Prey Preview

What to watch before the new Predator

The new Predator movie releases this Friday, August 5th, and it’s called Prey. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most logical next step in our increasingly illogical series of titles. Perhaps 20th Century Fox, or whatever it may be, imagines that nobody thinks about any Predator movie except the last one – well, not this guy, Jack. I’d readily describe myself as a Predator fan, but it’s also true I haven’t seen the original two in almost 20 years. Since, I’ve felt that there is no truly great Predator film, with Predator 2 coming the closest because when you don’t have something traditionally “good,” you settle with “balls-out crazy.” Given a retrospective, have things changed? And what else can we look at to help us prepare for Amber Midthunder’s date with the yautja?

Predator (1987)

Predator is a funny victim of its context, as John McTiernan’s warm-up to Die Hard, as a better-than-average entry in Arnold’s catalogue, and even my own context, bristling as I do against broad claims that every new sequel doesn’t match up to the original. My contrarian brain can’t abide that, yielding great satisfaction in dismissing Predator as a holy grail. Understandably, this is where it all started, and that does factor into the calculus. The influence of those soldiers in that helicopter on the “men on a mission” pantheon is only eclipsed by Aliens. Over the years, the scrapyard of my mind broke the movie down to its constituent parts: expendable soldiers, Predator, and “sexism,” with the final item overriding everything else. What was lost was the film itself, the story structure and the character details.

One of my questions going in, with the strongest memory of Predators being the exhaustion at its jungle setting — never developing, never changing — is when will this original jungle get boring, too? As a baseline, think of how Isla Sorna had distinct biomes, that we explored its verticality as much as its open plains, and it was all beautiful. Predator may be more of “an ugly motherfucker,” with some shots out of focus and grainy blacks, but there are flashes of awe, like the deep frame of the general looking out at the helicopter’s arrival or our first sight of the wrist-blades as they close in on Dillon.

Part of what makes Predator special is how it pulls off a genre switch without being postmodern. God, even Commando has some meta-humor. What begins as an action movie ends as horror, and the intervening bridge of plot points is perfectly logical. The soldiers find the skinned corpses of Green Berets — the Predator’s doing — and blame the rebels, giving them added motivation for the big firefight. They decimate the bad guys and are in turn decimated by the Predator. Clean, simple — but for the one one-liner that escaped this script: “Nothing’s ever that simple.”

The pyrotechnics display in that firefight have taken on additional meaning over the years, as it’s basically shock and awe. The Americans come in with fiery overkill, and we’re already in South America, a hotspot for when American business interests determine a regime change. Carl Weathers’s character Dillon is CIA, and Dutch’s suspicions about him and the mission prove valid. There’s something untoward happening here, and as a result, something critical. Some may go so far as to call Predator subversive, even a satire. But this key sequence of American soldiers tearing up the bad guys is difficult to get a read on. Action expert Rossatron argues that it’s directed second-unit, which might explain its thematic muddiness, how the “shock and awe” comes packaged with Arnold’s improvised one-liners: “Stick around.” Critical or heroic? Because that shit’s great.

In fact, I have a hard time accepting the “Predator is satire” argument as a whole, if only because it sounds so good on paper. We start with “slasher from space” or “ultimate hunter,” and its quarry is a team of black ops soldiers — so black they don’t even realize how black. Then we look at the cultural context and the cast, and note that this is late-’80s, after Commando and when Rambo turned dumb, with some of the biggest biceps in Hollywood carrying the biggest guns. This super-macho team massacres a camp of supposed rebels with ease and one-liners. What follows is better described by an IGN article with a pointed title, “Predator Is the Most Subversive Action Movie of the 1980s:”

Seemingly invincible masculine demigods like Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham are reduced to piles of gore by the end of the movie, and in some cases reduced to quivering puddles of fear beforehand. The typical action movie icons are no longer at the top of the food chain, and once their confidence is shattered, they’re practically impotent.

Arnold and Carl Weathers play panic very well. After Hawkins is killed, their eyes go wide and the yelling starts. We don’t usually see Arnold this vulnerable, either, where he’s just as often playing the monster as the Terminator or Quaid. However, between the quivering puddles of fear and piles of gore are significant moments of bravery. The turning point is Blaine’s funeral, an instance of dramatic sincerity that would seem to challenge any claim of subversion. Dillon redeems himself by going after Mac rather than the chopper, getting tossed an extra gun from Dutch as a show of manly approval. And while his fate has been immortalized in Arrested Development, he gives maybe the manliest death scream in cinema. Then we have Billy’s last stand, where he takes the world’s largest knife and slices it across his chest, and it’s so manly it almost brought a tear to my eye. Seriously.

The thematic arc that emerges for me is more like a reevaluation of American military might than a proper skewering. If anything, Predator dramatizes the common narrative about graveyards of empires, of why America lost the Vietnam War and company. Despite their inferior weaponry, the home team makes use of guerrilla tactics because they know the land (this is also how Wang Cong’er became the legend of Mulan, so it’s been wisdom as old as China). Dutch becomes literally one with the jungle, losing the guns and gaining mud, to the point where his own weaponized environment is a threat to the Predator. After his triumph, he stands in a smoking crater with a lone trumpet playing.

The film concludes with Dutch, alone, fighting the Predator without the typical action hero accouterments. No guns, no jokes. He uses his brains and out-thinks the enemy using their own tactics. The Predator was invisible in the foliage. Dutch covers himself in mud to be invisible to the Predator’s infrared vision. It doesn’t end in a punch-out – the last person who tried that died off-camera, that’s how little cinematic respect that approach got him – it ends in a duel of wits.

Five minutes into the mission, Billy is in survivalist mode, drinking what appears to be sap out of a tree branch. Later, Dillon criticizes Dutch’s “Boy Scout bullshit,” pulling sticks and leaves together into traps. By the end, Dutch is reduced to a bow and arrow. Yes, the movement from cutting-edge American hardware to sticks and stones is a clear line, but the result is the same: the cowboys always win. In my mind, this final confrontation was simply another kind of hyper-masculinity, and I think that various reads on the satire might diverge over a confusion of terms. What’s being criticized here? The American military, especially in covert, illegal operations, or masculinity? If it’s the latter, I’d want to say that Dutch is fighting the Predator in an egalitarian way that any action heroine could follow. Predator makes that messy by featuring a single female character, and more importantly, kicking the crap out of her.

