Our 2022 Annual Report continues with the announcement of Amber Midthunder as our Film Performer of the Year for her role in Prey. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2022. You can find it all in one place here.
When asked how it felt to see her breakout film Prey so warmly received by sci-fi fans and critics alike, Amber Midthunder mentions a third group she was more proud of connecting with: “What I think of is obviously Indigenous communities, because that was such a big deal to me, how that would be received and what that was representing.”
She’s right, of course. There’s plenty to be said about what’s easily the best Predator film since the 1987 original in regards to the great action, intimate storytelling, and unique setting. But for millions of Indigenous people across North America, it’s that latter element that makes the movie such a marvelous success.
Set in the Northern Great Plains in 1719, the movie centers around a Comanche would-be hunter named Naru (Midthunder) who must protect her tribe from being victims of a Predator’s hunt. In a different Hollywood era, such a concept may not have worked — or even been attempted. Indigenous representation in cinema and the culture at large hasn’t been historically flattering, instead falling back — often lazily and harmfully — on caricature-like tropes. Turning those tides takes a deep commitment to respect and accuracy, and it starts with casting someone like Midthunder.
“I come from a plains people. I am Lakota, Nakoda, and Dakota. I was raised with my culture. I was raised with my language in my house,” Midthunder, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Nations, says. “I wake up every day being Indigenous and I don’t get to choose anything else, and I wouldn’t want to. So I know what it is to have that in your blood.”
She’s being as literal as possible. Her great-great-great-grandmother’s name translates to Chief Woman, a name earned by literally leading men into battle. That fact made Midthunder’s connection to Naru more powerful than any role she’d ever had. “This went beyond caring about my craft or my career or anything singular. Every single day that I came to work, it belonged to so much more than me.”
Again, this is a Predator movie we’re talking about. At its most basic, it’s a movie about an alien hunter coming to kill a bunch of things, and the one human who’s smart and skilled enough to stop him. What makes truly great sci-fi, however, is when the story underneath the plot has substance, and when those telling the tale understand the material enough to translate that weight. Given Midthunder’s lived experience, it’s clear how she was able to give Naru such depth.
The character’s arc remains relatable regardless of the specific confines of the time period and culture. Not so much the clash with an alien super-hunter, but the personal and societal challenges she faces. Naru is a fierce believer in herself and her abilities, but most of her tribe pressures her to remain a healer and leave the hunting to her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers). When she gets the chance to prove herself, it’s against the most terrifying opponent imaginable — enough to break anyone’s confidence.
“What I found relatable about her is being really sure of yourself and telling everyone around you, ‘I know I can do this,’ and then when you get there being like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this,” says Midthunder. “And then having to get yourself together and being like, ‘Shut up. You can do this.’ I feel that ultimately, when you boil it down, that was the human experience that was happening to her. So you know, 1700s alien or 2000s woman, same thing.”
Even this basic emotional journey required Midthunder to stretch her talent, as she had to express it with very minimal dialogue. Watch her closely during the scene where Naru’s fellow tribesmen first encounter the Predator: At first, she’s full of self-assured defiance, strong in the knowledge she’s right despite the doubters. But once the hunter shows himself and starts slaughtering the others, her posture changes, her eyes change, her entire demeanor changes. It’s not that her confidence has been sapped, it’s that she’s reconciling it with the reality of the threat she’s facing; so when she turns and runs, it’s not out of fear, but intelligence.
Midthunder’s subtlety in these moments of grand action are a wonder to watch. So much of the film’s success rests on this sort of physical embodiment. It’s something Midthunder put deliberate work into alongside director Dan Trachtenberg.
“Dan and I started conversations really early on about the physicality of the character, because there’s so much of the movie that doesn’t have dialogue,” she says. “Figuring out how to communicate through body language or through expression was something we talked about, and his ideas and the conversations we had were very intentional.”
Those discussions led to Midthunder filling Naru with patterns, little movements appearing throughout the movie that “grounded her” and “gave it a texture that was very honest.” That’s particularly true in the purposefully raw and unpolished fight scenes, which took surprising inspiration from Trachtenberg’s love of Jackie Chan. The director sent his star a number of clips from Chan’s films, from which she internalized the idea that different fights call for “different colors.”