Speaking of women-centric movies and TV shows, recently I watched Hulu’s Prey (2022), the latest entry in the Predator franchise. Not to be confused with the Aliens vs. Predators mini franchise, the crossover with the Aliens franchise.
The evening was a double feature. First, I watched the second entry in the AvP series, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). I can’t say I’m a huge fan of these movies, but I’ve generally enjoyed them. Prey got lots of praise, and I’ve long wanted to see The AvP sequel (although I wasn’t expecting much from it).
As it turned out, AvP: Requiem won the night. Prey has a lot going for it but has too much Mulan and Dances with Wolves for my taste. I found it distracting and detracting.
For exactly the reasons discussed in recent posts. Modern social message spam.
This heavy-handed social messaging has much in common with other forms of spam. As unwanted, unwelcome, and irrelevant (even inappropriate), but also as ubiquitous and inescapable. And annoying.
Agreeing with the message — even whole heartedly — doesn’t mean I enjoy propaganda. Those who agree don’t need the sermon, and those who don’t agree aren’t likely to be swayed by an action movie.
I have mixed feelings about Prey. It’s exactly the sort of original story I think is a great vehicle for female lead action stars. It has the name power of the Predator franchise, but it’s a new branch, not a continuation of the arc established by the first film. And the female lead, Naru (Amber Midthunder), follows the tradition started by Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and rebooted by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) in the first entry in the AvP series.
In contrast, the Predator franchise, also following tradition set in the first entries (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny Glover), has been generally male-centric. AvP:Requiem did not follow the tradition set by Lathan but was more a traditional Predator movie. It does have Kelly O’Brien (Reiko Aylesworth) as a soldier home on leave, but she wasn’t central to the action. Prey follows the female lead mode. I actually had to remind myself it was not an AvP movie. (All the harder having just watched an AvP movie.)
Also on the plus side, I thought Prey has a great general premise, Comanche in 1719 versus Predators. So-called “primitive” but trained and experienced warriors against a trained and experienced Predator with high technology. The film even has a Comanche dub soundtrack, although most of it was filmed in English. And I understand they strived for authenticity. I know almost nothing about the lives of plains Indians, so I have no idea how accurate their depiction is. It felt mostly reasonable to me, for whatever that’s worth.
On paper, it looks delicious. A good premise for a new-but-old action-thriller that — bonus! — is organically woman-centric, POC-centric, and historic native Americana. If only they had let that speak for itself and just told a ripping good yarn within that context.
Instead, THE MESSAGE. Spam. As with all spam, at some point it turns into noise we ignore and dismiss. Not everything has to be a parable. It’s okay to tell a ripping good yarn. (Constantly inserting THE MESSAGE into storytelling risks turning supporters against it.)
I thought AvP:Requiem wasn’t going to amount to much. For one thing, it’s recent enough (2007) to be part of the major decline in storytelling. And the original movie wasn’t much to write home (or anywhere else) about. Other than the first one, which is wonderful, the sequel Predator movies are just amusement park rides. Fun for a moment but easily forgotten.
This one was no worse and quite watchable. An adequate entry in the series. No big complaints about the story, and I thought it even had little flourishes indicating intelligence behind the camera and keyboard. Few (if any) movies are perfect, Sci-Fi action thrillers especially, but this was on par with others of its ilk. I give it a strong Eh! rating.
[Which sounds like faint praise, but I rate most adequate movies in that range. I have to be impressed to give an Ah! rating and blown away for a Wow! rating. Likewise, most inadequate movies get a Meh! rating with the Nah! and Ugh! ratings progressively rarer.]
So, I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Possibly in part because I was dog-sitting my pal Bentley, which always puts me in a good mood. Possibly in part because it was Saturday evening, and the beer light was on. But definitely because, as amusement park rides go, as Predator or AvP movies go, it was okay.
Just, as they say, okay. But thumbs up. An adequate entry in the canon.
A last note: based on the premise, and the end of the first movie, I thought this one took place in space Predators battling Xenomorphs. Which is one reason I didn’t expect much. Monsters v. monsters. Who cares. The movie starts that way but then surprised me by immediately (literally) changing course.
I figured the fun would continue with Prey. Decent word-of-mouth vibe, interesting concept, couple beers onboard, batter up! Let the ride continue.
Alas. And alack. Wrong again.
If I sit down to watch a movie or TV show, but while watching it am moved to start taking notes, either it’s really good or really bad. Or just really annoying for some reason outside its perceived goodness or badness. (Said notes usually turn into posts.)
The beginning of the first scene where we meet Naru had me shaking my head. The rest of the scene confirmed the first impression. Ten or fifteen minutes into the film I went for my notepad.
Sharing the couch with Bentley, who was trying to sleep if you don’t mind, provided a constant reminder to stop muttering at the TV, smile, and just enjoy the movie. I tried, but it kept taking me out of the story, kept poking at me with the Mulan narrative. Which has nothing to do with the basic premise. It could have been done so much better.
I’ll get to that, but about that first scene.
Our first sight of Naru, she’s sleeping (would not have been my choice; I’d have introduced her as active). Suddenly a foot enters the frame and rudely kicks her awake. While I admire the show-don’t-tell of it, it’s a bit sledgehammer.
