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PREY – Sarah Schachner

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The 1987 film Predator was one of the masterpieces of that decade’s action oeuvre, a superbly entertaining sci-fi blockbuster that further solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger’s leading man status, while also satirizing and deconstructing the über-macho hero archetype that typified the genre at that time. It also kick-started the Predator franchise, which has since grown to encompass three sequels, and two Alien vs Predator crossovers featuring another set of classic 80s movie monsters. The central recurring element in these movies are the predators themselves, who over the course of the franchise have come to be known as a race of sentient and technologically advanced aliens who, as part of their culture’s rites of passage, periodically come to Earth to hunt humans for sport. This brings us to the centerpiece of the latest film in the franchise, Prey, which takes this idea but shifts it totally on its head by having the predators visit Earth in the 1700s, where they choose a tribe of Comanche Native Americans as their quarry. The hero of the story is Naru, played by Amber Midthunder, who recognizes the alien threat and uses her survival skills to protect her tribe, not only from the predator, but also from a gang of ruthless French fur traders in the area. The film is directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a screenplay by Patrick Aison, and co-stars Dakota Beavers, Michelle Thrush, and Dane DiLiegro.

This is a brilliant idea for a Predator movie. It builds on some of the backstory established throughout the franchise, which posits that the predator culture has visited humanity for millennia, interacting with the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Inca, and numerous other ancient cultures. Of course the Predators would have interacted with multiple societies in multiple time periods, and setting the film among Native Americans gives the entire storyline additional depth. The movie is a ton of fun – terrific action sequences, beautiful cinematography, gory kills, and impressive special effects – and it helps immensely that lead actress Midthunder brings a great deal of passion and emotion to her performance as Naru, the Comanche woman who wants to be taken seriously as a warrior by her family and her community. Overall, it’s probably the best Predator film since the original, and I hope that the concept of putting Predators in other time periods and other locations continues in other films. The possibilities are endless!

The score for Prey is by composer Sarah Schachner, who might be a new name for many people reading this, unless you listen to video game music as much as you do film music. Schachner is an accomplished pianist and violinist who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, before coming to Los Angeles to work as Brian Tyler’s assistant. She arranged and wrote additional music for Tyler on a number of scores, including The Expendables 2, Iron Man 3, and both Now You See Me movies, before making a sideways move into the world of video game music. She has since written for several high profile games, including Assassin’s Creed Unity, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Anthem, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and is very well respected in that industry, but her score for Prey is likely to bring her to the attention of a whole new group of fans, and this can only be a good thing. Director Trachtenberg says he hired Schachner after playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla while prepping the movie in Calgary; he thought the game’s music was “insanely beautiful” and sought the composer out.

Schachner’s approach to the score was one of sincere authenticity. She worked with several specialists – Taos Pueblos vocalist/flautist/percussionist Robert Mirabal, Comanche Music Consultant Edmond Nevaquaya, and world woodwind soloists Pedro Eustache and Ashley Jarmack, among others – to create a sound that was faithful to the real musical culture of the setting. This was then combined with a mostly string-based orchestra, the solos for which were performed by Schachner herself, resulting in a score which has a raw, aggressive sound. Within this framework Schachner then wrote two recurring themes – one for the Predator, and one for Naru – which then do battle throughout much of the score.

The Predator theme first appears in the opening cue, “Predator Instinct,” and is a dark, menacing, staccato phrase for cello, that is just as primal and vicious as the monster itself. After this opening introduction, however, the theme is largely absent for a large part of the score, not really coming back until the brutal action cue “The Onslaught,” when the Predator is fully revealed to Naru and their battle commences.

Instead, much of the first half of the score concentrates on Naru and her story, her desire to become a Comanche warrior, and her relationship with her family. Naru’s theme is excellent; Schachner says that she and the director spent a while collaborating on it, and the idea came to them that the theme should ‘feel like a journey,’ starting small and really taking you somewhere.” It first appears in a deconstructed form during “Naru and Sarii,” before receiving its sweeping ‘hero performances’ in “Beyond the Great Plains” and “Naru’s Way,” cues which underscore the majestic vistas of Naru’s home. The superb statements in these cues reminded me a little bit of Trevor Jones’s The Last of the Mohicans, which is of course a very good thing. The string cascades in “Naru’s Way” are especially lovely, and director Trachenberg thought so too, as he intentionally extended Naru’s horseback ‘travelog’ sequence so that this longer statement of Schachner’s theme could be heard, front and center.

The action music in the first half of the score, as heard in cues like “Thrill of the Chase,” “Five Senses,” the vicious “The Night Has Ears,” “Flesh and Bone,” and others, is dense and highly rhythmic, and is usually built around a pulsating string ostinato surrounded by the rattling and clattering ethnic percussion, shrill woodwind blasts, and electronic atmospherics. Occasionally these cues perhaps get a little bogged down in too much textural mud, and come across a little like the musical equivalent of treading water – just barely bobbing along without much noticeable substance – and as such some may find some of this more ambient writing a bit of a slog. Personally, I really like the soundscape, and I appreciate the intricacy of what Schachner is doing with the layers of instruments. The vivid vocals and haunted, strangled brass sounds in “Orange Totsiyaa” are fascinating, while “Moon Wanderer” has a relentless, purposeful sound.

