The Demon of the Continent:
Notes on Prey

I watched Prey, the new Predator “requel”, on Disney+ the other day, signing up briefly to see what the platform had to offer (not much). I enjoyed the film well enough, but found it lacking, or at least undeserving of all the handwringing discourse it has spawned.

On Twitter, I wrote a short thread about it. I only watched the film because it was a main topic of discussion online that day. Some predictably complained the film — and the Predator franchise more generally — had “gone woke” in casting Sioux actor Amber Midthunder in the role of Naru, a toyboyish member of a Comanche tribe who wants to be a warrior and hunter, rather than a stay-at-home medicine woman, but who is dismissed by many of the men around her.

Most half-baked complaints described Naru as a “Mary Sue”, an idealized female character who is boring for her lack of flaws. It’s an unfair description, though there is something to be said for how underdeveloped the character is, but this is a Predator movie, after all. Was Arnie much more than a hunk of angry man-meat in the original? Relatively speaking, Naru is a far more three-dimensional character, but this is still little more than a fun game of cat-and-mouse. We needn’t inflate her character beyond the simple role she ultimately plays in the conflict.

Other complaints were concerned with the predictable success of the protagonist against this alien foe, as if it were unrealistic that the “primitive” Comanches could really take on and defeat the Predator, a technologically advanced member of a predatory alien species. But this too is a strange critique, particularly concerning the Comanche tribe, who were perhaps the most resourceful of warriors, adapting with apparent ease to the new technologies brought over and used against them by various colonisers.

The critiques are ill-founded and warrant plenty of pushback, but I found most of the counter-arguments giving the film a little more credit that it was due. It still wasn’t that great. And I think, for me, what I struggled with wasn’t the fact the film had “gone woke” but rather that — beyond a great deal of effort going into accurately representing Comanche culture — it made a bit of a mess of the political subtext of the originals.

Like Alien before it, the titular predator of the franchise has always been coded as black. It is tall, dreadlocked, wielding weapons and wearing armour carved with an alien language that looks like Nahuatl script. For me, this dreadlocked villain, still coded as black, hunting both Comanche and colonisers, makes the film’s political subtext all kinds of confused and anachronistic.

In the original film, set during the Vietnam War, the predator was clearly inspired by the Viet Cong, not so much “technologically advanced” than its prey as simply more at home in the jungle, able to use it to its advantage in a way that the white man could not. But Prey is set on the American frontier, and there the Predator becomes a kind of free-floating Other, lacking any real tension. The environment provides no real advantage; the Predator has no real upper-hand beyond its brute force and habit of invisibility.

I’m reminded of Arthur Jafa’s comments about the original Alien, in which the alien predator was played by Bolaji Badejo. He discussed the film in many interviews and made a number of artworks about it. As relayed by 032c magazine:

Describing the famous chest-burster scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien, filmmaker Arthur Jafa zeroes in on the moment where Parker (the Black engineer played by Yaphet Kotto) stares face-to-face with the monstrous baby alien. He describes it as a moment of recognition between two archetypal black men — the “good” one who works for the company and the “bad” one who has come to rape and pillage. But this constellation of recognition works three ways. As Jafa himself recalls: “The first time I saw it, I realized that I was that alien.”

A positive reading of Prey could argue that the same moment of recognition happens in the film. But this same sense of good and bad, of two kinds of alienation facing off against each other, never quite makes itself known. There is no moment of recognition. It’s just a free-for-all, with Naru even teaming up (albeit far from consensually) with the colonists to fight off a common enemy. Does this make her the “good native” in that regard? Is she really as “woke” as the film’s detractors make out? Nothing seems that clear cut.

As a result, the appearance of the colonisers ultimately dilutes the narrative. It would be a far more obvious “woke” film without them. Indeed, the tension between hunter and hunted would have been much more obvious too, even a little on-the-nose, had the Comanche faced off against the Predator without that additional threat. Indeed, how is the Predator any different to the colonisers? It isn’t really. But then what are we to make of the Predator’s annihilation of this other colonising evil, its indifference to the political potentials of the present it finds itself within? Are we to take away from this film that there is always something bigger or worse out there? That there are still “bad” Others to contend with, with the colonisers just a second-order villain ripe for mockery rather than the abject fear the Predator inspires? I don’t think the film goes that far, but at best it transforms the colonisation of America into scene-dressing; a backdrop against which to tell an all too familiar story, from which all the original political subtext is obscured.