As a kid, I could not divine the purpose of Anna. “Maybe you always have to have a girl?” This was long before I saw The Thing, and long, long before I had the wherewithal to admit she bothered me. In terms of character, if not gender, I think she serves to provide tension between the big action sequence and the arrival of the Predator. She’s a wild card, and there’s suspense with her escape attempts. I can appreciate that sort of screenwriting tradecraft, despite that we already have Predator vision and the refrain of Billy seeing things in the jungle. However, these are the scenes that bothered me the most. Poncho stands over her with a gun aimed close enough that her eyes go cross, and he says to Dillon, “Maybe you better put her on a leash, agent man.” Yeah, that’s what I need to be thinking about right now.

I eventually came to reason that there are some movies and TV shows where “add a woman” to a woman-less world wouldn’t help me out; the video game Gears of War, for example. Taking plenty of cues from Predator, this is an ultra-macho military sci-fi shooter whose maximalist aesthetic is a leftover from a more satirical starting point. It’s funny, how one guy hangs satire on the wall and the project lead comes up and says, “Badass, dude.” Gears is also ultraviolent, with the default finishing move being a “curb stomp.” I was fine with there being no real female presence in Gears of War because I never wanted to see a woman get curb-stomped. (In later installments, they added women, so I have seen it). It’s about the context more than the action. I’m mostly okay with a woman taking so long as she gives as good, but I never trusted any filmmaker or game designer to provide that. Instead, sometimes going all-out men stuff is fine. Fuck it, be crazy violent to each other. It’s fun.

In the world of Predator, do I believe that Anna could also be that violent? Dutch doesn’t want her to hold a gun! I don’t think any of the filmmakers thought about this, or cared. I don’t care. But it’s all sparking in my mind whenever I see her, this back-and-forth that spans decades now, about Gears of War and the Star Wars prequels and Game of Thrones and Sicario. It’s distracting. I think the actress Elpidia Carrillo turns in a great performance, and I like the idea of the character, but I’m arriving at a point where her excision is the only solution. Or perhaps, just as put-in-her-place Kate in Sicario should’ve been played by Matt Damon, Anna should’ve been one of the Soviets. That would’ve only complicated her later delivery of exposition, suggesting that the Predator has visited Earth before – just enough for Dutch to survive on later.

As far as the satire goes, it may be enough to simply bring screen icon Arnold Schwarzenegger to that point where he’s fighting by other means. The claim that Predator is the most subversive action movie of the 1980s doesn’t require it be a treatise, and its competition is slim — excepting Robocop, which would make Predator not even the most subversive action movie of 1987. Ultimately, I think my frustration with any focus on the film as satire is that it requires putting weight on elements which serve better functions. The arc of American interventionalists reduced by a literally alien threat exists most immediately for the film’s tension and suspense. That’s the purpose, and it’s also why Predator remains a limited experience.

Predator is like a short film blown out to feature length. It effects real-time despite covering a couple of days, and its characters are functional within a framework which doesn’t require character. The usual pleasures of drama, then, are limited to what can be accomplished within fear and uncertainty; Dillon’s redemption, Mac’s battlefield clarity, and Dutch’s protection of Anna, all more compelling than Mac’s mourning of Blaine, which is separate enough from the action that it feels like a deleted scene. It’s a movie without the ambition of its cousin-by-retcon Alien, which dug deep into myth and psychology to posit a world of infinite, uknowable terror. Instead, Predator stays lean and mean, and almost by accident gifts us with iconography and themes better than the film itself. Now it’s up to the rest of the eventual franchise to follow up — and this is where the trouble really begins.

Predator 2 (1990)

Remember the New York scene from Godzilla: Final Wars? That’s what Predator 2 is. King Willie’s men pull up in a smoke-filled, tiger-print car, and Bill Paxton immediately draws down. How does that completely accurate sentence ever describe a scene in a movie? In every technical regard, Predator 2 is an inferior film to the original. The characters are even less defined, the directing less urgent. Writing, acting, all the way down the list. But so much of my coming-of-age as a media consumer was rejecting that checklist kind of critical approach. That meant rejecting the easy narratives often parading as consensus: “falls apart in the third act,” “remakes are never good,” “no such thing as homage,” “the original Predator is the best.” My feelings on Predator 2 track very closely with a movie like Escape from LA. Yes, it’s crazier, but that’s what makes it good. I bet you never saw that coming.

Predator 2 is a sequel by way of adaptation, taking the scenario of the original and transplanting it to a new setting, in this case near-future Los Angeles. The setup is the same, only in micro. The voodoo posse kills the Colombian gangster in a scary, ritualistic way – ooh, these dudes are hardcore – and the Predator subsequently dominates them. The reason why this only describes two scenes rather than the full story is because we have so many more players in the mix. In addition to the voodoo posse – you read that right – and the Colombian gangsters, we have the LAPD, and the OWLF, a super-secret federal agency which took charge of the 1987 Valverde incident. The Alan Silvestri score, designed for jungle warfare, now plays over police investigations. Even the heat is the same. I’ve never seen more sweat stains in a movie.

We start off with a literal bang, an explosion in the streets, where the police are engaged in a shootout with the voodoo posse – you read that right again. These are the new gangsters up from Jamaica, and they’re at war with the mainstay Colombian dealers. Enter new hero Mike Harrigan, played by Danny Glover, who matches the intensity of the scene by shouting over the gunfire and smashing up a car and he saves the day but gets yelled at by one of his superiors and then gets yelled at by another superior. It’s an obnoxious, run-on introduction, and already I’m sympathetic with the disappointment of audiences at the time and in perpetuity. The energy is so different, and we’re soon to indulge in a lot of what the original smartly skipped – world-building, character. It reminds me of the inefficiency of Godzilla (1998), for another less-than-flattering Godzilla comparison. King Willie, feared leader of the voodoo posse, is talking about how you can’t see the eyes of the demon until he come calling, and it’s like, “What is all this?”

