Monday, August 15, 2022

Aliens and Indians


Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Written by Patrick Aison and Dan Trachtenberg

Spoilers: moderate

 represents a watershed moment for the franchise begun by Predator lo those many years ago, though, from the story I've heard, it was a franchise which its director and co-writer, Dan Trachtenberg, did not want you to know he was continuing.  Not in any way that suggests shame (though shame for sharing a franchise with The Predator or Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem could only be natural).  Instead, it was a bit of cleverness, perhaps born out of the anti-cleverness that had attended the retitling of Trachtenberg's debut film several years ago when J.J. Abrams decided to market The Cellar as 10 Cloverfield Lane on the basis of "thematic similarities" that I guess you'd have to be J.J. Abrams to see.  It's a pity Trachtenberg's gambit didn't quite pan out.  This is, it's said, the reason this Predator film is called Prey, and it's one reason it's set in the early 18th century, so you wouldn't know what it was going in: he planned on hiding it until a goodly ways through the film, at which point Trachtenberg would have revealed to a shocked (but probably a fairly small) audience what they were actually watching.

That's showmanship you just don't get anymore.  Accordingly, I don't really credit this rumor as an idea that ever got beyond the "wouldn't it be neat" stage: Prey certainly doesn't hide its franchise bona fides (unless you count "blatantly-visible CG invisibility" to be "hiding"), and, more importantly, it doesn't jibe one bit with one's priors about contemporary filmmaking or, hell, contemporary filmgoing.  I'm complicit, I suppose, because I can't say for certain if I would have watched Prey either had I not been forearmed with the awareness, "this is a prequel to Predator," and that goes double for "random period piece released on Hulu," even though I am part of the niche that considers movies about pre-modern individuals testing their mettle against nature to be a favored genre.

Ah well, it's really just a stray notion.  It does leave us with that title, which I don't especially likewithout its function of giving you a clue as to the nature of the film while still concealing it, it's just an obvious, unimaginative inversion.  It doesn't really play to the film's themes in any noticeable way (no more than the franchise usual, anyway), and I honestly feel like the Predator series, after so many years dicking around with cute titles, should finally just bite the bullet and adopt the same dumb simplicity of the Franchise Colon Subtitle scheme that everybody else uses.  But the great thing about Prey is that I could almost talk myself into believing the worst thing about Prey is the name Prey.

I said it was a watershed, though: it's the first time in thirty-five yearsa third of a century!that a Predator movie was truly good.  The act of saying "it's the best Predator since Predator" is almost totally meaningless, but let's say it anyway.  More surprisingly, it's the first Predator since Predator to actually use the franchise's premise to do something genuinely intelligent with its subtext, though unlike Predator's flabbergastingly clever use of structure and genre to get at its own underlying ideas, this time "the subtext" is more like just "the text," and perhaps more like text than it even strictly needs to be.  That's the difference between 1987 and 2022, but as far as movies that serve as bullhorns for political allegory go, Prey practically is as smart as Predator, grading it on a 2022 curve.

And so, that text: in the second decade of the 18th century, we have Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young Comanche woman who has determined that she shall follow the men of her tribe, and her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) in particular, in pursuing the path of a hunter, rather than a gatherer, homemaker, and healer, though she has learned enough about the healing craft from her mother (Michelle Thrush) that her male kinfolk can at least accommodate themselves to the irritation of her presence on the hunt by conceiving of her as something like a medic.  On this day she sees something in the sky, which she describes as the mythical thunderbirda sign from the cosmos that her choice will lead her to greatnessthough since we've seen other Predator movies, we're bound to interpret it much more pessimistically.  But then, who's to say she's completely wrong?  In either case, Naru and Taabe are both on hand to track down a mountain lion.  Taabe succeeds where Naru fails, embarrassing her, but she observed enough strange occurrences on their hunt to know that something else is out there.  Perhaps it is a bear.  Perhaps it is the French voyageurs she knows have encroached into Comanche country.  Perhaps it is something beyond her reckoning entirely, something that's here to hunt, not for food, nor even for mystifying avarice like the French, but for the sheer joy of killing.  (And perhaps it's Dane DeLiegro, when not a CG effect.)  Whatever it is, well, she did try to warn them.

