Commanche Nation, 1717. Naru (Amber Midthunder) yearns to take part in a great hunt with her tribe. When her brother (Dakota Beavers) and his war party are attacked by an unknown creature deep in the woods, Naru believes she has the skill and the cunning to track it. But little does she realise that the prey she track is a Predator, and is tracking her...
To call 'Prey' the best 'Predator' movie since the original is damning with faint praise. 'Predator 2' with Danny Glover was a mess. The less said about 'Alien Vs. Predator' and its sequel, the better. Nimrod Antal's 'Predators' had some sparks of inspiration, while Shane Black's 'The Predator' was far too doughy and splashy to make any kind of impact.
'Prey' is the very antithesis of the movies that followed 'Predator'. It runs for a tight 90-odd minutes. The cast is small, but more than capable of carrying the whole thing. More specifically, the script is lean but never thin. We learn enough about each character for us to care about them, but never so much that it's burdened.
Amber Midthunder's character is a medicine woman for her Commanche tribe, but as the heart of a hunter and yearns to prove herself and be on equal footing with her brother. That's all the motivation we need to grasp her character. Likewise, the Predator themselves as we know is a sport-hunter. The distinction is clear between the hunters of the tribe, who do it out of survival, and the Predator who merely hunts for the thrill of it and to satisfy their bloodlust. Later on, when Naru encounters French fur trappers, this contrast is even more apparent.
The horror and tension comes how we become so invested in Naru's survival. She is out-gunned (literally in one case), on her own, and has only a small tomahawk and her wits to survive. We see how relentless the Predator is when it slaughters huge animals and skilled warriors in a flash, so how can Naru possibly hope to survive? Without giving too much away, 'Prey' has both small nods and winks to the original, but has more than enough ingenuity to boldly strike out on its own. Much like Naru, it's got something to prove.
Dan Trachtenberg's clear, crisp direction and Patrick Aison's honed screenplay makes 'Prey' quick and sharp. There's not an ounce of fat on this movie, and it's far too lean to be saddled with needless world-building or exposition because the action, the tension, and the thrill of it all is more than enough to sustain it. There's an unbearably tense scene where Naru is trapped underneath a dam while being hounded by a ferocious bear, only for the horrifying Predator to appear out of nowhere. The way in which Trachtenberg presents the Predator too is unique for the franchise, but in keeping with the general tone. It is a merciless hunter, as brutal as it is cunning, and has more primeval feel to it than previous iterations. While it doesn't necessarily conform to the idea of the horror imagined being more potent, it's still terrifying nonetheless.
It's unfortunate that 20th Century Studios decided to send 'Prey' to Disney+ rather than take the chance of a cinematic release. The sound design, Sarah Schancher's score, the cinematography, it all would have looked and felt really spectacular in a cinema. But more than that, 'Prey' is the smart-but-accessible horror-thriller that doesn't get a look in anymore. It's not as gnarly and disposable like 'Malignant', nor is it as bombastic as the upcoming 'Nope'.
It occupies a space with a rich history that has seemingly passed on in cinematic history, but perhaps will see life again on streaming - a mid-budget movie with a high concept and smart, assured execution.