It’s just as absurd as the original but not as clever. Predator was so subtle that it’s even a debate whether or not it’s smart. Less ambiguous is the discipline, and even the director Stephen Hopkins admits he was out of control. Guy was 29 at the time; I turn 29 this month, and if I made a Predator movie now, it would be 89 minutes of Amber Midthunder gruesomely killing people and everyone would be like “Where’s the Predator?” and I’d smirk and say, “Exactly.” Unlike the original, which moves from scene to scene, there’s little connective tissue in the narrative here. Characters end up places and that’s where they’re meant to be. The Predator strikes randomly, but in set pieces, not flashes of violence. There’s no forward momentum, and certainly nothing attaching us to the drama of the situation. Harrigan’s motivation isn’t survival but revenge, which requires so much more setup anyway lacking. He’s also constantly bumping up against human opposition, like the two superiors mentioned above. He isn’t in charge the way Dutch was. This isn’t the same kind of boys’ adventure.

Speaking of, we have an upgrade for our female character, singular though she remains, and also taken out of the film when we learn of her pregnancy, I guess like in real life. However, Leona gets to hold a gun this time, and she’s at the center of the action. As part of Paxton’s intro, his character Jerry Lambert says, “Goddamn, is that bitch on the rag, or what?” after she twists his nuts. This is a great example, where the movie actually likes her, so the sexism is contextualized. For a while. Unfortunately, Leona, Jerry, even King Willie, they’re just not enough. There are no memorable one-liners, and no compelling dynamics. Everyone’s always reacting to things, and the movie never slows down for anyone to develop. And it’s always at 11. Even Robocop 2 had downtime.

And yet, despite the intensity, what disappointed me the most about Predator 2 was how often it pulled its punches. This is supposed to be the crazy one! After the attack on the penthouse, we don’t really see any of the major kills. Lambert’s is off-screen, Keyes’s is obscured. King Willie’s is hidden by cut, but I like that edit, and the sequence as a whole, especially when the Predator stalks toward him in the puddle. One of the big setpieces is a massacre on the subway, which claims the lives of a ton of people, including Lambert’s. Unfortunately, it’s all flashing lights and Predator vision. We don’t see anything. This might be due to the MPAA, because Predator 2 was originally certified NC-17. It’s unfortunate, because we’re introduced to a lot of important innovations, like the combi stick, the net gun, and of course, the smart disc. Please don’t leach the fun out of these things.

Because I remembered Predator 2 more fondly than the original, I wasn’t cognizant of how much the passage of time had boiled it down to its bare essentials just the same. And the funny thing is, when you do that for both movies, Predator 2 comes out on top. When the script is cooked off, and the overacting, and anything else bad and unmemorable, what we’re left with is a more “feature-rich” product. It’s gorier, crazier, but upon closer inspection, lacking in the original’s direction and simplicity of design. Voodoo gangsters and Area 51 agents all converge on an indistinct American city, and it would be banal if not for the volume. And of course, maybe it isn’t gorier. I can think of no greater sin, which makes me reflect again. To start, perhaps my tastes are evolving past Escape from LA. But if gore is still my measuring stick, am I really evolving at all? Would I even like my Amber Midthunder kills everyone movie?

Predator: Hunting Grounds (2020)

Hard to say, because historically, there haven’t been a lot of movies like that. It’s why I retreat into video games, where I can force them into being or otherwise bemoan “no female avatars.” So, jumping ahead in time and technology, we have a Predator video game. And like a lot of Predator video games, I thought I’d never have my day with the latest. Predator: Concrete Jungle was released on the original Xbox, which I didn’t have. Ditto for AVP: Extinction. My computers were never game-friendly enough for the AVP first-person shooters (also, I was scared). And while I did end up with a second-hand PSP, perhaps AVPR was below even my standards. Enter Hunting Grounds, a multiplayer-only game where one player is the Predator and four other players are commandos. Voila, the development studio took the original Predator movie and turned it into a game, with the same music and everything. The four commandos complete objectives, like Dutch’s team taking out the Soviet camp, and the Predator hunts them. Perfect adaptation, but imperfect for me. I’m a single-player gamer. My golden age of couch co-op in the Xbox 360 era, also known as high school, is over. Or so I thought.

My friend Stella and I were doing a weekly horror movie marathon after the Studio Ghibli marathon last year, but that gave way to video game night. We did Resident Evil 5, A Way Out, FIFA 2023, and most recently, It Takes Two, with Aliens: Fireteam Elite coming up. When Evil Dead: The Game was coming out in May, I remembered this trendy genre of “asymmetrical multiplayer,” and then remembered how much Stella loves Alien and Predator. It was like a dream come true. The video game world had finally produced a real Predator game, and I once again had a co-op partner.

Our first night with the game was rough. We took turns playing the Predator – I sucked – and hunted each other, but what we really wanted to do was both be commandos teaming up against the Predator. Unfortunately, our frantic Google searches for all sorts of Hunting Grounds questions turned up the sad fact that there is no Predator AI. We even played a couple of rounds as commandos like “Was that the Predator?” without realizing there was no Predator in the map. If you want to play Hunting Grounds as a commando, you need to have a human play the Predator. We eventually figured out how to put ourselves in the same party, and that became our routine: the two of us and two randos against the human-controlled Predator. The next problem then quickly manifested, which is that the Predator wrecks house.

As designed, the Predator is overpowered. He (or she, as there are thicc lady Predators) soaks up bullets and can kill the commandos with a few slashes. In addition, the Predator players have had two years of experience – and experience points. See, the backbone of asymmetrical multiplayer is the RPG-like progression introduced to broader video games by Call of Duty 4, and I know that because it was back when I understood video games. You gain EXP by accomplishing goals within the game and can modify weapons and unlock new loadouts with specialties like “moves faster” or “pistols are stronger.” That’s on my end, because I’ve stuck with commando. You can create male or female soldiers, and naturally, I fell in love with my assumedly Latina Predator-killer. Or Predator-killed, because I’ve watched her skull and spinal cord get ripped out countless times.

