Prey is a pretty damn good entry in the Predator series - third best, by my reckoning: Not as good as one, not as fun as two, but way more entertaining than Predators. And it tells a coherent story, so it beats The Predator by default.
Like the other entries, Prey doesn't feel the need to serialize - there's a few ties to the other films, but it's mainly another story of another thrill-seeking predator coming down to earth to have a go at the deadliest game. There's no flourishes or subversion like on any of the other sequels, it's a back to the basics retelling of the first movie with a comanche woman as the protagonist.
It's set in the American great plains in the 1700s, which allows for some beautiful wilderness backdrops. Young Comanche Naru wants to be a hunter, but fails the ritual of passage to become one (hunting something that might hunt you back) partly because of some Predator-related shenanigans far in the horizon. This sets her on a path to prove herself against this alien asshole who uses much more advanced technology to brutally murderize a small village's worth of comanche hunters and french trappers.
She's a likable character, and her underdog status throughout the movie is very effective at making us root for her. She gets hurt, fails a few times, runs away a couple more, but 'sees more than others do' as her more successful hunter brother puts it. That sets the stage for a final confrontation where she uses stuff she's learned throughout the movie to win the day.
The script is pretty good a seeding little details that will later come back. I also enjoyed how... procedural it is at points, for lack of a better word; a surprising amount of time is dedicated to the building of a stretcher or a rope for a tethered throwing axe, for example, and there are lots of shots of gathering herb,s and checking out broken twigs or tracks on the ground. It's cool that it seems that not a lot of predator safaris have stopped on earth at this time, so the predator is working out the food chain.
The photography is excellent and the action is well choreographed, fun, and well shot. This is a good, lean, old-fashioned action movie.
Its main problem is that... while all the other predator sequels tried to bring their own ideas into the mix, but this really is Predator again with another setting/character. The first movie's big thing is the realization that being a soldier with all the firepower in the world means jack shit against a predator, and I didn't feel this one has anything comparable; Naru begins wanting to be a hunter, and ends the movie a hunter. The script is well constructed, with a lot of little parallels and reference to the predator/prey motif (it does get to be a bit too much by the end, with Naru explaining it out loud for anyone who wasn't paid attention) but that's not enough to compensate for this central lack of identity.
It's a minor problem, as is the film's mid-level budget; the effects aren't up to the task of animating real-looking animals, which are always teetering right at the edge of uncanny valley, and the CGI gore is fun but a bit fake looking at times. I had some bigger problems accepting the God-of-War tethered axes, which felt at odds with the more realistic tone of the rest of the film, or a scene late in the movie where Naru outright John Wicks a bunch of people attacking her at the same time. It's a completely unnecessary scene that kind of punctured my understanding of the character. Then again, it is a fun fight scene, and it's triggered by the need to rescue a dog, so I really shouldn't complain.
This movie has a great scene where a bear almost revenants the predator. I kind of wish it would have, with the movie taking a weird turn there: Naru joins up with other predators to hunt the bear, who had swallowed the predator's shoulder launcher and can now shoot arrows out of its mouth. Or -even better- Naru joins up with the bear to kick the other predators' asses.
In any case, that scene ends with the predator holding up the bear's carcass, and getting splattered with its blood, revealing its shape over its cloaking device. That's very similar to a scene at the beginning of The Predator, and I wonder if it will be a recurring thing from now on. I'd honestly like that.
A bunch of years back a British celebrity caused a minor outrage and a lot of criticism by describing his elephant hunting antics, and even musing on how it would feel to kill a man. I wonder if that's how all the other Predators in Predator Prime or whatever feel about the Predators we get to see in these movies, as a bunch of yokels/and or overprivileged asshats, out on overcompensating little trips. Did the Predators from the second movie go back to their homeworld just to shuffle back into mundane little lives? That's my pitch for the next sequel.