Worse, so over-the-top I’m not sure I buy it. As the scene progresses, we see how excluded and alone she is, a pariah to her tribe. Good visual storytelling, but I questioned the narrative on multiple levels. While still in the first scene.
Naru is shown to be an adequate, if young and small, hunter. Without question, she’s shown to be a capable member of her tribe. It’s weird she didn’t wake up on her own, given the noise of other activity in the camp. It’s also weird a wannabe hunter didn’t sense the approach of whoever kicked her awake. Introducing her this way presents her as lazy and self-isolated.
The thing is, sleeping in, even among the young, is a modern trait not generally shared by our ancestors. People who live off the land can’t afford to waste daylight and usually are awake for every moment of it. Further, what little I know suggests Indian tribes usually consider sunrise a big deal.
On the flip side, who does that? Kicks someone awake like that? Why not just yell into the tent, or shake it, or whatever? It’s very aggressive and disdainful, which I’m sure is the point, but it seems such an ordinary way to play it. Or is it justified because she’s a lazy self-involved teenager?
I knew the background from word-of-mouth and advertising (bless its evil soul). Naru wants to be a hunter/warrior, but she can’t because she’s (just) a girl. Mulan in America. As with the kicking awake, the disdain vibe here is heavy. So is the men suck vibe. The other hunter/warriors are presented as clueless clowns. Only one is her friend and supporter. (The white Frenchmen come off especially badly, albeit perhaps with historical truth.)
My question: could a small group living off the land afford to reject any member’s helpful abilities? They might mock her as a wannabe boy, but it’s hard to believe they would utterly reject dedicated interest and demonstrated skill. And surely “tomboys” were not unknown to them.
I credit the movie for showing her putting in the time to practice her skills — they aren’t unearned and assumed — and for showing her making important mistakes. She’s got big dreams, natural talents, and the desire, but (as one would expect) lacks experience and training.
It’s one thing for the vast and formalized Chinese civilization to reject Mulan. A giant army doesn’t need any single warrior no matter how skilled. Mulan’s story is about struggling to reach a socially “impossible” personal goal. It’s centrally about Mulan.
In contrast, Predator and Alien stories are about a battle between beleaguered humans and alien monsters. They’re akin to disaster movies, beleaguered humans against earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, giant waves, big freezes, or killer asteroids. It’s about a fight to survive. Character development isn’t absent, but secondary — usually in response to the threat (Die Hard, Lord of the Rings and Independence Day, all offer good examples).
So, I don’t think a small Indian tribe would disdain useful ability, and I’m distracted by the prominent little-girl-beats-society-and-the-big-bad-men (and a frigging alien high-tech super-hunter) vibe. If she’s really that good, I can’t imagine them being blind to it. I know they had a strong sense of roles, but they weren’t stupid.
First impressions do matter. With people and with films. The first moments of a movie, the first scene, the introduction to the characters, these are the storyteller’s chance to hook you and define the path ahead.
My first impression was, “Oh, crap, they’re leaning heavily into the Mulan thing.”
Not that Mulan is a bad story. It’s a great story (talking animated original, not live-action fraud), and I’m entirely onboard with its message. But in a Predator movie, it’s an unnecessary distraction. Let her be a valued member of the tribe, but one fondly considered freakish. A tomboy.
Indeed, wouldn’t “updating for a modern audience” (that dread story-killing phrase) show her as valued and accepted — but maybe not understood or liked — despite her differences? Isn’t this playing to an obsolete model?
I’d do the Red-Nosed Rudolph story: unusual group member teased for their difference ultimately gains acceptance and admiration when that difference saves the day. (And, indeed, that sort of does happen, but it’s masked by the loud Mulan signal.)
Bottom line, Prey has a lot going for it. I took off points because of the Mulan narrative and because I thought it could have been written better. That’s on me. Your mileage may vary.
A few comments.
Naru is asked why she wants to be hunter. She replies, “Because you think I’ll fail.” Which is a dumb motivation (lazy writing). That might be a secondary motive, but her primary motive needs to be with hunting itself. Can you think of anything in your life you’ve been passionate about solely because people thought you’d fail? It was a chance to write a great speech about the passion of the hunt, and to have the listener be unwillingly impressed. Have him think, wow, she is one of us. Maybe I’m wrong about her.
They echo a scene in the original where they find the Predator’s green blood and realize it can be hurt. The original line is, “If it bleeds, then we can kill it.” Here they say, “If it bleeds, then we kill it.” Which doesn’t really make sense.
Two scenes set up the Predator hunting the Indians. We see an ant… pounced on by a mouse… and the watching Predator takes the mouse. We see a rabbit… pounced on by a coyote… and the watching Predator takes the coyote. Get it? Predator collecting predators small and large. (But mice? Really?)
Then Naru stumbles on a field of buffalo, all dead and skinned by the Predator. Why? Buffalo aren’t predators, they’re herbivores. Why skin all of them? Wanton waste seems unlike the Predator. It does seem like a possible subliminal message about the white man killing all the buffalo. Supporting that impression, Naru says a prayer for their souls. (I was reminded of that old commercial with the crying “Indian”.)
Don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say: Quicksand! That old trope. And remember Chekhov’s Gun.
I asked Bentley what she thought of the movie (the parts she didn’t sleep through). She replied that, “Yes, I’d like a treat very much!”
Stay alien, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.