Why is this Gears-style violence different? Mostly because it’s “all in the game” and I’ll see her again in three seconds. There’s also different emotions at play, because I’m so frustrated at defeat and swear to do better next time. And finally, this soldier isn’t much of a character. She’s literally interchangeable, because I have eight loadouts unlocked so far and you can customize each one; such details like “face” and “gender.” She tosses out bad lines like “Guerilla in the AO!” or “I hope this is mud!” when you’re applying camo like Arnold. Importantly, too, she’s perfectly capable, and when she gets killed, it isn’t her fault – it’s mine.

I believe Stella enjoys Predator: Hunting Grounds, but I got a little obsessed. God, it’s never a normal-type game, like World of Warcraft or Street Fighter, for me it’s always Crackdown or Soul Calibur II that I play endlessly. I never thought I’d be susceptible to loot-grind, either, which has been one of the staples of modern gaming that alienated me almost entirely. I don’t like open-world games, I don’t like how graphical fidelity impacts visual language, and I don’t like high difficulty. I especially don’t want to pay microtransactions to level up, or be caught in a constant desire to level up. But when you tell me that I can unlock Royce’s semi-automatic shotgun at level 60, and then I’ll have to upgrade it by using it, you’ll find me entering Predator-less matches by myself and turning off bots, because that’s a quick way to score EXP. I even shipped the game to Stella’s apartment when she returned her GameFly rental, like some sort of stalker. To her credit, we did play again recently, and man, there were some close calls.

When you watch your player avatar get eviscerated over and over again, there’s nothing like the ecstasy of victory. It’s basically how I’ve been hearing Dark Souls described for over ten years. Every moment you’re navigating the jungle is weighted with tension, and you freeze up when you hear the Predator’s “whickering,” as movie closed captions have it. You look around and maybe catch a glimpse of the red laser, and you bust ass into cover or fire wildly into the trees. I’ve learned to stay close to my other teammates, because if you’re isolated, you’re easy prey. But not too close, because one laser blast and everybody explodes. I bulk up on armor and health and use a silenced rifle for the enemy AI and a shotgun for the Predator. I’ll shoot over and over and that neon-green blood gets everywhere, and sometimes, on very special occasions, it’ll be enough to finish the job. And I’ll smile, sigh gently, and scream, “FUCK YEAH!”

Predators (2010)

Back in 2010, Predators was a big deal. This was gonna be the first standalone Predator movie in 20 years, released during a renaissance for throwback action movies – Machete, The Expendables – and the negativity stirred by the Aliens vs. Predator detour made everyone an expert, didn’t it? Then it came out and a lot of people saw it and then it disappeared. I only saw it later, too young for R-rated movies in the theater, and like Machete and The Expendables, it was kind of a disappointment. Like, it was alright. There were interesting ideas, but no lasting impression. And so my opinion remained for over a decade.

Predators is perfectly suited for that exact brand of SEO-friendly reappraisal, and I’m sure fans went back and looked at it more positively after The Predator. A certain racist and sexist subset of fans will definitely do so after Prey releases. I believe, at the time, it was controversial for taking place on an alien game preserve, which would seem to be unsporting, and that the game preserve was a jungle like the first movie. Over time, reboots become sequels, and any offense Predators commits are long passé. However, all the attendant callbacks of the first new Predator in 20 years take on new flavor – stale. Despite that the movie takes place in Predator continuity, only retconning the original film’s location from Valverde to Guatemala, there is a lot of dialogue lifted from Predator as homage. As James says in the Predators Kill Count, “Guys, it’s okay to come up with your own stuff. Try it sometime!”

The old one-liners find new context – and a different breed of actor – just like the jungle setting. In Predators, a group of amnesiac killers – soldiers, gangsters, rapists – pieces together that they’re being hunted on an alien planet. What at first appears to be retread actually allows an organic replication of the original movie’s sense of mystery. Unfortunately, the characters unravel this mystery via expositional dialogue only. They pick up on clues and then deduce, and our protagonist Royce has the most accurate guesses because he’s the smartest. This doesn’t tell us how he solves a problem, only that he can. When female lead Isabelle calls out to him, “We need to stick together,” he turns and says, “Then you should follow me.” Unlike what I anticipate with Amber Midthunder’s character in Prey, he immediately fits a well-worn badass archetype, and never has to complain about not being taken seriously.

Royce is played by Adrien Brody, who’s a fascinating and ultimately correct choice for action hero. He already has the strong acting foundation, and he put on some severe muscles for the role, witnessed only in the end when he’s shirtless, covered in mud, and – you guessed it – holding a torch. He’s joined by a cast which was impressive in 2010 and is unbelievable now, including Mahershala Ali and Walton Goggins. These are roles which must be challenging to play, balancing a tough exterior with genuine fear. As they start working together to survive, dynamics begin to form, chiefly between Mombasa and Stans (Ali and Goggins), Nikolai and Edwin (Oleg Taktarov and Topher Grace), and Royce and Isabelle, played by Alice Braga. In between, there’s all this talk about individualism (Royce) versus collective survival (Isabelle) and the reflection of killers seeing their inhumane tactics deployed against them.

For the first time in the Predator series, we have symmetrical warfare, where by the 30-minute mark, the prey has begun to strategize in a way that Dutch’s squad never really got to, aside from setting traps. “We run, we die,” Royce says, and later comes up with a game plan to draw the enemy into a chokepoint and “force them into overlapping fields of fire.” He says he can’t do it alone, which would tidy up one of the thematic concerns. Earlier, he uses the others as bait to flank the Predators, which gains him intel in exchange for Mombasa’s life at the end of a spear. It’s the kind of thing I need to try in Hunting Grounds, especially if Alice Braga punches me in the face for it. She’s upset because it was a selfish act, and Royce even looks bad compared to Stans, who’d developed some sympathy for Mombasa. All of this is fine and interesting, but Royce never puts the strategy into play, never has to make a morally ambiguous call. Instead, they run into a surprise Laurence Fishburne cameo and the movie accelerates into its third act.

