So Prey has managed to do what five previous attempts at a Predator sequel have failed at. In the process, it not only created a good follow up movie to Predator but also a solid template for creating many, many more Predator movies—if you were so inclined.
Yet at the same time, it has also placed hard limits on what future movies can (or should) do with that concept.
The Clue is in the Name
The concept behind Predator was simple. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the biggest, meanest, beefiest mothers in Hollywood movies. The alien Predator’s whole deal is going to alien planets and killing the biggest, meanest, beefiest mothers there. It finds Schwarzenegger. The two play cat and mouse, and over the course of that game, Schwarzenegger loses his comrades in arms, his gear, any contact or support from the government he supposedly serves. He reverts to a primordial state, red in tooth and claw, and only then is he ready to take on the Predator.
If there is one successful strand to all the movie’s best existing follow-ups, it is that the name of the franchise may refer to the alien hunter’s quarry as often as the alien hunter itself.
The sequels tried various ways to repeat this trick. Put the Predator in the city; have more of them; have them trying to kidnap a child with autism for some reason. There were also a couple of films where they had the Predator fight 20th Century Fox’s other killer Alien IP, the imaginatively named Alien, but the crossover films were overcomplicated and poorly executed. They’re best forgotten.
Even so, the idea at their core was a good one. After all, Alien vs. Predator didn’t start out as two bad movies. Long before that, it was a comic book, a novel, and a video game series. And it is a format that has been happily replicated elsewhere. Predator vs. Judge Dredd. Batman vs. Predator. Aliens vs. Predator vs. The Terminator. And of course, Archie vs. Predator.
All you need for a good Predator story is for that alien to be in a “versus” scenario with someone who can hold their own. Where Prey’s stroke of genius came was to bring that “versus” to history.
A Predator Back in Time
In Predator, we see Schwarzenegger stripped of his arsenal and allies until he has to go it alone against the monster with only a homemade bow and arrow and his knowledge of the terrain. Against the background of ‘80s hyper-masculinity, the movie is a journey that speaks to there being something powerful, primordial, and manly about the hunter/prey relationship.
Prey ditches the hyper-masculinity, and the film’s hero, Naru (Amber Midthunder), has no need to journey back to any kind of mythical primordial past. She is a hunter in a culture where hunting is a core part of their way of life, and the tools Dutch has to resort to in the first film are already her stock in trade. It is not glamorized or exoticized; it is just how she lives.
And the Predator is not the only threat she and her community face. Tracking the Predator she finds snakes and wolves skinned whole, but she also finds buffalo—not creatures that would make a worthy trophy for the Predator. That is because they were skinned by white colonists. One of the first things we see Naru do is examine one of the French fur trappers’ bear traps. The device uses technology differently from what she is familiar with, but it’s a mechanism she can easily understand. Seeing her pick it apart works as a microcosm of how she will approach the Predator.
We know the Predator’s goals; we know its MO; but by seeing it through Naru’s eyes, it is made fresh, and we learn about her by watching her take on this familiar threat. Prey was not the first to have this idea. The fan film Predator: Dark Ages sees the Predator go up against a medieval knight. The non-Predator movie, Outlander, maroons an alien astronaut who must defend a Viking settlement against an alien monster.
And it is a trick you can pull over and over again.
Roman Centurions vs. Predator. Spartans vs. Predator. The Spanish Inquisition vs. Predator. Robin Hood vs. Predator! Genghis Khan vs. Predator! Predators arriving on prehistoric Earth and duking it out with T-Rexes!
The reason the Predators are such repeat visitors to our planet is that as a species we have come up with a lot of ways to kill people, and that same reason is why there is abundant potential for more historical Predator movies. Except, at the same time as Prey introduces this shining bauble of an endless historical Predator anthology, it snatches it away.
Is This Your First Time?
When Schwarzenegger’s Dutch meets the Predator for the first time, it is clear the Predator has been around a bit and has already killed plenty of people before Dutch and the boys turn up. Likewise in Predator 2, the Predator is familiar enough with our culture to know where to find our most violent drug lords, and in Predators one can only assume they’re somehow able to pick candidates worthy enough to hunt out of a human population-sized “Choose Your Fighter” screen.
In Prey, this Predator very clearly has no such foreknowledge. This Predator acts like a No Man’s Sky player who’s hopped out of their ship and is having a little wander around. Nearly every time it encounters a new life form, it hesitates, giving the animal a chance to either flee or give the Predator its best shot. It kills and skins a snake in case that is our planet’s apex predator. Then it does the same to a wolf. Finally, we see it get into a full-on punch up with a bear, which must come as a huge relief to the Predator.
It is oblivious to the human presence on the planet, and when it finally encounters humans and sees our potential as murder machines, you can witness how its interest in piqued. Prey is, among many other things, very clearly an origin story. This is the meet cute that begins the epic love story between two species that just can’t get enough of murder.
Now does that necessarily mean that there couldn’t have been other Predators that stumbled across Earth? Maybe they came and got killed or ran away and didn’t tell their mates about us. That certainly exists as a storytelling possibility.
But just because you can do a thing does not mean that you should. Prey shows us the beginning of the rivalry between humans and Predators. Saying, “Actually another Predator got here first but you didn’t hear about it and they don’t go to this school” would devalue the stories that came before. Prey is a great film and it deserves to hold onto its place as the beginning of the human vs. Predator story.
A Wide Margin of Era for More Predator Movies
That said, Prey is set roughly 300 years ago. It might not surprise you to know that humanity has done a lot of violence in those 300 years. Feudal Japan was around until the 1800s, so Samurai vs. Predator is still very much in the cards (hopefully following Prey’s lead of having Japanese talent in front of and behind the cameras). How about T.E. Lawrence tracking and being tracked by a Predator across the desert—a deadly terrain that we’ve yet to see the Predator work in? Or go the exact opposite way; not long after Prey, we could see pirates and the British Imperial Navy circling each other as an oceangoing Predator tracks them across the Caribbean (UPDATE: it turns out Hellboy writer Peter Briggs already pitched this one in 1997).
The Somme, the streets of Victorian London, Stalingrad, to some it might read like a list of the moral stains on mankind. To the Predator, it reads as a list of delightful potential holiday destinations, and to others it’s a list of potentially great movies.