Directed By Sandy Collora
Starring Damion Poitier, Clark Bartram and Erin Gray
A military ship carrying a dangerous alien captive crash-lands on an uncharted, barren desert planet. The prisoner escapes during the crash, leaving the three surviving members of the commando team stranded with orders to capture the fleeing alien alive at all costs. With dwindling resources, harsh terrain and 100 hours until a rescue ship will be within range, the squad might not last long enough to be picked up as their deadly prey turns the tables, picking them off one by one.
Anyone who has seen Sandy Collora’s fanfilm Batman: Dead End will know that he has a keen eye for visuals and can accomplish a lot with little, so it’s no surprise that his first feature length project is an impressive visual feat, one that defies its tiny budget to look like a film far beyond its pay grade. With stunning desert vistas and lush cinematography by the awesomely-named Edward A. Gutentag, it takes average and ten-a-penny sand dune settings and manages to make them visually stunning for a fraction of the cost of most major Hollywood films.
The film’s lovely scenery doesn’t impress as much, though, as Collora’s retro sci-fi aesthetic; the director set out to ape the science fiction movies of the ’60s and ’70s, back when creative ingenuity made light work of budgetary constraints and physical, prosthetic effects reigned supreme. Too often when films attempt a retro throwback, their tact is to just aim for an intentionally campy tone, half-parodying the films they’re paying homage to, or to slap together a half-baked effort and throw some faux film scratches and print damage over the top for a lazy retro effect, but never really nailing the spirit of the originals. It’s great, then, that Collora shrewdly aims for the core of old-school films he admires and uses some fantastic practical costumes, amazing make-up design and lovingly-crafted props to create a tangible, grimy, lived-in sci-fi world similar to that of the original Star Wars – an aesthetic that’s been largely jettisoned even by George Lucas with the advent of sterile, generic CG.
The film’s steeped in borrowed visual cues and nods to seminal genre flicks, too, with sly homages to everything from Star Wars, Predator, Enemy Mine, Pitch Black to Blade Runner. There’s a clear, loving affection for the genre from Collora, and it’s commendable that he weaves it in without becoming too glaring or cluttered. In fact, the whole narrative has a lean, minimal character-based drive to it that calls to mind the aforementioned Pitch Black, and while not nearly as good or as focused, Collora does a pretty great job at making a film that’s often just two characters isolated from each other and braving the elements feel driven and entertaining. There’s a nicely-handled rapport between commando Centauri 7 and the AI nav system Clea, who talks to him through a small computer device via a spacey bluetooth headset, and it’s made all the more effective by Collora’s practical approach, with his beat up little device adding an odd sense of character to the computer.
But while Collora is an impressive and resourceful visual film-maker, but it’s sadly evident that screenwriting isn’t his forte. While he successfully conjures up an entire fascinating world with just a handful of expertly-constructed props and some gorgeous cinematography, that world suddenly rings rather hollow and bland as soon as it’s presented through dialogue. The 3rd act brings heated discussions about a war between planets and a race of Dracs (a nod to similarly-plotted Enemy Mine), but it’s all rather trite, simplistic and generic nonsense that could’ve been lifted from any number of fantasy RPG games or SyFy Channel cast-offs. The actors’ lack of professional experience becomes especially evident here, too, as they appear especially stilted when called upon to deliver more than a line or two, especially when it’s a bombastic diatribe.
There’s also the overwhelming feeling that Collora hasn’t left the short film mindset. As a filmmaker whose entire filmography consists of advertisements and shorts, he struggles to find quite enough ideas and character to sustain a feature-length runtime. Even for a lean, pared-down film, it’s disconcerting just how much padding there is, from the overuse of lengthy (but pretty) low-angle shots of characters jumping from ridge to ridge and reams of early dialogue that amounts to: “Follow orders, soldier! Are you following orders, soldier? Soldier, orders are there to be followed! Order up on table four, soldier!” As it stands, Hunter Prey feels like a killer 45 minute episode of The Outer Limits stretched to an unnecessary 90 minutes.
But flaws and all, Hunter Prey’s an impressive achievement. Visually beautiful and a stellar work of resourceful ingenuity on the cheap, it’s not just a sign that Collora’s deserving of bigger things, but proof of just how misguided Hollywood’s overuse of expensive and abysmal CG is when practical magic can be conjured up wonderfully and inexpensively by the right filmmakers. As a film it’s far from perfect, but it’s undeniably a fun, pulpy throwback filled with character and creativity, and one that captures the spirit of the retro sci-fi it pays homage to quite wonderfully.
On the DVD:
The review copy that Kaleidoscope kindly sent along was a promotional screener without extras, so I can’t comment accurately on the visual/audio quality or the special features on the retail release. The DVD apparently comes with a behind-the-scenes feature and an audio commentary from the director, which is surely worth a listen.
Hunter Prey is available to buy in the UK on DVD from 6th September 2010.
Click here to order the DVD from Amazon.co.uk.