Frankly, the sequence beginning with the escape from Fishburne’s hideout and ending with Hanzo’s death is thrilling, just one kill or cool set piece after another. As mentioned 17 years ago, my big concern going in was that the jungle setting would bore me. Compared to Predator, the cinematography isn’t as interesting, but in the second half, there’s a sudden variety of backdrops that lent these scenes character. Hanzo echoes Billy with a last stand in an open field, Stans gets his skull ripped out in a rocky, ashen area. These actions are nothing new to the series, but I do especially appreciate Hanzo’s scene, as it captures what’s unique about Predator. Yes, you can box Jason Voorhees, but it’s more of a gag. The Predator thinks himself a sportsman, so there will be moments like this where he lets a yakuza unsheathe a sword.

The climax is a cross-cut of withheld information and a pretty awesome Predator brawl, and we learn that Edwin is actually a serial killer, possibly an angel of mercy? It’s a twist so generally derided I can’t even locate my own reaction anymore, but Topher Grace manages to pull off all these shades really well. He’s a believable scaredy-cat and the kind of douchebag villain that would’ve propelled him to further stardom if he wasn’t replaced in the popular consciousness by Jesse Eisenberg. In the end, Royce rescues Isabelle and uses Edwin as a trap, just like Danny Trejo’s fate earlier, which had prompted some introspection. Yeah, it’s bad, but not if the guy’s a backstabbing jerk. Aside from the callbacks, this is the clearest indication of the film’s priorities, that like the original Predator, its thematic threads dovetail into moments designed to thrill or surprise but broker no resolution themselves.

In the drafting phase, I imagine Predators looked like this: we start with lone badasses, they form bonds under pressure, those bonds are tested. When Royce decides to abandon an injured Edwin heading into the climax, Edwin holds up a photo of Nikolai’s kids with “I have kids!” The moral ambiguity is undercut by the very premise that these are bad people, though they hardly treat each other that way. So which is it? Are they normal people forced into cutthroat decisions like Squid Game or bad people who learn teamwork and even redemption? There are feints at both, but no commitment to either.

Another, more relevant point of reference is The Revenant, which brought all aspects of film to bear (pun intended) in depicting a single perspective against a wilderness setting. Predators, by comparison, is too spread out, too unfocused. We’re never so intimate with Royce or Isabelle, we never see them dig into the environment to survive or fight back. They mostly walk around with their weapons equipped, looking like video game characters in their little outfits, speaking themes into the air which go unsettled and building relationships that satisfy but aren’t played with. Predators is good, possibly even better than Predator, but it doesn’t go far enough.

And is that a fair criticism? The movie gets so much right and does so much new. The Predators look amazing, and they do cool stuff. Lighter on the gadgets this time, but the hunting hounds are a neat touch, as well as the armor decorated with alien bones. The movie’s standalone, setting the template like Alien 3 (ruined immediately by The Predator) and being careful with the lore (unlike The Predator). Of course, the standalone approach to the Predator series is why you can even have callbacks and repeated dialogue. Nobody’s around to say, “Hey, that sounds familiar.”

I like that there’s discussion of the Predators’ strategy, that they’re working as a unit. We see two Predators fight, Royce decapitates that hunting hound. I don’t love the look of the Berserker Predator, and I’m mixed on Isabelle. First of all, she continues the weird tradition of casting Latina actresses to play Israelis, but she also sounds terrible on paper: token female, compassionate foil to Royce, damseled. And she’s the sniper, which I’ve bitched about in the past. Leave it to Braga to play the role with significant gravitas, however, as a calculating professional who’s maybe more philosophical than appropriate? Still, I think it’s an evolution of our reliably Latina female characters in Predator movies — a series staple even I unknowingly continued in video game form.

Predators is probably the movie Prey will most resemble, being less over-the-top than the original and especially Predator 2, and hopefully less broken than The Predator. It’s a movie directed well, but it’s hard to look at what we have on the table and not think “anthology”? A new director for every film, a new setting. And yet, it’s almost like this variety of creatives is always trying to make the same movie. The lesson I’d take from Predators is about perspective and empathy, both so critical to horror and to a lesser extent action. Think about how we feel Rama’s anxiety in The Raid: Redemption. That was just an apartment complex. What does it feel like to be stranded on an alien world and hunted by the galaxy’s most lethal hunters? Eh, you take it in stride.

Only Mine (2019)

The star of Prey is an actress named Amber Midthunder, and searching for an earlier leading role proves difficult, as she was playing characters like “Gas Station Clerk” as recently as last year. Born into the industry and starting at the age of four (as “Little Girl”), Midthunder’s worked steadily and broke out with a regular role on FX’s Legion as a sword-wielding badass in bell bottoms. It wasn’t until I searched “Amber Midthunder reel” on YouTube that I discovered a film called Only Mine. The trailer fills us in on the plot, about a young waitress dating a cop who turns out to be a violent cop. I’d say she’s dealing with a predator here, but the real-world kind – an abusive boyfriend who can tap into the system to further his abuse. That’s a great starting point for a cutting-edge “elevated” horror movie of the era, right? Sit down, let me tell you a story.

Now, my experiences as a viewer have run the gamut, from big surprises to big disappointments. I’d wager there’s nothing worse than that sinking feeling, the realization of, “Oh, I haven’t been enjoying this,” but then again, there’s knowing right from the beginning, maybe from the very opening shot. Only Mine runs just under 90 minutes, but suddenly that’s an hour and half of pain straight ahead, bearing down. It’s an independent film that’s taken on the genre of Lifetime Original, with all the production and imagination those two respectively suggest.

