Let’s talk for a minute about the term “Mary Sue”. It’s a term thrown around with increasing frequency in film discourse, most especially with regard to female characters in genre works with toxic fandoms. An especially prominent recent example concerns Rey, the character played by Daisy Ridley in the three most recent Star Wars films.
But the most recent incendiary example is Prey, in which Amber Midthunder stars as Naru, a young Comanche woman who faces down a freaking Predator. And yes, I’m specifically referring to the game-hunting aliens — also known as Yautja — made famous by the action/sci-fi franchise that’s been ongoing since 1987. But we’ll come back to that.
Anyway, the new franchise entry has picked up quite a few detractors online, but not because it’s a film with a Native American cast and a female protagonist in what’s traditionally a testosterone-driven franchise. Because of course it couldn’t possibly be that. No, the big problem here is that young Naru is supposedly a Mary Sue.
Folks, I was a teenager when FanFiction.Net first came online. I’ve written and read enough bad fanfiction in my day that I’m perfectly aware of what a Mary Sue is. I know I’ve used the term (and its male counterpart, “Gary Stu”) in my reviews on rare occasion, and I make it a point to never do so lightly. So let’s get a few things straight.
Back in my day, a Mary Sue was a character hotter than Kirk, smarter than Spock, more empathetic than Bones, and sleeps with all three. A Mary Sue has no development arc because she is impossibly perfect from the outset. A Mary Sue never has to face any kind of adversity because she’s instantly and immediately capable of solving any problem she faces. She has no agency of any kind because everything is practically done for her. This is why a Mary Sue is a boring character in a useless masturbatory tale.
(For a classic textbook example, I maintain that with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms as with the ballet it’s adapted from, the protagonist is indubitably a Mary Sue. Everything is simply handed to her, she has no development or agency whatsoever, the story is basically nonexistent, and nobody really cares about anything except the music anyway.)
For instance, Prey opens with Naru attempting to hunt a deer. A Mary Sue character would’ve immediately caught and killed the deer, then taken it back to her village so everyone could cheer how awesome she is. Or perhaps Naru would’ve made friends with the deer and taken her new loyal pet back to the village so everyone could cheer about how awesome she is.
Instead, the deer gets away. And her fellow villagers consider this proof that she isn’t ready yet for a big rite of passage. I might add that Mary Sue characters are sexually irresistible by nature, and Naru quite pointedly does not have a love interest or a romance arc of any kind. In fact, the filmmakers clearly went out of their way to keep from dressing Naru in skimpy clothing or sexualizing her in any way. (A responsible move, given how indigenous woman are statistically far more likely to be victims of rape and/or murder.)
She ain’t a Mary Sue, folks. Let it go.
Getting to the movie itself, we open 300 years ago in what is now the continental United States. (Very likely somewhere in the New Mexico area, given what I could find of Comanche history.) Naru — like her fellow women of the tribe — is trained as an apothecary, but she’d much rather use her tomahawk for hunting game than digging up roots. The plot kicks off in earnest when a mountain lion attacks and runs away with a hunter from the tribe. Naru tags along with the rescue party, and the others are sensible enough to see the value in bringing a healer to try and find someone who might’ve just gotten mauled by a freaking lion.
Then a Predator (capably embodied by former college basketball star Dane DiLiegro) crash lands on a big game hunt for humans (like they do). Naru knows that something unnatural is out there and nobody else believes her, so she goes off to track and hunt the thing on her own with assistance from her dog, Sarii. Hilarity ensues.
There’s definitely a sense of getting back to basics with this entry in the franchise. There’s no attempt at exploring the lore of the Yautja, no grand scheme in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It’s just a straightforward rumble in the jungle between a human and a Predator. Though there are some crucial differences, and the selling points are in the details.
Obviously, the huge central gimmick here is in the Comanche setting. The filmmakers took great pains in delivering an authentic portrayal of 18th-century indigenous peoples, and it definitely comes off as a love letter to the First Nations. Moreover, because the film takes place in the pristine uncolonized lands of North America, the picture is loaded with breathtaking landscapes and gorgeous nature photography.
