“Prey,” a prequel in the “Predator” series, stands as proof that Hollywood today can make a socially conscious movie out of anything. I offer an advance apology to fans of this dogged franchise when I say that over the last 35 years, it would be hard to find a strain of sci-fi action cinema more trashy or degraded than the “Predator” films. The original “Predator,” directed by John McTiernan in 1987 (the year before he made “Die Hard”), was a what-are-we-going-to-do-with-Arnold-this-time? vintage-’80s Schwarzenegger combat showdown, and in its overwrought and derivative way it was reasonably well-made. The first sequel, released in 1990, was the pits, but you could already perceive the rationale of the executives. They thought they’d grabbed “the next “Alien’” by the tail.
Sorry, but the Predator was not Alien. He was a monster with more or less one trick — a cloak of semi-invisibility — and with a half-scary, half-silly action-figure look, like RoboCop with Alien’s face and Whoopi Goldberg’s braids. You can more or less measure how inventive (or not) this franchise is simply by listing its titles: “Predator,” “Predator 2,” “Predators,” and “The Predator.” And I haven’t even mentioned the maximally cheesy “Freddy vs. Jason”-style spinoff series that consisted of “Alien vs. Predator” and its overblown sequel, “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,” which made it feel like time to give the Predator himself a requiem.
Now, in an act of recycling you might think of as Hollywood composting, the Predator is back — in a movie set in the Comanche Nation in 1719, where Naru (Amber Midthunder), a fiery young woman consumed with proving herself as a hunter, stands up against the male leaders of her tribe in order to rid the Northern Great Plains of a malevolent otherworldly visitor.
The actors in “Prey” consist almost entirely of Native and First Nation’s talent, marking the film as a step forward in Indigenous casting. Visually, the movie is all vibrant green woods, mountain views and sunlit meadows. For a while we could almost be watching a historical Disney fable about a warrior who comes of age, as Naru, in her black eye-mask face paint and fringed buckskin, trains herself in how to rock a crossbow and toss a tomahawk. She has a rivalrous relationship with her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), that plays out over the course of the movie. “Why do you want to hunt?” asks Naru’s mother. “Because you all think I can’t!” comes the 18th-century girl-power reply. But when Naru, who at times suggests the Cherokee warrior Nanye-hi as played by Olivia Rodrigo, looks up to see a fiery spacecraft, it’s clear she’s going to need all her training from her and more.
There’s not much mystery left to the Predator, who has been revealed in too many sequels too many times. But “Prey,” trying to introduce the creature to a new generation (in this one he’s played by Dane DiLiegro), goes through the game of treating his semi-invisibility of him as a kind of striptease. In the pristine wilderness of “Prey,” he now seems like a cloaked version of Bigfoot. Once again, we try to divine his shape from him from the translucent camouflage that turns him into glistening honeycomb glass, with metallic fingers that shoot out like Freddy Krueger’s claws. But it would be monotonous to have him hidden for the whole movie, so the Predator gradually becomes visible — which is always a bit of a letdown, as we come to see how rotely anthropomorphic he is. In this one, he’s not only got a metal loincloth but a ripped belly that looks like it came off a cover of Men’s Fitness. We might also now ask: Is the fact that this demon has dreadlocks…kind of racist?
The rippings and slashings, first of animals and then of humans, arrive right on cue, and they’re brutal enough to have earned the film an R rating. As an alien-attack thriller, “Prey” is competent and well-paced, though with little in the way of surprise. But the journey of Naru lends it a semblance of emotional coherence that most of the “Predator” films have lacked. She’s the one who first figures out that the wildlife she’s tracking is being tracked by something else; this is a grizzly-bear-eat-dog-eat-rabbit movie in which the Predator sits at the top of the food chain. And Naru, beneath her innocent surface of her, proves not just the biggest badass in the tribe but the only one who grasps the danger.
It’s a famous Hollywood quote, attributed to both Samuel Goldwyn and Jack Warner, that “if you want to send a message, use Western Union.” That line is a testament to the vulgarity of the old studio moguls (plenty of great movies have messages), yet there’s a certain stubborn truth in it. And when you watch “Prey,” a routine if visually atmospheric monster potboiler made over into a fable of “moral” inspiration, you realize how common it is for a movie to send a telegram these days. By the time Naru stands opposite the Predator in hand-to-face-pincer combat, coating herself in the creature’s phosphorescent green blood, it’s clear that even a “Predator” movie can now be styled as a lesson in how to be. But maybe, in the case of this franchise, that marks a slight improvement over movies that wanted to be nothing but what has come before.