It does little incorrectly, but also proceeds without conviction, without oomph. The actors mutter their lines, piecing the sentences together one word at a time, spare any dramatic rhythm. We’re shooting for coverage and end up with flat compositions and awkward blocking. Granted, I’m never confused who’s speaking to who, but this isn’t film as opportunity so much as obligation? Even the way the characters interact with props is unconvincing, whether they’re sort of chopping tomatoes or sort of wiping down the bar. The dialogue is at its best when it achieves cliché, and right there – I may as well be describing a competent student film: nervous, boxed in. Too much drama might knock over a light stand and we have more stands than sand.

Bad movies pull the curtain back on filmmaking better than good ones, which does lead aspirants to mistakenly believe they’re better for study – they’re not. When certain ingredients are visibly missing, others appear. We deduce that every aspect of a film is difficult, and it’s a miracle that anything is produced. The lighting in Only Mine is ample, and while this speaks to the lack of a visual style, it remains a technical accomplishment. I can applaud any production that shoved its way to completion, but that’s the least desirable level of film criticism for all involved – patronizing recognition rather than fair assessment. The problem, then, is that this rickety scaffolding of a production is meant to undergird a legitimately important story.

The one flair is the documentary-style interviews interspersed along the runtime, assumedly toward the suspense of true crime. The off-screen producer asks the embattled police chief about an incident we’ve just witnessed, “dramatized” so to speak, where the violent cop David threatens our heroine Julie. “He cornered her with a rake.” Weary, the chief replies rhetorically with, “Did he? You see what I’m saying?” No witnesses, he said/she said. This is the horror, captured momentarily in the second act when Julie’s private life is attacked. David hacks her email, spreads gossip, achieves sympathy with former allies. That line of dialogue from the police chief is what the movie should be built around. Instead, we open in media res – please stop doing this, movies – where Julie is running, limitedly, and gets shot twice, collapses at the base of a tree in the woods. After some interviews introducing the premise, we rewind to a few weeks earlier, to Julie and David’s meet-cute and their developing, darkening relationship.

This is the man who shoots her; we know that. We clock the flashes of jealousy; she doesn’t. Well, movies have dramatic irony, so ours does, too, but this prescriptive dramatic irony means what we’re seeing is red flags. We’re cleaved from our protagonist, and that begs questions. “Why doesn’t she just leave?” “Why doesn’t she just lie to appease him?” She eventually does both these things, but not right away, not soon enough. Idiot. Her friend mentions that she wishes she could’ve pushed Julie to be more confident. Otherwise, characters can tell us directly that “This isn’t her fault,” but all of the bad filmmaking aligns to tell us otherwise by accident. This is a trigger for victim blaming, not an empathy project. There’s a female character named Gail who hooks up with David after his ex Julie goes mysteriously missing. David shoots his superior during a confrontation, and it can only be explained as “Well, he’s crazy.” In 2019, that’s not good enough. I need more why – for everyone, but especially Julie.

The opening title cards indicate that Only Mine is based on a true story, and the closing cards tell us Julie is a stand-in for a woman named Laura Jean Kucera, who was left for dead by an abusive ex-boyfriend and miraculously recovered, before dying a year later in a car accident. Apparently, the ex-boyfriend was not a cop, and Laura did not murder him, as I assume happens between David and Julie. She whacks him with an antique rifle, and then in a strange reveal, we see the gun sticking straight-up out of his chest. When it comes down to that big moment for Julie, for Amber Midthunder as a convincing screen warrior, we’re tracking the POV of David as he explores his house and jumps at shadows. This is a legitimate approach, like Batman’s introduction in Batman Begins, where we see his crimefighting from the criminals’ perspective. It’s a slasher movie.

However, the payoff in Only Mine is so limited, and whatever terror David is feeling here is unearned. There’s a more interesting emotion elsewhere in the room, and it’s Julie’s. I want to see her find the strength to fight back, maybe be impressed by herself in the midst of a crisis. Instead, she’s someone the other characters describe as “Nice?” It’s almost like she can’t be anybody because she has to be an adaptation of a real person as well as real women generally whose victimhood is criminalized, who have no voice. Despite how it sounds, then, that is a very specific, very real perspective that can be effectively communicated on screen. In other words, Amber Midthunder was set up to fail. Damn it, this cannot be our first lead role for the actress. I know she’s better than this, because I’ve seen her play a more complicated character in Roswell, New Mexico, and an assured badass in Legion.

Mohawk (2017)

That was enough that when they said “Amber Midthunder in the new Predator,” I thought, “Well, that’s fantastic.” And the only thing that would be better is “Amber Midthunder as the new Predator.” She should be the one spearing people through the chest and catching them in nets. Then they’d have to mash square to escape. Well, fellas, I’m in luck. I discovered that exact movie just this year — almost, short one Amber Midthunder — and here’s the IMDb logline: “Late in the War of 1812, a young Mohawk woman and her two lovers battle a squad of American soldiers hell-bent on revenge.” Prey takes place a hundred years earlier, but I figured this would provide similar thrills.

I don’t know if you remember Mel Gibson classic The Patriot, but Donovan and I recorded a movie commentary for it a couple years ago, and I was astounded how boring it was. Starts off with a bang, where Mel Gibson rushes out and slays Red Coats like the Red Coat Slayer, and then it just trails off for two hours. Mohawk posits a corrective, though instead of Red Coats it’s American colonists and instead of Mel Gibson, it’s a Mohawk warrior woman. That’s the movie I want to see. This is a year before 2018, when “colonizer” entered the popular lexicon, and a few years before The Woman King and other movies that aren’t even using metaphor to say that American colonists are the bad guys. And in a lot of ways, it’s the movie I still want to see, because holy shit. This is the biggest case of cinematic blue balls I’ve had since Ready or Not.

To give you a sense for what Mohawk is about, you watch characters walk through the woods, they encounter the bad guys in an indecipherable action scene, then the bad guys silently ruminate on the violence they’re perpetrating, and then more walking in the woods. There’s nothing else; it’s woods, worried faces. And yet, despite the lack of variety in the scenes themselves, the story requires the characters make convoluted decisions to advance the plot. It’s bad-decision horror like Prometheus, only that movie had maybe the biggest horror budget of all time, and this is another independent film. Look, I don’t feel like a big man, bashing these tiny movies. Then again, it reminded me of a similar low-budget movie The Head Hunter, which felt designed and did a lot within visible constraints. By contrast, Mohawk has strangely bright-colored costumes and a monotonous, never-changing backdrop – you know how I feel about that.