Prey is a proper postmodern reboot in that regard. It offers an interesting viewpoint, but doesn’t ultimately say anything with it, which is weird considering how Westerns have so often been used to pass comment on the political tensions of their day. Indeed, many Acid Westerns in the 1970s complicated the “cowboys versus Indians” trope of classic Hollywood to interrogate the disenfranchisement that many felt during and after the Vietnam War, adding a great deal of nuance to the perspectives of both homesteaders and Native Americans. But Prey seems ignorant of all of that.

I’m reminded, as ever, of Leslie Fiedler. In his book The Return of the Vanishing American, he begins with a quote from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in American Literature:

The moment the last nuclei of Red life break up in America, then the white man will have to reckon with the full force of the demon of the continent … within the present generation the surviving Red Indians are due to merge in the great white swamp. Then the Daimon of America will work overtly, and we shall see real changes.

Lawrence’s outdated language aside, his point is that the integration and sublimation of Native American life into contemporary American “reality” will defang the role of the Other that Native Americans have often played in its cultural artefacts. On the one hand, this suggests an end to the alienation of Native American life in mainstream culture, but on the other, it suggests that, without the caricature’s scapegoat to draw upon, white America will finally have to face up to the demon within, rather than the “demon of the continent” being externalised as an Other. And so, writing in 1968, Fiedler adds:

Fifty years ago, the demonic future which Lawrence foresaw seemed only the troubled dream of a foreigner never really at home on our soil, a fantasy for poets to exploit and serious scholars to ignore; but suddenly his then is our now, and all of us seem men possessed.

What is the Predator in Prey if not the clichéd “demon of the continent” set loose on those it symbolically represented? It is not an Other nearly internalised as white, nor is it — despite its appearance — suggested to be a racialised other in the context of the narrative. What is it then?

There’s a positive interpretation of the film to be excavated from this cleft, as outlined by Jafa, but I don’t think Prey warrants it. Being generous, we can see in discussions of Naru’s initiation ritual — in which she must successfully hunt something that is hunting her to become a true warrior — as the kind of moment of recognition that Jafa talks about. The name “Comanche”, after all, roughly translates as “enemy to all”. They were a warrior people who fought tooth and nail against other tribes and other colonisers. (In the film, it appears that other members of the Comanche tribe become attracted by the horses owned by the French; in reality, the Comanche stole and then bred horses from Spanish colonisers, allowing them to leave the mountain regions they had originally called home and conquer the plains of the soon-to-be southern states.) Does Naru, then, see herself in the Predator, as that other enemy to all? A creature that, we might imagine, has come to Earth to complete an initiation ritual of its own? Perhaps. But does she not also see herself, inevitably, in the eyes of colonisers, who are reduced to another form of prey?

These questions suggest a certain kind of tension hard-baked into the film. But in truth, I felt none of it. All that is left is a trace of other more politically astute Westerns, but politics of Prey seem to rest solely on an accurate depiction of Comanche life, with little else actually taken into account. The film doesn’t have to do this — it is a lot to ask of a blockbuster streaming (in the UK at least) on Disney+ — but then what are all the commentators reading into exactly? The film becomes culture war fodder, and its superficiality is less a fault of the film itself than the discourse it has been catapulted into. It is the conversation around the film itself that is anemic.

So what is the history that Prey, whether consciously or not, falls into? To my mind, Naru is not a Mary Sue; if anything she is a postmodern example of what Fielder calls the “anti-Pocahontas”.

The story of Pocahontas that we are all familiar with — the forbidden love affair between Native American woman and a colonising Captain — is a familiar trope, where the Native American woman becomes, in the words of Otto Kahn, “the mythological nature-symbol … chosen to represent the physical body of the continent or the soil.” But in the nineteenth century, Pocahontas as nature-symbol was not simply a humanised analogy for the white man’s conquest of land.

Fielder notes that, eventually, “Pocahantos became somehow a symbol of patriotic pride to all Americans, as well as our first mythic Indian and a subject of sentimental interest to women”; she was “the first symbol of the United States, representing the Western wilderness reclaimed by civilisation.” She wasn’t simply something to possess but something to be — a literary subject, an literary Other, for white readers to internalise; not so much representative of the acquisition of land but its bounty of possibility. Her becoming-woman was adopted by all, but especially white women. It was only later that the tale was reframed as bringing nature to heel; it was only later she was reframed as a woman that must obey rather than a woman representative of the free spirit of the New World.

