Prior to its release a few days ago, few would have predicted that the new Predator movie, Prey, was likely to capture the zeitgeist, never mind the hearts of Film Twitter. Reviews were positive, but this was still a mid-budget, pared-down franchise update that was going straight to streaming on Hulu while all the Hollywood traffic, inspired by a resurgent box office, was going the other way.
And yet, here was revered arthouse filmmaker Barry Jenkins, spending his Saturday night breathlessly live-tweeting his way through watching the new film, heaping praise on it and its director Dan Trachtenberg. “I mean she beat him DOWN — girl is TUFF,” he enthused after one fight scene featuring the heroine, Comanche hunter Naru (Amber Midthunder). “This is a lean, mean, impressive bit of filmmaking. The craft is on POINT,” tweeted Jenkins, who knows what he’s talking about. The fight choreography was “impeccable.” The film’s themes might be “a visceral genre excavation of manifest destiny.” Jenkins signed off: if you “like visceral, awesome ass films you REALLY should watch PREY, certified hype.”
He wasn’t alone. All over social media, film fans were expressing surprise at just how good the film was, and frustration that they hadn’t been able to see it on the big screen. Prey really seems to have struck a chord. According to Disney, the film scored the biggest viewership of any film or TV premiere on Hulu. On Rotten Tomatoes, critics rank it the best film the Predator franchise, and audiences the second best.
This is surprising for a film series that, while remaining reliably entertaining, has struggled to recapture the popular imagination after the phenomenal Predator broke out in 1987. Most Predator sequels have been content to wallow in their trashy niche, while the biggest swing, 2018’s The Predator, was also the biggest miss. What went right this time?
Perhaps those low expectations were key — not just on the audience’s part, but on the studio’s, too. Ambivalence at new franchise owner Disney about how popular Predator really is may be one reason behind Prey’s streaming debut. But it must also have significantly lessened the pressure on the film, at a moment when Hollywood bosses are notably obsessed with wringing every last drop of potential from every franchise on their books. The result is that Trachtenberg got to make a film that stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the majority of current franchise fare.
Unlike, say, Jurassic World Dominion, Prey does not have to bear the burdens that come with an enormous budget, a globe-trotting shoot, a sprawling cast that includes all the lead characters from two distinct sub-series, or a need to consistently raise the stakes from one set-piece to the next. It does not have to find a home for itself within lore that has built up over decades, like layers of silt. It does not have to squeeze in crossover cameos at the behest of universe-building executives.
With all these pressures and considerations to accommodate, the fate of many franchise films, from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, has been convoluted storytelling, disorganized production, sober self-mythologizing, and overlong running times. It is often hard, when watching these bloated productions, to remember that most of these series began as straightforward, escapist romps.
By contrast, Prey is the image of its inspiration: a taut, 100-minute genre film that takes a simple concept and executes it sparingly, but with relentless purpose. The stroke of genius of Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison is to make Prey a prequel, but one set at such a remove from the original Predator — 268 years before — that it effectively gives them a blank slate. Add in the fact that Predator lore is hardly overdeveloped in the first place, and you have a film that is free to be itself, unencumbered by the need to reckon with, or fill out, any backstory.
Prey breathes with the space so many of its modern sci-fi and action peers lack. Its cleanly shot, sharply edited action scenes are matched by the clearly described beats of Naru’s quest to prove herself a hunter, and interpolated with contemplative traveling shots taking in a beautiful wilderness. There is no B-plot. There’s no exposition, because there’s really no plot to expose; something is out there, killing, and it must be stopped. There’s even room to expand the thematic scope of the Predator universe a little, as the alien hunter’s sport is contrasted with the still-vital food chains of the American wilderness, and with the technologically powered, brutal exploitation of another kind of alien invader: the white man.
This kind of resourceful brand extension is not new territory for Trachtenberg, who somehow transformed a claustrophobic psychological thriller script into a sequel to a smash-hit monster movie, without betraying the bottled B-movie charm of either, in 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. The fun and ingenuity of that film lay in how Trachtenberg found a way to work the previous title into the new one. With Prey, he’s achieved a mirror-image feat: ridding the new film of all the baggage of a modern film franchise, up to and including its title. All that’s left is its raw, ruthless spirit.