The craft of Only Mine may be lesser, but that one toddles along steadily and I got through it in one sitting. Mohawk took four or five. The pace and length are major problems when we spend most of our time on the bad guys, this team of soldiers. They stand around talking, and it goes on and on and on. “These Indians are savages. Let’s find them and kill them. They’re savages. Find–” Somehow such limited conversation permits soliloquies. As far as the party comp goes, only one of these guys is truly evil, and then there’s another guy who’s mostly evil but good-sensed enough to provide an opposing viewpoint. The rest are various levels of conflicted about this whole Native-killing venture. It’s sort of that “bad apple” trope common to historical movies, and while it doesn’t let the conflicted guys off the hook, they’re in these scenes anyway which devour the runtime.

Once again, we have the Batman Begins approach, and writ large, it’s actually totally fine – in theory. Jason Voorhees doesn’t need a lot of screentime to let you know he’s a badass. Unfortunately, Okwaho does. Not only does our heroine make precious few appearances, already flanked by her “two lovers,” she’s pretty useless in a fight. Just like Julie, she’s killed and resurrected by Indian Magic™, where afterward she shaves her head and dons a skull helmet to kill the last guy. In a one-on-one fight, she barely holds her own and wins sort of by accident. Why? If she’s gonna be this half-badass – finishing the job but in a completely unsatisfactory way – why tell this story?

I admit, I’ve been defeated by my own expectations here, hoping for a movie about a Mohawk warrior who slashes a bunch of colonial invaders, period. Instead, Mohawk makes a lot more sense in the context of old-school thrillers like The Last House on the Left and possibly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which were less about action than atmosphere. Call it “survival horror” in film, but there’s a far murkier sense of purpose with that. In the final sequence, one of our resident bad guys falls into a trap set by Okwaho. As he’s screaming and the other guy’s trying to help him, I’m wondering, “Why didn’t we see Okwaho set that trap, like Arnie?” And not like Julie? In the time she must have been preparing for the final encounter – Boy Scout bullshit – we were watching these two guys dicking around in the woods, restating the themes.

Mohawk stars Kaniehtiio Horn, who I liked as Mari in the apparently underseen show Barkskins. She also played the Deer Lady in an episode of Reservation Dogs, the urban legend reinterpreted as a kind of vigilante punishing bad men. If only there was a movie that could expand on that idea, aside from, you know, John Landis’s episode of Masters of Horror. Well, Reservation Dogs is a show hailed for its authenticity in depicting Native American culture. Its co-creator, Sterlin Harjo, is a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma who also has Muscogee heritage (Thanks, Wikipedia). The other co-creator is Taika Waititi, who said of the series that “people need to tell their own stories and especially from whatever area they are from.” Mohawk didn’t have that kind of behind-the-scenes pedigree, but to be fair, maybe when it comes to “people” and “their own stories,” it isn’t something like “My people murder your people.”

Or is it? Reservation Dogs may not be my speed exactly, as a kind of lo-fi comedy-drama, but it is introducing a lot of great new talent – young actors especially – and spotlighting old favorites. By that, I mean instantly recognizable actors who aren’t usually in the spotlight, like Wes Studi, Gary Farmer, and Zahn McClarnon, playing a police officer. I mention his role because he also played a police officer in this year’s Dark Winds, that Robert Redford/George R.R. Martin joint based on an old book series previously adapted to film with Lou Diamond Phillips. I can’t say it’s exactly a renaissance of Native American stories in the mainstream, but watching these two shows, when these are the actors who occupy the screen every time we cut to a new shot, it’s amazing how normal it feels, and then, how normal it ought to be. In Dark Winds, McClarnon is joined by Jessica Matten, who starred in a short film from 2012 entitled “A Red Girl’s Reasoning.” To answer the very first sentence of this paragraph, here’s IMDb again: “After the justice system fails the survivor of a brutal, racially-driven sexual assault, she becomes a motorcycle-riding, ass-kicking vigilante who takes on the attackers of other women who’ve suffered the same fate.”

Yes, I know, rape and revenge. Hey, it’s my least favorite trope, too, not only for featuring rape but also for undermining so many action thrillers starring women. And then, yes, rape is something that happens to women, so it’s completely fair game. According to RAINN, one in six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, so if it’s zero in six for action heroines, that wouldn’t be realistic. American Indian women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexual assaulted, and one of the problems is jurisdiction. “Native American women across the country are being murdered and sexually assaulted on reservations and nearby towns at far higher rates than other American women. Their assailants are often white and other non-Native American men outside the jurisdiction of tribal law enforcement.” So “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” is filmmaker Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’s expression of anger which would arise naturally, and like a lot of superheroes, her heroine in the film is born of systemic oppression. The question: “What if we were empowered to fight back?”

Despite being made five years earlier, “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” does what Mohawk did in a fraction of the time and with far greater conviction. The badass woman is actually badass, and despite the length – there’s four scenes – it was completely satisfying. Before I realized, it was over, but it ends with such a bang. Jessica Matten has a powerful screen presence, and I’m glad she’s gone on to continue working in tough-guy roles. Ditto for Kaniehtiio Horn, despite my misgivings with Mohawk. We don’t see her commit any vigilante violence in her brief turn as the Deer Lady, but she carries herself with a confident menace. That’s the kind of warrior I’ll be looking out for in Prey, even if it comes late in Midthunder’s character arc.

