"Hunter Prey" is likely to go down as one of the best sci-fi films in a long time that most people will never see. Based on a story from and directed by Sandy Collora, a Hollywood designer (he created the iconic Jurassic Park logo) who is best known for his two fan-films taking place in the DC Universe: "Batman: Dead End" and "World's Finest." Armed with an obscenely low budget (by sci-fi adventure film standards) of around $450,000, Collora took his production down to Mexico to produce a film with many lofty aspirations, nearly all of which it succeeds in accomplishing.
Set on an unnamed world, "Hunter Prey" opens with a trio of armor clad soldiers led by Commander Karza (Isaac C. Singleton Jr). Along with Centauri 7 (Damien Poitier) and Logan (Simon Potter), the squad receives orders to track down their prey, Jericho (Clark Bartram, who also played Batman in both of Collora's short films). It's not long before it's down to Jericho and Centauri 7 (aided by Clea, a pleasant female AI voiced by Erin Gray) play a cat-and-mouse game on the calm but cruelly hot, desolate desert planet.
Collora's story wears its influences on its sleeve, ranging from the classic, plodding western to mano-a-mano films such as "Hell in the Pacific" and "Enemy Mine." Viewers will instantly see influences on production (the poster is an obvious 70s throwback), with the armor of Centauri 7 and his squad mates looking like heavily modified Clonetrooper armor for the "Star Wars" prequels. Collora is very smart though and only includes these things as necessity in setting the tone of the film in the sci-fi genre; he doesn't waste time showing off effects for the sake of self-promotion, even though the effects themselves are incredibly impressive given the monetary limitations. He uses them, as George Lucas famously said (and then later seemed to forget), "as a tool." The movie at its core is about Centauri 7 and Jericho.
"Hunter Prey" has three, well-defined acts, with the introduction to the story focusing on the squad's pursuit of Jericho, ending with some reveals regarding the origin of all parties involved that I'll refrain from spoiling. The second act is the most intriguing and frustrating, jumping back and forth between Centauri and Jericho as the balance of power shifts back and forth. There is little dialogue in this second act and Collora is forced to keep viewers engaged visually, which he excels at. Making the most of the environment and bringing in a minor action moment just when it's needed, the second act of the film walks the line between tension and tedium; ultimately, the few instances where the film does drag don't hurt the overall product as much as they could.
The final act of the film is where Collora really unleashes the dogs of war and bombards viewers with more than one sizeable plot twist that initially stir up feelings of apprehension that the final product doesn't know where it's going. Much to my own surprise, every twist has a satisfying payoff, and the resolution of the story is not a cop-out nor contrived in anyway; it's entirely logical. However, we wouldn't have made it as far as we did, as well as we did on Collora's story alone if it wasn't for the two lead performances from actors who very much define the adjective, unknown.
While Damion Poitier may have a healthy career as a stuntman, his acting resume is generally full of small, bit parts. Clark Bartram on the other hand only has acting experience working on Collora's short films. You wouldn't know it from the performances they deliver though. While far from Oscar worthy, both capture the spirit of the film and the hearts of the characters as well as tell a physical story through body language in the first act, where both characters have yet to remove their respective helmets. Poitier deserves special recognition for working under heavy prosthetic makeup, which itself is an art form; add to that, the intense heat of the location and the end result is truly amazing. He is the embodiment of the devoted warrior, shrugging off injuries and remaining relentless in pursuit. His character arc allows him to open up the dramatic range quite convincingly in the final act and his performance is a large part why Collora's twists work so well.
Bartram is incredibly competent as well, working best when he's in the same scene as another actor. His early line delivery feels a bit stilted at times, but he eventually loosens up appropriately while playing a man in fear for his life on an unknown world. Collora gives Jericho an equally substantial character arc and like Poitier, Bartram's performance ensures the curveballs hit their target. The supporting cast all handle their roles well, with Isaac Singleton Jr turning in a very gruff and fierce performance as the by-the-book commander and Erin Gray is wholly pleasant and in many ways, the most humane character, despite voicing an artificial intelligence.
Production wise, "Hunter Prey" is jaw dropping, squeezing every penny out of the low budget, even managing to get an epic sounding score fit for any solid adventure film. Collora works within his limitations, making sure every shot is well framed and using the lonely desert as proper justification for longer than usual takes. Editing is refreshingly slower paced than the modern ADD approach, Visually "Hunter Prey" looks a bit too polished at times, with the RED cameras showing almost too much detail, giving the feature a more television/documentary crispness, than a filmic look. The film screams of effort on all parties to see a final product come to fruition.
While "Hunter Prey" doesn't break new ground in many categories, it does succeed in its intention of mixing the western with the smart, slower paced sci-fi movie of the 70s and 80s. Even at an 80 odd minute running time, the film could use a bit of cleaning up in the editing department and viewers might be turned off by Collora's slow burn, but as a whole, everything comes together properly. I'll admit, there is a moment in the finale that I was ready to attribute to sloppy writing, but sure enough, a minor moment earlier in the film explains it perfectly, a testament to Collora making ensuring his story was logical. At the very least, "Hunter Prey" will entertain you, but hopefully, it will also remind you beyond the big budget Hollywood excess, there are still those willing to break their backs to get their vision on the big (or small) screen.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures the detail of the RED cameras with little problems. Some minor edge enhancement pops up on figured in very wide shots and some light digital noise is visible against the darker colors. Color levels are extremely solid, capturing the Mexican deserts simple beauty: light sand, brown rocks and blue sky. The obvious effort put into the paintjobs on costumes and effects shows up well, including little defects and weathering effects.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is fairly immersive, with the forceful score taking the forefront, while effects are a little quieter than expected. Dialogue is clear and distortion free, dominating the center speakers. An English 2.0 audio track is included as well.
The only two extras are very informative with the highlight being the feature length commentary from Sandy Collora, who is a wealth of information from start to finish, covering all aspects of production as well as the filmmaking process. A 30-minute "making of" documentary covers production and story aspects, pointing out some effects tricks that incredibly effective, especially give the film's ultra low budget.
A fantastic old-school western homage set in a science fiction world, "Hunter Prey" is a very enjoyable film on numerous levels. Sandy Collora's (as well as the rest of the cast and crew) hard work to see this low-budget, feature-length film become a reality is a great testament to a can-do attitude and keeps the flame alive for independent filmmakers in all genres. While not a perfect movie, "Hunter Prey" honestly deserved a theatrical release, despite having a more high-level video look than that of your standard cinematic fare. At the very least, the DVD release of this film should be getting more hype. Highly Recommended.