At every turn, the likes of Pocahontas, and other mythologised Native American women like Sacagawea, are framed in conflicting ways, but always through the eyes of whiteness:

Not only in the United States, but on its border as well, the legend of the redemptive Indian girl has been adapted to local conditions and to other myths already shared by the peoples involved. Both Pocahontas and Sacajawea are, of course, Protestant versions of the encounter with the Indian, WASP fantasies of reconciliation in the wilderness.

Is Naru any different? The film has been lauded for its accuracy in representing Comanche culture, language and beliefs, but is the story itself not still underpinned by a Protestant redemption arc? This makes the story of Pocahontas little more than an exoticized Cinderella story. She is an individual whose “degradation” allows for “her later miraculous success”, making “her legendary”.

Naru, of course, differs from Cinderella in that her virtue is not concretized by her willingness to marry the white man. But she is nonetheless othered by her own kin, seen as aberrant in her flaunting of gender roles that were arguably not so firm in Comanche culture proper. Over time, following Pocahontas’s reduction to a nativized Mary Sue, she was reclaimed by many women, who insisted, in Fielder’s words, “that their essential fable be not obscured by such irrelevant male concerns, that the story remain true to their central vision of their lot and be projected in terms of their own sort of heroine: a strong but immensely ordinary woman — preferably a mother — who is confronted by a male antagonist and, finding no male champion, must deliver herself.” But the problem here is that these women were almost always coded as white; in many earlier stories, in fact, she was often white explicitly, kidnapped by Native Americans only to embed herself in their culture and turn against white patriarchy. It is this shift that allows these women to “constitute the true anti-Pocahontas: our other — alas, realer — mother, the Great WASP Mother of Us All, who, far from achieving a reconciliation between White men and Red, turns the weapon of the Indian against him in a final act of bloodshed and vengeance.”

It was this tension that fascinated many early American writers. Fielder notes how Thoreau, for instance, believed that “the subject matter of the new American mythology has to be: the Indian at the moment of first contact with the White invader.” Many writers later struggled against this recentring not only of Native tribes but also of women. Ernest Hemingway comes in for ample ridicule by Fiedler in this regard, who replaces “nostalgia with parody, sentimentality with mockery, polite female masochism with gross male sadism.” This reactionary trope never quite found its footing, however. Audiences were already prepared to move beyond this chauvinism by the time it made its stand. By the 1960s, it was “dusky sex queens which the age demanded, and seedy clowns in full Western regalia to act out for laughs the death of the West”.

In Prey, this is, in part, what we are left with. The French colonisers are hapless, sadistic figures, overconfident in a new land and doomed to fail because of that. (The new right, of course, hates this.) But Naru herself, though far from sexualised, still remains tied to the ideal of a WASPy heroine. She rejects her place in her own order, which is less Comanche than Protestant, and becomes the arch individual heroine of the tale.

The specificities of indigenous life, then, though signalled too, are ultimately dissolved and made synonymous with white narrative tropes.

Perhaps this reading is a little too cynical and unfair, but what we find in Prey, I think, is an uncomfortable middle ground that is ripe for discussion in the culture wars. On the one hand, a new right stereotypically and ahistorically rejects the film for the ways it subverts a chauvinism that has not been in vogue for almost sixty years; on the other hand, what more liberal cultural commentators observe and champion are a set of tropes that, underneath the attempts at historical and cultural accuracy, are nonetheless firmly couched in a white literary tradition.

In this regard, Prey is far from an innovative tale. Seemingly unbeknownst to itself, it smuggles in tropes that have been around for decades, which do not make it “woke” or “subversive” in any meaningful way. Its political significance is projected onto it from without, as cultural discourse champions the care given to a politics of representation. And this is not something to dismiss, but it is, realistically, all that is there. Attached to a lineage of narratives that stretch back to the founding of American literature, it says more about how confused contemporary American identity is; how amorphous and unsettled it is from its own mythologies. This, in itself, is interesting to a point, but there is little in the film that points a way forward to the sort of new mythology that American culture might need. It languishes in political confusion, and it is this same confusion that the discussion around the film makes painfully apparent.

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