So you can see what I mean if I call it a return to this franchise's roots, since after twenty-five years of treating the Predator as either another basic movie monster or else an invitation to do laborious sci-fi world-building, neither of which really plays to its conceptual strengths, Prey remembers it's a specific movie monster and simultaneously pulls the Predator back into metaphor.  It's not the mercurial, brilliant metaphor of Predatorthis time around, it's symbolizing the same thing all throughout, and it's probably a little redundant to state aloud, "this Predator represents colonialism and the Native Americans represent Native Americans," while it was actually pleasurable in itself to tease out the thematic resonance of Dutch's interactions with his Predatorbut there's enough convolution put into this scenario that it never comes off like Trachtenberg and co-writer Patrick Aison concluded their process by casting their Predator with an Italian, just like Christopher Columbus (I mean, I would assume that's accidental: the Predator was cast with a basketball player, as is simply tradition).

But this is, for example, the first Predator movie where a character finally expresses a key fact about this franchise explicitly, with a snarl of contemptuous disgust at how damned egregiously the Predators cheat, and this one is arguably the least "honorable" Predator the franchise has ever had, since despite being equipped with (very slightly) more primitive arms than its successor, justified by the 270 year gap, it spends the entire movie going to town on one bunch of people who barely have Iron Age technology, and another who have firearms that barely deserve the name, and usually it opts to remain cloaked so they can't even see the fucker.  In fact, this Predator spends the long first act of Prey just ambling around the countryside killing animals, almost randomly except in all cases they are some form of carnivore, though it's not until it arrives upon a bear that the space hunter's challenge exceeds "point, click, dead."  I rather like the quiet storytelling this "exploratory" phase affords, as this Predator, perhaps the first to arrive on our world, really has no idea what the ecological relationships on Earth are like, and probably only cares because of the clout of bringing back the most impressive trophies it can find.

It's an absolute reboot of the Predator race's "mythos" away from "even less-attractive Klingons" and back to the original concept of "asshole big game hunter," and Prey is beautiful in the subtle distinctions in "personality" between this Predator and the others we've seen.  It's not until meeting humans that it so much as occurs to this one that it's these funny bipeds who might be the apex predators it's after, and it's never entirely certainmaybe by the endthat it has ever fully decided that humans are really all that different from the rest of the biosphere that it's already torn a bloody path through.  It certainly makes no distinction at all between "French" and "Comanche," equally savages in its mind, if it even gives them enough credit to be "savages" rather than "alien animals."  I'm of two minds about the inclusion of the actual voyageurs in the plot itself, as eventually the Frenchmen stumble belligerently into the Comanche and they do not, let's say, become allies against the common threat.  The voyageurs, anyway, are more effective when they're only a shadow over Naru and her people, known by their depredations (as, of course, is the Predator), and it's a lot more artful about that central metaphor when their presence can be only inferred by their consequencesa whole herd of skinned bison carcasses they've left to rot in a field, the traps they've indifferently strewn around a forest where people liveand when they do show up, they're not exactly characters.  On the other hand, they're certainly a bunch of new bodies to be destroyed by an iconic monster.  And the Predator's inability to understand the shape of the conflict between Earthling natives turns out to be one of its vulnerabilities.  Meanwhile, the ugliness to which Naru is pushed isn't really triumphalnor, to be clear, does it fail to be earnedbut it does get at something elemental and visceral, less "allegory" than "what survival costs in a world on the brink of collapse."

Complicating matters is Naru herself, and what could've been a simple application of twofer philosophy winds up generating a shockingly rich character.  It creates a productive tension against the other currents of the film that keeps it from getting too schematic, trapping its female protagonist in a resolutely sexist culture that tolerates her as much as it does mainly because she's someone important's sister, otherwise largely treating her like a cosplay joke.  (The Predator, as is its custom, endeavors to ignore her entirely: even 270 years earlier, it's after the bucks, not the does.)  Yet this is still a process for her: Naru isn't so great yet.  She's extremely prone to fucking upquite badlybut also capable of surprising feats of invention and improvisation to get herself out of all her various jams, and benefiting from a tremendous, "holy shit, we've got a new movie star" turn from Midthunder that, in the film's most original move by far, manages to make a legitimate person out of a Predator movie protagonist.  (For the record, I had the good fortune, or maybe the good sense, to watch the Comanche dub; my understanding is that the English versions drags the screenplay down badly into anachronism, but this is rarely a problem in the Comanche version, and besides, "being in Comanche and occasionally in French and gurgling clicks" is already a good way to ground period piece sci-fi horror in something immediate and persuasive.)

