Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Hunting Party

Every so often, I'll get it into my head that I'm somehow ignoring my roots. I mean, the name of this blog (and of my old website) are both taken from one of the great sci fi movies, so what the hell am I doing writing about obscure Korean melodramas and Romanian black comedies or what have you? I usually get over it, mainly because I love art films and foreign films and every other kind of movie, but it still feels like I'm, I dunno, cheating on my spouse or something. Let's face it, my love of movies derives first and foremost from horror and sci fi movies. So I'm going to try to reserve my Sundays for creature features and space operas for a while. Until I get bored with it, anyway...

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to today's film. Hunter Prey (2010, directed by Sandy Collora) is a film I would have totally watched with my friends on an overnight back in the 1980s, probably paired with RobotJox and Warriors of the Wasteland. It's that kind of film: made on a laughably low budget, no ambition but to entertain (and, mercifully, it doesn't have any ambition to pad its running time), steeped in sci fi tropes from other movies. It TOTALLY reeks of mid-eighties direct to video. Only, it's better than those films. Most of those films were intended as rip-offs, produced by businessmen whose business model was based on surfing. They were more intent on riding some wave of the zeitgeist than they were in creating something lasting. If a good movie got made by accident, then great! But quality was not, as they say, job one with these movies. Hunter Prey, on the other hand, is obviously a labor of love. There's no wave to ride here. The kind of sci fi this movie is emulating has been replaced, by and large, by Dickian mindfucks. This is an older model, based on Star Wars and Robert Heinlein novels and The Twilight Zone. The movie this most resembles is Enemy Mine, though, I'd argue, this one is better than that movie because it doesn't go all weak in the knees at the end.

The story here follows a team of soldiers who are transporting a dangerous alien back to their base. Unfortunately, their ship meets with misfortune and they're marooned on a desolate planet with their cargo, who is now on the loose and stalking them. The alien, it seems, is intent on destroying the soldiers' home planet if they can't corral it. Meanwhile, it picks them off one by one.

Not the most original of plots, true, but the movie does play some games with it. It makes at least a token effort to subvert its origins. As is often the case with genre films, execution is everything. In this regard, Hunter Prey gets off to a rough start. The opening scenes seem like they were filmed by a cosplay club. The filmmakers throw us right into the action, so we don't have anything invested in any of the players at the outset. Fortunately, once the movie starts to tick away its plot points, it becomes a LOT more interesting. The cat and mouse game that provides the film with its through line is more ethical and psychological than it is tactical. It has a surprising, and surprisingly ambiguous, denouement. The whole thing LOOKS good, too. Director Sandy Collora comes to the director's chair from the effects industry, so he knows how to get the most out of his props and his costumes. What limited CGI there is is well deployed, and combined with practical effects in a way that covers the limitations of both. This looks a LOT more expensive than it actually was, and kudos to cinematographer Edward A. Gutentag for actually thinking about his shots. Huge chunks of this are master shots. It doesn't indulge in the tyranny of the close-up or any shaky-cam shenanigans. It wants to show the audience what's on screen. This is refreshing and genuinely attractive.

The performances, on the other hand, could be better. Particularly at the outset, most of the our team of soldiers are indistinguishable from one another, all delivering their lines with a barking, pissed-off machismo. This doesn't improve once we see the characters' faces. The protagonist only really stands out until the rest of his team is dead. Conservation of characters at work here. And so it goes. This dichotomy between production and performances is a hallmark of sci fi movies, where characters are sometimes cardboard cutouts inserted into the frame to give the effects some scale, but after the midway point of this movie, the characters actually matter.

It's hard to discuss the themes of this movie without giving away key plot points, so suffice it to say that it has more on its mind than just mindless action and sci fi eye candy. Hunter Prey is too low budget to settle for that and get away with it. It wants to play with the intellectual toys of science fiction, and it does a fair job of it. Be that as it may, it never forgets its roots, whether it's some passing reference drawn from some other movie or having Erin Gray voice the sentient computer that participates in the plot. This is a movie made by fans, make no mistake (director Sandy Collara made something of a splash online with his Batman fan film, "Dead End", a few years ago). It just so happens that these particular fans actually know what the hell they're doing. They've made a pretty good movie.

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