Review of Prey
Prey. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, 20th Century Studios, 2022.
It is delightful to view a science fiction story that, in genre tradition, explores the strangeness and peril inherent in sudden interaction with the Other and wraps that in an exciting, well-paced, thoughtful film deeply concerned with the vagaries of human interaction. Although the action, suspense, and multiple instances of gruesome and violent death welcome obvious comparisons of Prey—a Predator franchise prequel—to the Alien cinematic franchise, echoes of Denis Villeneuve’s much quieter and less bloody sf film 2016 Arrival are also apparent. Both films involve (though Prey less so overtly) the inability of different cultures to communicate and the resulting mutual Othering; whereas Arrival centers around the gradual development of communication between human and heptapod, Prey cleverly makes use of the inability to understand the Other to explicitly signify how foreign and how alien two vastly different cultures seem to one another.
The pivotal scene stressing this communicative gulf takes advantage of Prey’s creators’ decision regarding language. In the film, the Native American characters speak English from the audience’s perspective, though they are meant to be speaking Comanche in-universe; in one scene, Native American warrior Naru (Amber Midthunder) is fleeing an alien pursuer when she is abducted by a band of French traders. She is caged and threatened, angry, and anxious upon hearing the barking of her captured dog. Her disorientation is made exponentially worse when the traders speak to her. Their French is not translated or subtitled, leaving the audience as confused as Naru about what these alien beings are saying to her and why. It is a truly troubling moment in the film, where we as viewers are made sympathetic to Naru in failing to understand what is happening. The traders are shot and lit as otherworldly monsters themselves, shadowed by firelight and wearing furs that give them an animalistic appearance, jabbering in an unknown language. Indeed, relief only comes when one of the trading party, Raphael Adolini (Bennett Taylor), reveals his ability to speak Comanche and brings comprehension to Naru.
Science fiction narratives are often concerned with humanity’s response to alien life, but Prey reaffirms that it is the way in which humans relate to each other that can be more jarring, more tragic, and more savage than any extraterrestrial encounter. Note, for example, that the Predator (Dane DiLiegro), though brutal, kills swiftly and seemingly without true malice, generally focusing on targets that provide a challenge or pose a direct threat to it; in stark contrast, the French traders use cruel steel traps to capture animals, and at one point bleed Naru’s captured brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and then tie them both to a tree as staked bait for the Predator. The subtext is so obvious as to be practically text, given real-life Native American history, in a situation where an alien life form suddenly and violently inserts itself into the midst of a Native American culture.
Naru is trained as a healer, yet longs to become a warrior and follow her brother Taabe. During a hunt, she becomes convinced of a new and powerful threat, eventually encountering a Predator that slaughters many of her companions before she manages to bring it down using a combination of craft, wiles, and sheer bloody-mindedness. Another aspect of contact with the Other in many sf narratives is the realization (whether overtly referenced by the characters themselves, or in the case of Prey via reader/viewer observation) that between one and the other there lie numerous similarities as well as differences. Humanity is defined by our relationships and reactions to others and the world around us; how we behave provides insights into who we are.
Ironically, in many ways Naru is closer—linked by powerful warrior spirit and skill—to the Predator hunting her and her fellows than she is to the Frenchmen cruelly and wantonly laying waste to the land around them. This plays out in their behavior as well: as the Predator hunts with advanced weaponry, so does Naru not only learn to use a gun but cleverly constructs an ax that can be thrown and pulled back on a string, allowing for quicker repeated use. Both Naru and the Predator avoid helpless prey, setting themselves against targets that provide challenges rather than trapping them like cowards. And at the film’s end, the victorious Naru returns to her village, wearing green Predator blood on her face as war paint and carrying the alien’s head as a symbol of victory, looking for all the world like a Predator herself after a successful trophy hunt. Naru, already a skilled hunter who puts her cleverness to use for the service of the tribe, is no Predator (who hunts, as far as the viewer can tell, for mere sport), but throughout the film we watch her resemble it in a newfound ruthlessness and willingness to adapt. As she says to the last surviving trapper, whom she uses as bait the way he did to her and Taabe, “You bled my brother. So now you bleed. You think that I am not a hunter like you. That I am not a threat. That is what makes me dangerous. You can’t see that I’m killing you. And it won’t either.” The trapper, of course, cannot understand what Naru is saying to him, stressing once more the disorienting menace that linguistic alienation can present. The film’s title ultimately, we see, can apply equally to Naru or the Predator, as the cycle of hunting turns round and round. In this relationship of similarities, the viewer comes to reevaluate what is alien, what is Other, and what factors in our behaviors and cultures separate us or make us more like another.
Prey is a significant milestone in the production of cinematic Indigenous Futurism, where Indigenous peoples, long ignored or abused by mainstream Western culture, have existence and agency, and where they resist their traditional exclusion from the speculative fiction narrative. Scholars of the Indigenous Futurism movement may find in Prey both a speculative exploration of colonial encounters not seen before in film, and a story whose focus on the emotional power of linguistic estrangement has much to say about the role of language in our cultures and our relationships with others. It also presents a necessary counternarrative to the old saw (spoken by a million Hollywood producers and executives, as well as the occasional SF publisher or editor) that people—white people—need to see themselves centered in the story if they are to relate to the film at all. On the contrary, Prey (and its critical and box office success) demonstrate that stories, if well-crafted and well-acted, can transcend the assumed tribalisms of skin color or race.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.