More to the point, it would be alarmingly easy for the Predator to be an allegory for white colonists in this particular scenario. But the film goes a different route, as a hapless crew of French fur trappers bumbles into the proceedings during the back half. It bears mentioning that all of them (with the possible exception of a translator played by Bennett Taylor) were explicitly built to be hate sinks, primarily serving as cannon fodder for our Predator to slice up in a fantastic action set piece at the hour-mark. The trappers serve remarkably well as strawmen for the evils of white colonialism, though it certainly makes a difference that these were Frenchmen and not Brits. For this white American, it helped to put a kind of emotional distance between my ilk and these four-color villainous invaders. I’m not really sure how I feel about softening the blow like that, but the film made its point nonetheless.
But of course this is all about Naru. Everything that makes this movie entertaining and unique among its peers comes back to her.
First of all, major kudos to Amber Midthunder. She turns in a dynamic performance, she holds the screen superbly, and she carries the entire film like a bona fide champ. We’d all be way better off if she gets more high-profile work ASAP.
Secondly, it makes a huge difference that Naru isn’t a trained professional killer like Dutch, but someone who’s still actively working to prove herself. Consider that according to the established Predator code of conduct, the Pred won’t attack anyone who doesn’t present a serious threat. On the one hand, this is a significant reason why Naru is able to escape from quite a few encounters with the Predator. On the other hand, it’s made clear that the Predator doesn’t see Naru as a worthy opponent even as she’s actively trying to hunt and kill him on the way to proving her worth to her tribe. You can see how that would deal a massive blow to her ego, and how that would feed into her development. And this brings me to another point.
In an earlier review, I pointed out the lazy and shallow trend of “feminist” pictures in which a female protagonist is pushed to succeed through such traditionally masculine traits as raw strength and fighting prowess. (She has to “man up”, if you will.) But this film takes a slightly different approach. In this picture, Naru is surrounded by masculine characters who charge the Predator guns blazing (or arrows flying, as the case may be) and they all end up dead.
What ultimately makes the difference is that Naru has extremely valuable herbology and medical experience, giving her an edge that nobody else has. What’s more, while the masculine characters typically employ the classic “charge in first and look for answers later” strategy, Naru is more intuitive and inquisitive in her methods. She takes the time to observe and try to get inside the head of her opponent in a way that nobody else really does. Naru even shows herself to be more creative than her male peers, inventing new weapons and booby traps that come in remarkably handy against the Predator.
Case in point: Naru comes up with the idea of tying a rope to her tomahawk, getting it down so she can throw her axe, pull it back, and throw it again, all with pinpoint accuracy and all within seconds. A male Comanche happens upon this invention and scoffs: “You need a leash for your weapon?” That right there is pretty much all you need to know about the difference between Naru and the other characters in this picture.
In the end, Naru doesn’t win because she learns to act like a man and carry herself like a man. She wins because she takes on the masculine norms of her culture, doing so on her own terms and within her own unique abilities. And in the end, she doesn’t ultimately succeed because she passed some rite of passage or proved herself as a hunter or whatever — she succeeds because the tribe will finally listen to her, taking her wisdom and experience seriously. It all makes for a wonderfully empowered female protagonist.
Are there any nitpicks? Well, I’m sorry to say that the action scenes don’t really pick up until the back half, though they do pick up in a big freaking way. We’ve got some dodgy CGI creature effects, but I’ve come to appreciate that ever since RRR — that Uncanny Valley effect puts just enough emotional distance in place so I can enjoy the action without any worry about real animals getting hurt or inhumanely treated.
Which brings me to the supporting cast. With all due respect to Dakota Beavers and Michelle Thrush — respectively playing Naru’s brother and mom — the supporting cast here is depressingly weak. The only real MVP in the supporting cast is Coco, the Carolina dog specifically adopted and trained to play Naru’s canine sidekick. The dog really does deliver a surprisingly good performance, and Sarii is remarkably useful in all number of scenarios. And I’m happy to report that the dog doesn’t die. Good boy.
On a final miscellaneous note, I should point out that Hulu played the English-version take by default. There’s a Comanche dub also available on the site, and I look forward to seeing it in the near future.
Overall, I had a wonderful time with Prey. It’s a straightforward action movie with all the down-and-dirty sci-fi violence we should expect from the Predator franchise at its best. The setting is beautifully utilized, the lead character is marvelous, and both do a lot to set this film apart from its peers in the genre and the franchise.
It’s a damn shame this one didn’t get a theatrical release (Seriously, what’s playing in multiplexes right now?!), but making this 100-minute picture freely and easily accessible for Hulu subscribers makes this a no-brainer. Definitely check it out.