’re pretty gross people.
The CGI is all the more distracting because it’s set against naturalistic backgrounds. The film found enough pristine areas of Alberta, Canada to substitute for 1719 Great Plains, and takes its time with some beautiful establishing shots. We cannot speak directly to the historical accuracy of the non-alien aspects of Prey, but one of the producers is Jhane Myers, according to IMDb “a Comanche and Blackfeet American Indian known for her attention to detail and dedication to producing, Native language, Native cultural advising, acting and fine art.” There is a full Comanche-language (dubbed) version of the film, and the cast incorporated existing Comanche sign language into their communication.
Arley: When it shows the title, “Northern Great Plains, 1719,” I had a kind of similar feeling that you had with the titles in The Black Phone: it ruined the moment, in a way. They actually didn’t have to do that, I would have been fine without it. Not only that, but they’re trying to center Comanche people, and in using those titles, they’re centering the story within a white timeframe—the labelling of time and place both come from white, Christian systems; these are not the labels the Comanche of the day would use. So there’s this irony of locating the story in time and place in this particular way. I was like, you slipped up. But it’s fine.
There was the danger that this kind of film could have been Cowboys and Aliens-level silly, but Prey is more realistically grounded, and this immersion makes the alien’s appearance extra jarring when it first stands up into frame. Up until that point, you could forget that this is anything other than an historical period piece, but the cloaking space ship kind of ruins the effect. Which is a shame, because it didn’t have to. The science fiction elements could’ve been incorporated a little more seamlessly. For example: Naru spots the spacecraft’s reentry fireball, and interprets it as a thunderbird. To her, the alien is simply another invader. The film could have left it at that, without wasting the special effects budget, or explicating the monster’s origin. (The audience, it is presumed, has had 35 years and multiple movies to figure it out.)
Josh: Trachtenberg is a decent director. He did 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was a pretty good movie. I mean, it’s mainly just two actors locked in a room, so it didn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting, but he has the ability to do character work and construct tension in a scene without needing a ton of effects or money. And it parallelizes shoehorning in some of the alien stuff in Prey. 10 Cloverfield is only a Cloverfield movie because J.J. Abrams was trying to set up a franchise—he took a low-budget film and gave them money if they let him put the Cloverfield name on it and tack on some alien crap in the last five minutes. Apart from the specific look of the alien, Prey could be almost any basic monster movie. It’s so self-contained. Sure, you can overanalyze it, but I had to keep reminding myself, What are we watching? Oh, yeah, it’s a Hulu original Predator prequel. I’m not gonna expect too much of it. But it did rise above expectations.
Arley: I would say it rose well above standard Predator fare, which isn’t saying a lot, but it also rose above what you might expect from the average streaming service movie, you know? Occasionally they do make good movies, but a lot of them are mediocre or worse.
Josh: I liked that they kept it simple. I’m saying “simple” as in “competent.” There’s a difference between simple-stupid and simple-competent. They stripped out a lot of unnecessary stuff and made a pretty clean, fun movie that gets back to the feeling of the original Predator, especially compared to the most recent The Predator.
Arley: I feel like the weakest element of this movie is actually the writing because some of it is very paint by numbers. If you’re a writer or if you watch a lot of movies, you will recognize the elements of like, Oh, she’s doing this, so they can do that later on. On the one hand, nothing is wasted—every gun is taken off the mantle. On the other, everything is really obvious. For example, she gets inventive with her weapon, and yes, it’s a really cool moment, but you also know that the purpose is to show that she’s innovative so she can innovate later. The word you used was “competent,” and that’s how I feel about the writing. It was competent. There were some awesome story elements though, and I’m still glad this movie was made.
Josh: We had a similar comment in our review of Onward. You said that one was a little bit textbook, a little paint-by-number. And I said, “Sometimes it’s just nice to see something done competently.” Sure, it’s nice to have stuff be innovative, but some things are basic because they work.
Arley: I do think if the writing is a little bit stronger, and if all the pieces of the movie come together, then you don’t notice the numbers through the paint. You’re not aware of it until you think about it later.
Josh: That’s what was happening in the beginning where I was picking up on what they were establishing, like, Oh, you’re gonna use this later. I was fully aware of the writing process and the worldbuilding—I was still enjoying it, but yeah, it didn’t disappear. Isn’t that the mark of good writing? That no one realizes that you’re doing it.
