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Amber Midthunder takes cover from the alien monster in Prey. Courtesy Hulu

Hallelujah, praise the Lord! At long last, somebody did something creative with the Predator series! It took only 35 years after the release of the original science-fiction thriller, which well deserved a sequel but not the three that it got (and we’re not even counting those Alien vs. Predator crossover movies). Prey, which started streaming this month on Hulu, rediscovers the qualities that distinguished the original film by going back in time.

Set in 1719, the story concerns Naru (Amber Midthunder), a Comanche girl on the Great Plains who is already an accomplished herbalist and tracker but yearns to become a full-fledged hunter, especially after she sees a spaceship in the sky trailing electricity and assumes it’s a thunderbird giving her its blessing. Alas, the ship has already deposited one of those invisible dreadlocked alien collectors with the sharp claws and laser-sighted weapons, and while her older brother (Dakota Beavers) and the other Comanche braves are searching for the mountain lion that mauled one of their own, the alien is hunting them.

I wish this film had gone the Mel Gibson route — damn, I actually wrote those words — and had all the native actors perform in the Comanche language, though Hulu does offer a subtitled version of the film with the dialogue dubbed into Comanche. I appreciate that the English-language version translates neither its few snatches of Comanche nor the French dialogue when Naru falls into the hands of European trappers who may do worse things to her than the Predator. While the Predator’s weapons aren’t as advanced as we see in the contemporary films, the Comanche are fighting the creature with bows and arrows, while the French have firearms that are slow and unreliable.

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Director Dan Trachtenberg previously took a different franchise to unattained heights with his filmmaking debut 10 Cloverfield Lane. If this movie doesn’t have the psychological depth of his Cloverfield spinoff, it is staged efficiently enough that you can overlook the director’s hammering of the theme of animals hunting their prey. There’s one cool sequence when a grizzly bear peels off from Naru to attack the Predator, and her first clear view of the alien comes when it’s covered in the bear’s blood. Naru tells a group of hunters that she has seen a mupitsi, and I took the opportunity to learn about this monster from Comanche folklore, something I wouldn’t have had from a whiter and more conventional Predator sequel.

I’m not so enamored of the contrived way that Naru finally prevails over the alien, but Prey does boast a star turn by Midthunder, the Sioux actor who caught my eye even when in the unrewarding roles of the token girl in Liam Neeson thrillers The Ice Road and The Marksman. She looks convincing throwing a tomahawk for accuracy, but, more importantly, she’s dynamic and alert as she deals with a threat that her tribe has never seen before. Some of the Native actors around her are not so sharp, which throws her performance into greater relief as a girl who is also battling her own hazardous levels of overconfidence — Naru’s first encounter with the mountain lion is a comprehensive failure that comes close to making her dead. The Native American background enables all this movie’s salient achievements, including its brilliant star turn and the inspiring final shot of the heroine, to take a series that had been creatively dead and breathe new life into it.

Prey
Starring Amber Midthunder. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Written by Patrick Aison. Rated R.

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