Trachtenberg: Prey (2022)
With 10 Cloverfield Lane, Dan Trachtenberg reinvented what a franchise could be, and he’s repeated that process with Prey – as radical a reinvention as Predator 2, and an equally complex addition to the Predator mythology. In this version, scripted by Patrick Aison, we jump back to an earlier encounter between the Predator and the Comanche peoples, in 1719, on the very cusp of European colonisation. First contact with the Predator bleeds into first contact with whites, as Naru, a young Comanche warrior played by Amber Midthunder, sets out to protect her tribe on both fronts. As with Predator 2, Trachtenberg and Aison interpret the original film as a latent commentary on American colonialism, expanding the franchise back in time, but with an equally science fictional bent to the futuristic LA of the 1990 sequel.
For the driving argument of Prey is that science fiction is the only way we can return to the horror, the strangeness and the alien encounters of the colonial threshold. Indeed, so alien is colonialism in Trachtenberg’s vision that it somewhat eclipses the strangeness of the Predator itself, which is both more and less othered than in the original film – like a part of Naru’s mind that she has to conquer as much as an autonomous creature. At times, that brings Prey quite close to a western, with Indians encountering the alterity of the Predator instead of whites encountering the alterity of Indians. While revisionist westerns have often reversed the relationship between whites and Indians, that isn’t enough to overcome the European gaze embedded in the western itself, so by bringing in the Predator as a third party to mediate this colonial encounter, Trachtenberg estranges us from it, involuting the western from the inside.
As a result, Prey resists any easy equation of the Predator with white settlers, since that would be simply to reiterate the white-Indian dichotomy on which the classical western depends. Certainly, the Predator shares features with Europeans, and emerges with the same strangeness across the Comanche lifeworld. In the opening act, Naru comes across fragments of industrial and futuristic technology embedded in the landscape – rabbit traps that turn out to belong to Europeans, and shards of metal that have come off the Predator’s armour. These unreadable objects play as relics from a future war, in the same manner as the detritus that turns up in Tenet, except in this case we’re talking about two future wars, on vastly different scales – one in which Europeans colonise America, and one in which Americans find themselves hunted down by the Predator when they attempt to expand their empire into South America. Nevertheless, at this inception point, it’s easy to misrecognise the Predator as European, and vice versa. Both progressively set their stamp on forest, plains and mountains, and both initially seem mechanistic, in contrast to Comanche pantheism. Additionally, the Predator feels like a forerunner of big game hunting, which in the present is the last perverse kernel of colonialism – empire gameified and transformed into pure sport.
Yet despite these clear links between the Predator and Europeans, a more pervasive affinity with the Comanches starts to emerge over the course of the film. For one thing, the Predator’s outfit looks like the Comanche dress, while there’s a synergy in the Predator entering a nation of hunters. Our first awareness of the Predator comes in the midst of Comanche hunting rituals – the sound of his spaceship interrupts Naru as she stalks a deer, while the sight of his spaceship comes when she is aiming a bow and arrow at a hawk crossing the same patch of sky. Rather than interpreting the ship as science fiction, or as a rupture in the cosmos, she understands it as the object of her upcoming vision quest – the chaos that she has to transform into cosmos into order to cement her relationship with the natural order of things.
To that end, Trachtenberg collapses the Predator into a ripple across the landscape more than ever before. For the first part of the film, he’s more weather than alien, evoked more than depicted by luminous, widescreen, ultra-sharp cinematography that renders the ripples of the landscape wonderfully mercurial, and turns the entire landscape into a ripple. This ethereality is enhanced by the fact that the film is shot entirely by sun, moon and fire, in sharp contrast to the stylised 80s lighting of the original and the dayglo Los Angeles of the sequel. Since it’s all natural light, you can feel bigger seasonal and cyclical patterns embedded in the course of a single day, just as you can feel the Predators to come in this one original Predator. Here, natural light is far more complex and evanescent than anything artificial – the Predator’s ideal habitat, as it ripples amongst dappled occlusions, emerging from ever-shifting thresholds between bright and dark, and imbuing every subtle shift in light with an uncanny pregnancy.
This Predator thus exists primarily as traces and thresholds, or as an intensified silence, pockets where the forest is a little too quiet. As a trained tracker, Naru starts her vision quest by seeking out these interfaces between the Predator and the natural world, which is also where we first experience the Predator as well, typically as it inserts itself into the top of the food chains across multiple different ecosystems. In an early scene, an ant apparently crawls into open space, and a mouse launches onto it, before a snake strikes the mouse. We soon realise that all three animals are actually traversing the invisible surface of the Predator, which responds by disposing of the snake, and so asserting itself as apex predator. The Predator then asserts its dominion of the grasslands by hurling its invisible frame against a wolf, before shifting to the riverbed where it wrestles a bear, the biggest predator of them all. Yet while these sequences intensify in violence, we don’t see much more of the Predator, who ramifies primarily as a fleeting disturbance and recalibration of each ecosystem’s flows.
