Space-based science fiction is usually a big-budget affair – hundred-million-dollar space battles, exotic alien creatures and slick, futuristic spaceships. However, every so often a small, clever little sci-fi indie squeaks its way through the walls of CG rabble to make a real impression – Moon
and District 9
, for example. While writer/director team Zeek Earl
and Chris Caldwell
‘s stripped-down space Western Prospect
might not make the kind of cultural splash those examples did, it deserves to stand among them as a visceral sci-fi thriller that doesn’t need to throw money at the screen to send us to outer space.
Expanded from Earl and Caldwell’s 2014 short of the same name and distributed by Gunpowder & Sky’s sci-fi label DUST
dumps you immediately into the plight of father-daughter space prospectors Damon (Jay Duplass
) and Cee (Sophie Thatcher
), as they jet down to a lush alien moon colloquially called “The Green” to dig up a recently discovered main of valuable alien gems. It’s a lush but unforgiving forest environment, filled with toxic air that requires them to wear their spacesuits and occupied by mercs, fanatics and all manner of other dangers. On the way down, their pod is damaged, and the two are quickly set upon by a pair of rascally mercs, led by Pedro Pascal
‘s smooth-talking bandit Ezra, who want the location of their find. After a few disagreements (and more than a few gunshots), Cee and Ezra are forced to work together in order to survive, get the haul, and find their way off the planet.
Every inch of Prospect feels like Earl and Caldwell spent years developing the film’s grimy, lived-in futuristic world, which is the film’s real standout. The Green itself feels ethereal, an unforgiving yet beautiful environment evocative of the Shimmer from Alex Garland’s Annihilation, tiny particulates of dust floating among the tall grasses and trees our characters must trudge through. The subtle embellishments made through special effects make the place feel alive, without feeling tacked onto an existing filming location: purple alien skies dwarf the characters, and Damon and Cee’s pod blends in perfectly with the background. The practical production design is another high point: every spacesuit is bulky and makeshift, and the pentagonal design of the props (rifles, guns, surgical equipment) feels relatable but uniquely modular. The film even dedicates itself to the characters’ alien language; we see Cee scribble in a notebook, and hear popular music through her headphones and suit radios, but the language is entirely invented for the film. It’s these small details that help flesh out the tale of two people stranded on an alien planet together into an entire universe.
While space Westerns are nothing new, Prospect
feels more like The Revenant
or True Grit
than The Magnificent Seven
, right down to the character dynamics and the harshness of the film’s world. Damon and Cee are simple prospectors in over their head (the sci-fi version of panhandlers during the Gold Rush), and Ezra’s laconic Southern drawl basically makes him the anti-hero cowboy, the differences in their wants, needs and regard toward each other forming the majority of Prospect
‘s drama. Cee and Ezra are mortal enemies thrown in the most desperate of circumstances – their alliance is tenuous, and constantly dependent on who has a gun pointed at who’s face – and that constant push and pull of how far they can trust each other makes for some scintillatingly tense showdowns. (It doesn’t hurt that Thatcher and Pascal are both wonderful, Thatcher’s resolve beyond her years bouncing wonderfully off Pascal’s slimy opportunist.)
Of course, there is more to fear in this alien forest than each other; there are cultists who lull the reluctant pair in with the promise of food, only to want ‘the girl’ for their ‘family.’ Mercs the family was to rendezvous with complicate their previous deal with Damon. Sickness and infection force characters to take some, erm, dramatic measures to survive. Earl and Caldwell put their characters through the emotional and physical wringer, to the point where it can occasionally become repetitive. However, each of these scenarios feels tense, gripping, Earl and Caldwell managing to juggle multiple layers of tension as two injured, under-equipped people who barely trust each other must contend with ever more unpredictable circumstances. Like a lot of great Westerns, Prospect becomes a series of negotiations with the wilderness, working together to survive in a brutal, unrelenting world.
Making the most of its micro-budget sci-fi aspirations, Prospect
is a solid sci-fi survival thriller packed with impressive cinematography and inventive special effects. Pascal, Thatcher and Duplass infuse this unexplained alien world with a lot of charm and life (as does Andre Royo
in a small role as one of the religious fanatics they run across), and Earl and Caldwell’s direction is packed with suspense. The future world of Prospect
isn’t pretty or easy, but it sure is compelling.