In the aftermath of “The Onslaught,” things really ramp up, and Schachner offers a series of excellent action-horror-suspense cues that combine the Predator motif with Naru’s theme in a variety of interesting ways. Clanging bells add a new textural dimension to the overpoweringly dissonant “Trapped”. “The Cruel Delight” is underpinned by terrific, uncompromising writing for banks of growling cellos that have a touch of the renaissance about them, perhaps crossed with a pirate sea shanty, and are a perfect musical representation of the barbarous French fur trappers who capture and torture Naru and her brother Taabe, before getting a grisly comeuppance.

“Horseback Ambush” is pure, uncompromising energy, pitting the Predator motif against a deconstructed version of Naru’s theme, amid yet more of that surging cello writing. The muffled thumping in the rather challenging and abstract “Human Bait” feels like a heartbeat pumping in your chest, echoing in your ears, a perfect representation of the terror Naru and Taabe feel as they await the Predator’s emergence from the mist.

The climactic “Brave Girl” is just a vicious aural assault filled with slashing string figures, batteries of percussion, and loud, rippling performances of the Predator cello motif, but it’s fascinating to experience how the competing fragments of Naru’s theme slowly coalesce over the course of five minutes, eventually erupting into bold, tonal consonance just after the three minute mark, as this fierce female warrior gets the upper hand on her gigantic foe. “Seeing with New Eyes” offers welcome relief and a sense of new purpose, and contains a final flourish of Naru’s theme that is very satisfying, before the conclusive “The Hunter” ends the score with a more fulsome and belligerent statement of the Predator theme.

One thing that the score also does is pay some respectful lip service to the original Predator theme Alan Silvestri wrote for the 1987 original. Cleverly, Schachner utilizes the underlying rhythmic element of the theme throughout a fair bit of the score, but whereas Silvestri’s original orchestration was for percussion, Schachner shifts it to throbbing, enraged strings. You can hear elements of Silvestri’s theme all through the opening cue “Predator Instinct” – listen for it especially at the very beginning of the cue, and then again around the 26 second mark – and there are clear references to it later in “Horseback Ambush,” “Brave Girl,” and “The Hunter”. Some listeners may be disappointed that the theme is not more prominent or obvious, or that the more famous melodic horn part is not referenced at all, but I actually liked what she did, and how she made its percussive intensity feel fresh.

Overall, Prey is impressive stuff. Sarah Schachner has created a fascinating sonic environment for these characters to inhabit, one which is deeply rooted in the musical traditions of Comanche culture, but which also has a disturbing, violently alien element that shatters their world with relentlessly aggressive dissonance. The central theme for Naru is great, and the handful of times that Schachner allows it to ring out clearly are, for me, the score’s highlights. But, as I have repeatedly said, large stretches of the score are VERY intense and challenging and often amount to little more than banks of roaring cello pulses and clattering percussion; they are superb in context, but the primeval power of Schachner’s sound may be too much for some to stomach.

Buy the Prey soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Predator Instinct (3:03)
  • Thrill of the Chase (0:55)
  • Naru and Surii (0:59)
  • Beyond the Great Plains (1:38)
  • Five Senses (2:28)
  • The Night Has Ears (2:31)
  • Communion (1:19)
  • Naru’s Way (3:13)
  • Flesh and Bone (3:11)
  • Orange Totsiyaa (0:53)
  • Moon Wanderer (0:55)
  • The Onslaught (2:14)
  • Trapped (3:13)
  • Foolish Foray (2:43)
  • The Cruel Delight (2:07)
  • Horseback Ambush (2:31)
  • Human Bait (3:32)
  • Brave Girl (5:03)
  • Seeing with New Eyes (1:51)
  • The Hunter (1:20)

Running Time: 45 minutes 28 seconds

Hollywood Records (2022)

Music composed by Sarah Schachner. Conducted by Tim Davies. Orchestrations by Tim Davies. Original Predator theme by Alan Silvestri. Additional music by Jason Graves. Recorded and mixed by Greg Hayes, Brad Haehnel and Frank Wolf. Edited by Daniel DiPrima, Stephen Perone and Alastair Hawkins. Album produced by Sarah Schachner.

  1. Nerevar
    August 12, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    Prey is the best Predator film since the original. The story is engaging, the actors excellent, the action thrilling and the cinematography splendid. It’s a shame it got the Disney + treatment instead of the big screen first !

    I knew Sarah Schachner from the Assassin’s Creed games, especially her work for Origins and one track from Unity (“Rather Death Than Slavery”) which impressed me quite. And yet I don’t know why but I expected the soundtrack to sound like the one of the Assassin’s Creed movie (from Jed Kurzel): boring and unexciting.
    What a fool I was ! The score from Prey is everything as you say it is: intense, sometimes almost too much, but splendid in it’s own right. Naru’s theme is the highlight, it’s absolutely gorgeous, especially when it plays during the end credits.

    As always, thank you Mr. Broxton for your reviews, it’s always a pleasure and we get to understand so much better what the composers did. What Schachner did with the Silvestri theme is good work, but I wish she had used it in all it’s glory, similarly to what Henry Jackman did on The Predator. That theme is so good and iconic, it deserves to be heard !

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