Predatory Aliens: Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey

by Bryan & Heather

There are many tantalizing what-ifs throughout history. What if Alexander the Great had lived longer? What if Rome had endured? What if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War? What if Germany had referred Austria-Hungary to a Pan-European conference rather than encouraging the path to world war? And most importantly, perhaps, what if the Predator hunted a tribe of Comanche on the 18th-century Great Plains?

We recently had the pleasure of exploring this last counterfactual through Dan Trachtenberg’s gripping film Prey. The latest installment of the long-running Predator franchise is precisely as described: an extraterrestrial warrior lands on Earth in 1719 seeking to prove itself through its species’ culture of trophy hunting the most dangerous game. Nearby, a young Comanche woman named Naru seeks to escape her upbringing as a healer and prove to her tribe that she can be a hunter like her brother, drawing both of them into a clash with this unstoppable, alien force of nature.

One might wonder how fair it is to pit a highly advanced science-fiction alien against peoples only just negotiating the transition from Neolithic to Early Modern technology, but in ironically the first of its meticulous attention to the mechanisms of history, it is clear that the featured Predator’s technology is suitably centuries behind the original movies, set in the 1980s. No lasers or self-destructing technology are to be found, and the iconic cloaking device seems much more fragile than we’re used to. Yet even more impressive is the loving attention paid to nearly every detail of the protagonists’ Comanche culture. The material culture of everything from clothing to weaponry to structures to even a period-accurate toothbrush is outstanding, as is the centrality of traditional Comanche gender norms to Naru’s journey. Even the setting of the Northern Great Pains is broadly consistent with the history of Comanche migration in the 18th century at this point, and while horses may not have been as prevalent as portrayed in the movie, they had certainly begun circulating in the interior in some quantity. Hulu has even made available a version of the movie entirely in Comanche!

We really only had two historical critiques of the movie. The first is the almost-inevitable overestimation of the accuracy of smoothbore firearms, but the second, involving a group of French voyageurs hunting the same grounds as the Predator, is an interesting case of eliding time periods in order to drive home what could be called Prey’s central theme. As she strikes off on her own to try to hunt down this mysterious creature that no one else believes to exist, Naru comes across a field littered with the corpses of bison, all skinned and left to rot. Unfamiliar audience members might initially assume this is the work of the Predator, but it quickly becomes apparent that the Predator only kills those organisms it perceives as a threat; indeed, the whole raison d’etre of this right of passage is to prove oneself the ultimate predator. The butchery is in fact the aforementioned French fur traders, and while it somewhat ahistorically transports the genocidal actions of 19th-century American pioneers forward by a century and a half, in doing so it elevates Prey above the standard action fare of the rest of the Predator franchise. Through this indiscriminate slaughter and later actions towards Naru and her brother, the French, mere humans, are shown to be the truly despicable, even evil, predatory aliens when compared to the savagely noble Predator. This isn’t exactly original or complex as a critique of European colonialism, but it is delivered just subtly enough to work well.

Of course historical accuracy only goes so far in a movie involving aliens, but as sci-fi period pieces go, Prey must top the list for anyone looking for compelling, not to mention beautiful, accuracy. Final battle aside, the Predator has never looked better either, and for those who enjoy their 18th-century history punctuated by aliens fighting grizzlies or advancing into volleys of musket fire unperturbed, we cannot recommend this film highly enough.

One reply on “Predatory Aliens: Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey”

Wasn’t the movie set in the wrong region for Comanche to live? It also shows them exclusively with stone tools despite proximity to French traders, they’d probably have traded for metal and may have had firearms as well. Also the portrayal of the French trappers and the mass buffalo killings are inaccurate also aren’t they? I thought mass buffalo killings were a late 18th century thing.

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