Ranking Arnold Schwarzenegger movies is hardly akin to examining fine art. Forgive me if that sounds condescending. It’s not meant to. I’m actually a fan of his movies. I was a teen during the 1980s and ate up every Arnie film that came down the pipeline. For that reason, his movies (even the bad ones) hold a special place in my heart. But that doesn’t permit me as a critic to overlook the obvious – Schwarzenegger movies (much like the ones from Stallone, Norris, and the second tier guys who came after them) are very much movies of their time. Undeniably fun for people like me, but admittedly silly, formulaic, and sometimes off the rails.
That being said, there are some standouts from Schwarzenegger’s action-heavy filmography. You have the obvious ones – 1982’s “Conan the Barbarian”, 1984’s “The Terminator”, it’s highly-acclaimed sequel 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. But my very favorite movie from the former California Governor and one that still holds up incredibly well today is his 1987 sci-fi action mashup “Predator”.
For years 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) has tried and mostly failed to replicate what made “Predator” such a beloved fan favorite. That is until now. “Prey”, the much anticipated prequel to the ‘87 film, is not only a worthy franchise entry. It’s also the best “Predator” movie since the original (by far). And it’s the companion piece many of us have spent years waiting for.
Now I don’t want to oversell it. “Prey” is very much a straightforward genre movie that happens to be very proud of its roots. Fans of the original film will find several smile-inducing callbacks, from simple lines of dialogue to how it gets back to the primal man-versus-beast basics. But while “Prey” has an undeniably cool nostalgic kick, it also manages to put its own original spin on the franchise in large part thanks to its period, its setting, and one lights-out lead performance from Amber Midthunder.
Set in 1719 along the Northern Great Plains, “Prey” follows a young Comanche woman named Naru (Midthunder) who seeks to prove to her tribe that she is a capable hunter. Armed with a hatchet left to her by her late father, Naru trains herself in combat, in tracking, and in survival. She’s more than ready for her trial, but there’s one problem – hunting is reserved for the men. The women stay close to the camp, going out early in the morning to gather herbs, roots, and berries for food and medicines.
The headstrong and determined Naru would much rather sling her hatchet than carry a basket. So she tags along with her big brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who is the tribe’s best warrior. Taabe tries to discourage his little sister from hunting, but he also defends Naru from the other male hunters who give her a hard time and are quick to brush her off.
Disgruntled, Naru begins venturing further away from the camp where she starts seeing signs of a giant animal of some sort. Maybe it’s a bear; maybe it’s a cat. She warns her brother and the other hunters, but they immediately blow off her claims. So Naru decides to track down and kill the beast herself and in the process prove to her tribe that she’s a worthy hunter. But her prey is no bear or cat. It’s a bigger and more deadly predator. It’s not of this world and it’s here to hunt.
From the very beginning, there’s one thing the film has working against it. Because of the previous movies, we pretty much know everything about the predator. We already know it’s from outer space. We know it has retractable wrist-blades, active camouflage, thermal vision, and a penchant for skinning its prey and collecting their skulls. All of that inescapably removes an element of suspense that was so vital to the 1987 film. But director Dan Trachtenberg clears that hurdle by immersing us into his world and creating a steady palpable tension. He smartly keeps things simple, developing a protagonist we genuinely care about and giving the alien antagonist plenty of moments to shine.
Visually, “Prey” is a stunner. While the CGI wildlife can occasionally look a tad off, overall the movie is an eye-popping collage of images both beautiful and bloody. As far as the setting, Trachtenberg and DP Jeff Cutter surround us with jaw-dropping skies, cascading streams, lush forest canopies, and gorgeous mountain backdrops. And then there’s the dazzling action sequences which are fueled by some fierce combat and plenty of gnarly kills. Trachtenberg knows what fans are looking for, and he delivers it through some remarkably inventive framing and deliciously brutal encounters.
To my surprise, “Prey” was everything I hoped it would be plus a little more. Going back in time to show our planet’s first encounter with the alien predators turned out to be a great move. And while it offers a cool twist on the franchise, the period setting isn’t just a gimmick. There’s a bevy of themes (both cultural and historical) that seep from the story, and we get a hero (played by the superb Midthunder) we’re excited to root for. But fear not fans. The alien predator is as brutal and calculated as ever, and there are moments where you’ll actually find yourself rooting for him. It’s one of several wicked twists that make this such a welcomed surprise. “Prey” premieres this Friday (August 5th) exclusively on Hulu.