By JOHN LESLIE
It’s 1719 in North America and Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman, knows there is something in the woods that’s not just the usual dangerous creature like a bear or mountain lion. “Prey” is the newest release from director Dan Trachtenberg (“10 Cloverfield Lane”), working with a Comanche producer, Jhane Myers, and featuring a mainly Native American cast. Naru wants to hunt, “because you all think that I can’t,” and she resents the fact that her older brother, Taabe, played by Dakota Beavers, is allowed to hunt in the forest near their village. Her days are spent gathering herbs for medicine and digging for root vegetables, but she wants more.
“Prey” is a prequel to the “Predator” series of movies that began with the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, “Predator.” Predator has been followed over the years by a series of sequels that, in my opinion, have not held up to the original. In “Predator,” a group of commandos, led by “Dutch” (Schwarzenegger), raid a guerrilla compound to rescue hostages. The rescue goes well enough, but there’s something in the jungle stalking the escaping soldiers. The ensuing confrontation between the alien hunter and Dutch utilizes all the 1980s action movie clichés effectively.
In “Prey,” there’s none of that. Naru decides to go hunting and takes her dog along for the adventure. She soon realizes that there is something new in the forest, something dangerous. In the course of the film, we see Naru learn and grow as a hunter. She’s trying to survive her encounter with the alien and to save Taabe, who doesn’t believe that there’s anything other than the usual dangerous animals in the woods.
“Prey” is possibly the best of the “Predator” franchise aside from the original and can easily be watched by fans of the films or as a stand-alone movie by people who have not watched them. There is a nice shout out to “Predator” when Taabe uses the same line as Dutch from the original, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”
No white saviors
To be clear, this is not high political cinema; it is a summer blockbuster sci-fi horror film. But there’s politics to be found in anything, and “Prey” is not different. Enter the French trappers, who are wreaking havoc on the buffalo for hides and setting metal traps in the forest. There are no “positive white savior” types in this movie, and we are okay with that. The lack of the white savior or “positive” white character in this movie is a refreshing change. The mainly Native American cast, with a few white characters, is likely why Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to market the film and, consequently, why the film was released on the streaming service Hulu and not in theaters. There was no Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey character to swoop in and save Naru at the last minute. Naru fights her own battles and solves her own problems.
Too often in Hollywood, a protagonist who is victimized by whites is also helped by the “good white person.” This is the only way that Hollywood thinks they can sell films with Black or Brown protagonists to a “broader” (white) audience. In the movie, “12 Years A Slave,” a white character (played by Brad Pitt) rescues Solomon Northup from slavery and in “Glory,” Matthew Broderick, playing Colonel Robert Shaw, teaches the Black soldiers to fight their oppressors. Of course, 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” is one of the most glaring examples. In “Dances,” a soldier (Kevin Costner), weary of the death and destruction of the U.S. Civil War, takes a post out West, where he hopes to meet the “Indians” he writes about in his journal. Costner’s character soon joins the tribe and saves them from both starvation and the intruding white settlers.
It’s well known that Danny Glover has been trying to make a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and the Haitian Revolution. Studios balked at the idea of a historical film about a successful slave revolt in which there were no positive white characters. Glover isn’t alone. Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and other Black stars also unsuccessfully tried to make films about the Haitian revolution.
Breaking new ground
The reception of the film among Native Americans is so far positive for its portrayal of strong Indigenous central characters. The starring actor, Amber Midthunder, an enrolled tribal member on the Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation at Fort Peck, Mont., told Hollywood Reporter magazine: “This is the first time you get to see an Indigenous female action hero at the center of a film. That in and of itself is a really incredible statement.”
According to producer Meyers, “Originally, when the film was written, the first script I had, across the top it said, ‘All dialogue in Comanche,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, yes.’” Director Trachtenberg originally pitched the film as entirely in the Comanche language, a Numic language of the Uto-Aztecan family, and there is a full Comanche-dubbed version available with English subtitles.
Trachtenberg also stated in an interview, “I wanted to make a movie about protagonists that we never see as the leads of a movie, being Native American and the Comanche even more specifically, so that sort of lent itself to being set in the past. And I just want to sort of go even further than when we typically see Native Americans show up, it’s in a Western, in a cowboy movie, in the 1800s. So I just wanted to go back further…”
If you like sci-fi horror films, “Prey” should be your choice for an evening’s entertainment. It’s not a long film (100 minutes) and contains some great action sequences. It’s not for folks who are squeamish about violence and blood, but if you want to see a great summer action film, this is it.