Over time, then, the Predator becomes a cipher for Naru’s vision quest, which depends upon establishing a threshold between her own body and the natural world. We learn that the Comanche usually hunt lions in order to establish this interface, and that the vision quest depends on a primal moment where they speak to the landscape through the lion, insisting on both their continuity with it and their dominance over it: “When the lion comes, you tell it “This is as far as you go. No more. This is it.” Yet this is also precisely the project of the Predator – to test and refine its thresholds with the landscape while reiterating its dominance as apex predator. Paradoxically, the more the Predator becomes a projection of Naru’s vision quest (and her ambition for a vision quest that exceeds the typical standoff with a lion), the more distinctive it feels on its own terms. Watching Naru map the Predator is like witnessing the franchise reimagine itself anew, as Trachtenberg recovers and exceeds the traits that made it so terrifying to begin with. In particular, he restores (or remediates) the Predator as convergence of corporeality and ethereality – a hologram that bleeds, a digital dream with an analog soul that both preys on nature and insinuates itself into the invisible flows of nature.
Naru quickly realises that she has to both imagine and fight the Predator at this threshold, as a ripple-becoming-flesh, but also recognises that she can use the Predator to subsume her own flesh into the ripples of the landscape as well. Trachtenberg captures this process by gradually liquefying the ground, the figurative field of nature, over the course of the first act. Whenever we approach the Predator during this time, the camera tends to sweep in right at ground level, as if to show this emerging ripple in its first granular disruption of grass, leaves, dirt and other minutiae. Similarly, the two key set pieces without the Predator follow this increasing liquefaction. In the first, Naru walks across what appears to be solid ground, only to collapse into a swamp; in the second, she arrives at the first watercourse we see in the film, where she is chased by a bear, and only escapes by diving underwater, and coming up in the midst of a beaver’s lodge. Only at this point, at the threshold between land and water, solidity and fluidity, does she see the Predator for the first time, as it fights the bear in the midst of the river. As water ricochets off its holographic surface, the Predator both causes literal ripples in the landscape and consummates is itself as ripple, harnessing flows and acting as a flow, and culminating this paradox with a direct gaze of ambiguous affinity back at Naru.
At this moment, Naru’s own vision quest seems to be gazing back at her, challenging her to both insinuate herself into the landscape, and assert her dominion over it, in exactly the way that the Predator has demonstrated. The Predator here is a kind of incitement to vision quest, the impediment that Naru needs to erect in order to consummate her own place in the cosmos. Accordingly, the two share another gaze shortly after, when the Predator corners Naru on the edge of a field, but backs off after realising that she is too vulnerable to be a threat. At this very moment, she is caught in one of the rabbit traps that she glimpsed earlier in the film, and a collection of European colonisers arrive, filling the space just vacated by the Predator, but with no compunctions about hunting, killing or trapping a vulnerable quarry.
This moment forces Naru to reinterpret another pivotal scene that took place earlier on, at the cusp of the same grasslands ecosystem. Back then, she came across a field of slaughtered and skinned buffalo, a spectacle of vast waste and mechanistic exploitation that she felt compelled to counter by laying a flower on the largest member of the herd, in a reminder of its ceremonial and ritualistic significance. For a brief beat, this spectacle seemed to draw a distinction between the Comanches, who revere every part of the animal, and despise waste, and the Predator’s quest for pelts and trophies. At this moment of colonial encounter, however, we realise that Europeans were responsible for this carnage, which forces us to reinterpret another later scene, when the Predator comes across the same field of buffalo, and runs its claw over the flower that Naru left. This marked the first time in the film that Naru and the Predator communed, over distant space and time, but what initially seemed like a point of difference now plays as strange affinity, an oblique recognition, even a kind of love.
For all its horror, then, the Predator is a far worthier adversary than Europeans, since it respects the ceremony of the hunt, and invests its prey with the same ritual significance as the Comanches. Both the colonists and Predator may collect pelts, but the Europeans use them purely for their exchange-value, whereas the Predator respects their intrinsic value – they are trophies, not commodities. Trachtenberg captures this distinction quite neatly in a scene when the colonisers use Naru and her brother as bait, by tying them to a tree in the middle of a deserted wood. True to its spirit, the Predator instead chooses to target the Europeans lying in wait, because it doesn’t respect waste, and easy prey is a form of waste.