Midthunder, anyway, is terrific: there's not much screenplay in any case to work with (there is not very much dialogue in this film, and to an extent it "cheats" to have as much as it does, as I'm fairly certain that Midthunder's most frequent dialogue partner is Naru's dog), but it's a great performance anyway.  She allows Naru to wobble in her determination even if she eventually finds it again in time for the final act, and she finds purchase in some deeply human bitterness and overcompensating arrogance; though the really strong work is done with her big, expressive eyes, which she uses, and Trachtenberg makes sure we notice, to observe and learn, even while overwhelmed with the adrenal fear of an invisible giant making mincemeat of her friends.  Beavers is solid toothey have an affectionate rapport, and Beavers is doing some thankless but crucial work for Taabe, enjoying competing with Naru because he loves his sister (and also usually wins), but also wondering if it's proper that he deigns toand it's all good enough that I'm willing to earnestly wonder aloud if I might actually have liked Prey just as much (or even more!) if it weren't a Predator movie at all, and really was just about a Comanche girl silencing her critics and earning her warpaint by hunting down, for instance, that aforementioned bear.  But then, that would obviate one of the film's signature images, which is the Predator becoming visible in the gush of blood from that bear's body as it holds its massive bulk over its head in victory, while poor Naru freaks right the fuck out.  Even so, this is such a profound noveltycharacters I actually cared about in a Predator moviethat I still don't really know what to do with it.

But it is that Predator movie, and an incredibly good one.  It gets a bad rap for some dodgy animal CGI, and the very first one recalibrates your expectations, with a wholly unnecessary shot that takes us out of our characters' perspective to detail an upsettingly fake eagle getting hit with an arrow; but maybe it's best that Trachtenberg got his sole "complete shit direction" moment out of the way immediately, and I don't know, I found the CGI credible enough generally that I suspect people just wanted something here to bitch about.  The action, anyway, is the franchise's best since the first, essentially taking the "survivalist" final phase of the first film and expanding that to a tight, just-100-minute feature runtime, yet consistently elaborating on it so that it never once goes stale, and pacing it out downright masterfully with stretches of suspense and dread.  It's not perfect: there's a "martial arts" quality to some of the combat that doesn't always work in the context of a franchise that has always been blunt and terse with its violencethere's a long-take over-choreographed multi-part fight sequence of the type that's not nearly as impressive as such things used to be before they basically started teaching them at film school, wherein Naru takes down a group of trappers, and it isn't "bad," per se, but a little stylistically superfluous, and not blocked-out so well that you'd overlook thatbut it gets it right more often than it doesn't.  It gets even more mileage out of the uniqueness of the setting, with cinematographer Jeff Cutter obviously prevailed upon to do his very best impersonation of Emmanuel Lubezki in a New World/The Revenant vein doing a Predator film, and it is, by and large, quite excellentthere's some gruesome rack focusing that gets worked out of the film early on; there's a crushing moment where Cutter is uncertain enough about how to do a pseudo-Lubezki that he didn't figure out a strategy to unobtrusively shift from "torchlight" to "(electric) moonlight" that didn't make it obvious that the "moonlight" is vastly brighter than the torchesbut by and large the sharp digital nature photography aesthetic mixed with a more poetic "misty landscape of legend" idiom is really good.  So it's the first Predator since Predator to have good photography, too.

I've been describing a movie better than the rating I'm going to give it, but here's why: Prey kind of climaxes badly.  Having established an absurdly asymmetrical conflict, in the finest Predator style, it has to come up with a smart way to resolve that conflict, and it does so in much the same way Predator didindeed, almost exactly the same way that Predator didyet it's somehow even less plausible, on top of being signposted to an almost offensive degree several times throughout the film, in a manner that I assume Trachtenberg and Aison thought was "foreshadowing" rather than "spoiling their own movie in the middle of writing it" with at least two previous scenes jumping up and down and pointing at those orange blossoms, screaming, "these are important! pay attention! did you hear how they reduce your body temperature? we'll repeat it later if you didn't."  And it's visualized in such a way that even if it did have surprise on its side, I don't believe it would have managed credibility, calling into question the whole "cheating" critique inasmuch as, when you get down to it, these poor bastards are basically blind, right?  It's not the whole of the finale, which is still an awfully satisfying thingit comes down entirely to Naru's watchful eyesand it's fantastic, fist-pumping popcorn movie stuff.  It's only a pity that a movie that's been this devoid of real clunk still winds up stumbling right at the end.

Score: 8/10

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