source: Hulu

On Sunday England’s football team won the European Championship, breaking a 56 year title drought in front of a record-breaking home crowd at Wembley Stadium. It happened to be the women’s team who did it, but that should be neither here nor there. What mattered was the backheel goal, the pinpoint passes from the back line, and the story of a player who went from off the team to leading the tournament in scoring. The journey had all the silly, manufactured weight of sport at its finest, and watching those women lift the trophy in the end was a reminder that sometimes nice things do happen in this world.

What one also had to sit through, both in the immediate celebration and in the coverage of the tournament as a whole, was pleas for all the countries involved to step up and support the women’s game. Usually this was embodied by images of enthusiastic little girls plucked from the stands, with the players themselves framed as inspirations for her future. Hopefully she would grow up in a changed world, one where she receives support to pursue the profession, which the women on the pitch didn’t have at her age. The latent idea of this framing is that the best is yet to come, as if the play you’re watching is a lesser warm-up to the greatness that will be achieved once parity with the men’s game is achieved.

What that ignores is the greatness of what the players are doing now, the way they step out for club and country every day and put on a show, the same as the men. Because sport is theater, a bunch of silly games with made up rules that we use for entertainment and building camaraderie, and the power and accoutrement of its presentation is as arbitrarily built as the conventions and canon of the films we take in. That’s why you see the same narratives in both mediums, including the same tiresome faults, like the persistent framing of successful women as inspirations for the future instead of accomplished people in their own right.

The same condescension pervades Prey, which earnestly wants to bring the Predator series back to basics while peppering in a feminist message, but it gets lost in its good intentions. In this go-around the trophy hunting alien lands among the Comanche, primarily squaring off against the ambitious Naru (Amber Midthunder). We learn before the predator arrives that she’s pining to earn a spot among the elite hunters of her group, but most want her to remain a tracker and healer. There’s good reasons (safety) and not so good reasons (sexism) behind this, not that they matter to Naru either way. She’s dead set on proving herself, leading her to take chances and, eventually, be the first to encounter the predator.

The title of the film hints at the flipped dynamic at play here; both the predator and Naru are hunting each other, and only one can claim their prize. It’s a perfect setup for a defiant feminist journey and a back to basics romp through a series of brutal encounters, but the script from writer Patrick Aison manages to mishandle the simple premise. 

The battles themselves are too spaced out to build momentum and the flow of information about the predator to Naru is too backended, making the entire middle section of the film feel like thin padding before you finally get to the good stuff. The encounters themselves, which should sprinkle some excitement on the proceedings, are more reliant on gore than invention, a major letdown considering how well director Dan Trachtenberg’s drew out immense tension from sparse action in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Even technically this film falls short, as early sequences suffer from such poor CGI that the wildness around Naru fails to spring to life. 

Most deadly to the film, though, is the lack of development given to Naru herself, who proves that she’s on the brink of joining the elite group of hunters before the predator even arrives. There’s simply nowhere for Naru to build to because she’s already qualified, or at least as qualified as this film’s inadvertent condescension allows. Because, you see, she’s not going to win the men over with her skill and force. No, she’s going to outsmart them, because women are smarter than men (yawn). 

If you really want to go with this tired arc, though, putting the predator among the woefully outgunned Comanche does make sense. They have to outsmart it to survive, so Naru has a better than average chance of making it through the carnage. But again, they withhold her learning about the predator for too long, so she spends a good portion of the film surviving out of sheer luck instead of skill. This makes Naru a far more passive character than Aison and Trachtenberg probably intended, and it gives Midthunder very little to do as an actor. She sells the action and bits of humor gamely enough, but the character she has to play is too paper thin to get a feel for her abilities. 

In bobbling both the central character and the fray going on around her, Prey doesn’t take advantage of its many opportunities. One can’t help but feel shortchanged, like you’re being sold a weakened version of a much more powerful story. Which, sadly, is often the treatment successful women get.

Release: available on Hulu August 5th
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Patrick Aison
Cast: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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