Despite that affinity, the Predator is not exactly an ally, since it never stops being a predator. Instead, it is precisely an interface, a way of mediating colonisation, real and virtual at the same time. In the original film, fear of the Predator was inseparable from the sense of an arcane indigenous presence lurking somewhere in the jungle, but here that fear is displaced by the fact that the Predator is both more and less indigenous than the Indians. It may be new on Earth, but it’s more indigenous to the universe, or at least more at home there, at least until Naru proves how deeply her own vision quest can take her into the cosmos. To that end, Trachtenberg largely discards the spectacle of the Predator’s face, while emphasising its hominid-like movement, framing it as a contested indigenous identity that galvanises the film.
In other words, this Predator functions primarily as an incitement to anti-colonial discourse. It’s a training run for colonialism, a way of gamefying colonialism, and a strategy for configuring or conceiving of colonialism as the true object of Naru’s vision quest. As such, the Predator is a counter-imaginary, a vision of the world beyond accepted colonial realism, which Trachtenberg achieves by envisaging the frontier without firearms. Guns, in this film, epitomise everything that differentiates Europeans from Comanches and Predators, since they eschew hand-to-hand combat, the etiquette of the hunt, and the spiritual and physical intimacy between hunter and prey. While the Europeans here do have guns, they’re quickly taken out of the picture by a variety of factors, most notably the superior artillery of the Predator, but also a series of accidents that quickly deplete their own stock of firearms too.
The moment this occurs, Europeans cower in the face of Comanche technology as drastically as they do in the face of Predator technology. While Europeans might be to use firearms to prevent other people from self-healing, they are unable to look after themselves, in stark contrast to the complex Comanche medicine we see throughout the film, or the Predator’s preternatural powers of regeneration. In fact, guns quickly come to feel like a way of compensating for the driving pathology of white settler culture – an inability to ensure the sustainability of their own bodies, their ecosystems and the thresholds between them. The most they can do is hold other models of sustainability ransom, as when the last colonist brandishes the last gun in Naru’s face, demanding that she give him some of her medicines.
Through the Predator, Naru inchoately intuits that the Comanches possess a far more complex technology of sustainability than their imminent colonisers, who just happen to have stumbled onto one crude invention – guns – that give them a brief hold over this particular moment. When she uses a gun for the first time, she’s surprised at how simple it is – “that’s all?” – and when she sees the last European limping to a stream in the dusky distance, she chooses not to shoot him from afar. Instead, she traps him, cuts off his foot, uses her medicine to keep him alive, as bait for the Predator, and then uses the amputated limb as a second strategy to lure the Predator back to the most liquefied ground of the film: the swamp where she almost perished. Here, at the threshold between self and world, solid and liquid, ecosystem and flow, she neither exactly fights the Predator nor the Europeans, but the Predator as the figurative horizon she must traverse in order to retain self-sustainability at the colonial threshold. This is the true mission of her vision quest – to anticipate colonialism from afar, and set up a figurative matrix that will allow people to combat it centuries ahead.
At this point, Prey becomes as much of a psychological thriller as 10 Cloverfield Lane, as Naru fights a perceptual battle with the Predator, who reaches peak terror on the very brink of being absorbed back into her vision quest. Much as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character had to perform a kind of Stockholm Syndrome to appease John Goodman’s patriarch in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Naru realises that she has to pre-emptively play the role of colonised, and sink into submission, to trick the Predator into thinking she’s not a threat. In Homi K. Bhabha’s terms, she adopts a position of sly civility, accepting the colonial status quo so baldly that she can hide in plain sight, and draw out her oppressor as an “affective ambivalence and discursive disturbance.” At this very moment, she switches roles, or appropriates the Predator’s role, mimicking its pose, using its own arsenals, even seeming to imitate its haircut, before trapping and submerging it deep in the swamp, the contested colonial field of the film.
As the only living member of the tribe who has seen both colonisers and the Predator, Naru ends the film by leading them into a future that is still unresolved, which is perhaps why Prey feels as much like an incitement to franchise, in the most complex sense – and as much of an incitement to franchise, in all its ingenious permutations, as 10 Cloverfield Lane itself. This might take the form of different encounters with Predators across history, semi-continuous and tonally dissonant as the history of race itself, but it might work even better as a crossover between the Predator and Cloverfield franchises, since in Trachtenberg’s hands, they feel like part of the same mind, the same cosmos, and the same unerring, inimitable auteurist vision.
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