The so-called inverse cost and quality law of special effects-laden movies includes the statements, “The more lavish and spectacular a movie’s special effects, the shittier that movie is going to be in all non-F/X respects,” and, “There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources.” Fortunately, Trachtenberg avoids both of these pitfalls; he does not lean heavily on the effects, but instead on engaging characters, and keeps a distinctive vision from being washed out by studio demands, unlike, unfortunately, Chloé Zhao with Eternals, Cate Shortland with Black Widow, Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World, or Rian Johnson with The Last Jedi. (See also Trachtenberg’s low-budget, short film Portal: No Escape for another good example of how to maintain artistic integrity in existing franchises.)
Prey is also being touted as the first mainstream movie with an Indigenous actress lead, which is arguing the definition of either “mainstream movie” or “lead,” because 2020’s The New Mutants featured Blu Hunt. It was released by 20th Century (not an indie studio) and is canonical to the X-Men film series, so it would seem to fit the definition of “mainstream.” However, although Hunt was clearly the main character, she was listed only fifth in the credits, perhaps disqualifying her role from being considered the “lead.” In either case, shamefully overlooked.
Arley: I think what saves the movie is really the solid acting. Plus some of the creative elements, and you know, the freshness of having a cast and setting that is something we don’t see every day. Like if this was a bunch of white commandos following a very similar narrative structure, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. And then having a woman—a character with layers of underdog status; and putting gender issues right up front. And then you have the dog in there, too. You know, viewers will love the dog.
Josh: The two main actors, Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers, were simply great. I’d love to see more of both of them in other projects. They were both charismatic, in different ways.
Arley: One of my biggest pet peeves with the writing, going back to that, is the whole thing where, you know, everyone is dismissing her suspicions. It’s just such a tired device. I want to see movies where they’re at least like, Oh, really? Well, let me go look at the tracks. Like, I’ll double check. I mean, especially when they’ve set up that she’s acknowledged as a really good tracker. The movie did give us some good lines, though, which I feel is an important characteristic of pulpy action films. For example, when she’s talking about the beaver, and she’s holding their hands over the trap and she says, “I’m smarter than a beaver,” and the brother’s scared shitless. I laughed! I was like, now this is how you use a fable: to mess with your siblings.
Josh: Taabe was talking to her about making a stand, saying to the invaders, “This is as far as you go.” Did you watch the end animation? It was just recapping the entire movie, and then after they’re celebrating, they look up and a fleet of alien ships are coming in, so you all die. That’s the kind of cynicism or nihilism that makes me laugh, when it’s just there to undercut a happy ending. Or I suppose they possibly just killed a bunch more predators. I mean, every time they send predators to Earth, the predators die. So they should maybe stop doing that. You’d think we’d get a reputation.
Arley: Ultimately, it’s a fun movie. It wasn’t flawless. But I think it was also an important movie. I think in some ways it’s working in the tradition of The Dead Lands as well as shows and movies like that, which are revisiting ideas with different characters, centering different people, and importantly, treating marginalized people as humans, as fully developed characters, rather than sidekicks or best friends or whatever. I would call it a good movie.
Josh: I consider this one of my top two favorite Predator movies. Without the original to be in dialogue with, I don’t know if Prey would have had the same impact on me, but I really enjoyed how they made something unique and standalone that still contained some familiar elements. Another recommended!
 From “F/X Porn“, David Foster Wallace (Waterstone’s Winter/Spring 1998)
 See “Prey’s Amber Midthunder Is the Action Star We’ve Been Waiting For“, Allie Young (InStyle 8/4/22)
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Written by: Patrick Aison & Dan Trachtenberg, based on characters by Jim Thomas & John Thomas
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro, Stormee Kipp, Michelle Thrush, Julian Black Antelope, Stefany Mathias, Bennett Taylor & Mike Paterson
JOSH PEARCE has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, Nature, and more. Find him on Twitter: @fictionaljosh, or at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Senior Editor, has been part of the Locus crew since 2014. Arley is a 2022 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award recipient. He is also a 2021 and 2022 World Fantasy Award finalist as well as a 2022 Locus Award finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. He is a 2022 Ignyte Award finalist in two categories: for his work as a critic, and for his essay “What You Might Have Missed” in Uncanny Magazine. Arley is Associate Editor and reviewer at Lightspeed & Nightmare magazines, columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and interviewer at Clarkesworld Magazine. He grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and lives in the SF Bay Area. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he can be found at arleysorg.com – where he has started his own “casual interview” series with authors and editors – and on Twitter (@arleysorg).
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