Finally, I was hoping to find a movie from a Comanche perspective, but couldn’t really find anything that fit. That brings us up to speed, then, and only appropriately so, limping over the finish line.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

We close with Prey director Dan Trachtenberg’s previous feature, which to my surprise was also his debut. After breaking out with an impressive Portal fan film, he’s kept busy with genre television, and turned in the second entry in the Cloverfield anti-series. If we were to play detective, or mathematician, and examine the difference between the success of films like Only Mine and Mohawk to “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” the conclusion might have something to do with the behind-the-scenes personnel. And this goes beyond experience and lanes – I’ve honestly begun questioning if most men truly understand what a badass woman even is. It’s pretty simple, guys. Take a look at any of your favorite badass men and replace him with a woman but change nothing else. When was the last time you saw a male hero return from the dead and struggle, only to win by accident? Well, there are guys who understand, in the vein of Elle-Maija Tailfeathers. Notably, and promisingly, I think Dan Trachtenberg might be one of them.

At the very least, he’s taken very sensitive material and shepherded a movie that, well, passed my test. See, I’ve been playing coy; 10 Cloverfield Lane and I have history. After greatly enjoying the original Cloverfield, I sat out the sequel despite all the positive buzz. I wasn’t interested. I even saw The Cloverfield Paradox the night it released – and liked it – but had no designs on Lane, if not for this very blog post. If you happen to be a longtime reader/listener of The Battle Beyond Planet X, you probably noted the years-long fixation I had on the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, star of 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s one of the biggest regrets I have about this site, how long I spent talking about her and talking about me talking about her like that somehow made it better – or interesting. If you’ve also been following my blog With Eyes East, you know that I want all the actresses I fall in love with to kick ass, and never, ever occupy the opposite role. No damsels in distress, no rape/revenge, and for the love of God, no bondage. The premise for 10 Cloverfield Lane is “Mary Elizabeth Winstead is trapped in a fallout shelter by John Goodman, and maybe there’s aliens.”

Of course, Winstead spent the entirety of Live Free or Die Hard tied to a chair, and her fate in Death Proof – while only suggested – was super gross. I wasn’t interested in round three, especially when, honestly, her more dignified roles aren’t much better. To me at the time, Winstead was an action star in the making. She kicked a lot of ass in the PG-13 hipster opus Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and was ferocious in the remake of The Thing. It’s like, she’s so close, the pieces are all there. I can easily imagine the simmering frustration I would’ve had in the theater at the end of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which reveals itself to be, essentially, an action heroine’s origin story. Why not make that movie? Winstead would have her day, eventually landing The Huntress in an R-rated superhero movie, and headlining Kate very recently. In the meantime, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a different kind of game. It’s like a long Twilight Zone episode or one of those scifi movies from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, like The Earth Dies Screaming. It passes the test for two reasons, and one is that despite her character Michelle’s vulnerability, the camera never makes it weird.

Two, and I’m sure this is the oldest news ever, but I enjoyed 10 Cloverfield Lane as a criticism of the nuclear family, and patriarchy by extension. The pervasive threat of John Goodman’s character Howard is motivated by entitlement, that he allegedly saved Michelle’s life and therefore deserves respect. This entitlement takes gradual shape as Howard sees Michelle as a daughter figure. Their charades game where he refers to her as a “little princess” is darkly perfect. Goodman is incredible, playing an edgily sketchy guy who operates on an evident logic that somehow makes him worse. He isn’t an omnipotent villain, and he’s even pitiable at times. It’s a complicated portrayal with a decidedly simple purpose: the intent doesn’t matter. We begin with that question of “Well, what if all this serial killer stuff was for this woman’s survival instead?” and end with an answer: “No.”

Of course, what I’ve been describing is probably owed more to the script, and 10 Cloverfield Lane started as a spec script that went around Hollywood as The Cellar before being repackaged as a Cloverfield sequel, similar to God Particle becoming The Cloverfield Paradox, and my new script as Cloverfield 4. Part of that repackaging was a rewrite by Damien Chazelle, whose film Whiplash proves he’s keyed into the human mind and can reproduce it on screen with frantic intensity. I’m not sure what La La Land proved, but that’s a pretty good pedigree for a script with three writers.

I can’t track down the original quote, but Mark Kermode mentioned that some great filmmaker’s advice is to start out with a low-budget horror movie, and you’ll learn everything you need to know. With 10 Cloverfield Lane and now Prey, it seems like Dan Trachtenberg is the proverbial low-budget horror director, only working with big budgets. I think he’s a great visual stylist, and he has a knack for working with actors. As we see with Only Mine, a good director is the difference between a good and bad performance depending on the actor. Goodman and Winstead are always compelling, but I got to think that’s rare, and maybe Midthunder benefits from a more reliable partner in the director’s seat. Maybe, I mean, that script really was impossible to animate. I can reasonably expect that Prey won’t leer at her, and I’ll hope that Midthunder picks up where Winstead left off as the alien-fighting heroine.

Prey (2022)

As a tally, Predator was better than I remembered, Predator 2 was worse, and Predators was about the same. There’s a lot of good stuff in the AVP movies, but I’m running out of time here. As far as movies similar to Prey, I was hoping Mohawk would make for a good recommendation. Both that film and Only Mine are about two Native American women who avenge systemic violence with individual violence, but are so much greater in theory than execution. I’ve got a hunger for the cinematic blood of colonizers, and if women warriors have their grips around the weapons buried in those skulls – that’s all I’ve ever wanted. The Predator franchise may not fully answer this desire. We know that Amber Midthunder’s Naru will have a body count of one. We know that the Predator reduces people first, as any slasher villain. In fact, that’s the point. Our alien trophy hunter cannot be defeated by default, modern American means. You have to be smart, you have to be quick.

By rounding out the arc and asserting that yes, a woman like Anna could’ve played the Dutch role in the original showdown, we’re playing into a contentious narrative about how men have muscles but a fight isn’t won by muscles alone. It’s an answer to one problem that introduces another, leaving us on uncertain ground. What kind of warrior will Naru be? A believable one, a compelling one, a cathartic one? Prey may be a back-to-basics approach to a delightfully simple formula, but it’s teasing just enough question marks that there’s more going on than “Will this Predator movie finally be good?” Unfortunately, the track record hasn’t just been spotty, it makes sport of avoiding question marks. This new Predator movie, then, won’t be good simply by being the same. The premise is a fresh start, so I’m hopeful the follow-through is satisfying – even if it doesn’t reach my ludicrous, bloodsoaked dreams.

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