Science fiction tends to be an expensive genre. Bringing the elaborate worlds of Star Wars, the futuristic dystopia of Blade Runner 2049, or the exotic planets and creatures of the Alien franchise to life costs significant money, which naturally encourages studios to greenlight movies that feel like familiar safe bets. And that leads to different versions of the same story being told time and again.
That’s why independent and low-budget science fiction movies are such a vital creative playground, particularly for up-and-coming filmmakers. Projects like Shane Carruth’s Primer and Duncan Jones’ Moon are able to take creative risks that their bigger-budget brethren can’t, resulting in films that rethink what the genre can do, while still creating science fiction worlds that feel grounded and real. Prospect, the debut feature from writer-directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, hopes to join that tradition.
The film began life as a DIY short that the filmmakers finished with the help of a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014. A story about a young girl and her father collecting a valuable resource on an alien world, the short took its costume and design cues from classic 1970s science fiction films, but replicated them on a shoestring budget, with the filmmakers shooting in the rainforests of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The feature adaptation expands on the premise, adding actors like multi-hyphenate Jay Duplass, Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal, and The Wire’s Andre Royo to the mix, while also holding true to the original short’s aesthetic inspirations. The finished product isn’t as arresting as the best indie science fiction films, but it nevertheless establishes Caldwell and Earl as filmmakers to watch, capable of doing a lot with very little.
Duplass stars as Damon, an interplanetary prospector taking his teenage daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher) from world to world in search of profit. While timeframes are never discussed, they live in some sort of future world where space travel is common. They seem to be living hand to mouth, but they make do by searching for a rare material that helps them pay off their loans and spacecraft leases. But Damon thinks their luck is about to change: he’s teamed up with a group of mercenaries to excavate a massive deposit of the material at a location called “the queen’s lair,” and their cut will allow the pair to leave the prospecting life behind.
While trekking through the alien forest to the location, however, they run into Ezra (Pascal) and his partner (Luke Pitzrick). The two seem shady and unscrupulous right from the start, and sure enough, things quickly go downhill from there. Eventually Cee finds herself having to ignore her better instincts, teaming up with Ezra to complete the mission amid the uncertainty of an alien world.
The straightforward premise works perfectly for the tone Caldwell and Earl set out to establish. The world of Prospect is grounded and subdued, more of an indie drama that just happens to take place in space than the kind of operatic adventure common to franchise science fiction. For their storyline to work, the world has to feel lived-in and blue-collar.
The film’s aesthetics and production design do a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard. The spacesuits Damon and Cee wear, the drop pod they use to travel to the alien moon, the weapons they carry — everything in Prospect looks like it’s been used, re-used, repaired, and then used again. The film was clearly influenced by the scrap-tech approach featured in the original Star Wars, matched with the kind of practical design approach that artist Ron Cobb used in his work on Alien. Prospect looks like a movie that could have been made in the 1970s, but that doesn’t make it feel dated. If anything, the physical costumes and practical effects of Prospect feel particularly welcome in a world where an abundance of CG imagery is still the norm. It also underscores the stakes. These are real people, exploring a world where true danger exists around every turn, whether from a physical object like an air filter going bad, or from a bloodthirsty mercenary.
The performances are appropriately understated, with Duplass setting the tone by playing Damon as a father so focused on getting out from under that he can’t recognize the practical warnings his daughter continually tries to raise. Pascal is somewhat less effective, however. He exudes charisma as always, but his character is written as such an overly verbose would-be Southern gentlemen that Ezra’s constant speechifying starts to become a distraction. He comes across like a futuristic cousin to Josh McDermitt’s Eugene from The Walking Dead, discussing even the most mundane matters with such elaborate, flowery language that it borders on comedy. It’s a shame, too, because when the film is more restrained, Prospect effectively uses language to convey the utter ordinariness of prospecting in this universe. Characters casually toss off references to catching “the sling back” home, or the dangers of working in “the fringe.” Like the visuals, the casual, lived-in approach to world building creates the sense of an entire universe lurking just beyond the edges of the frame, one that will continue living and breathing no matter what happens to Cee and Ezra.
But the film hinges on Sophie Thatcher’s performance as Cee. In her feature-film debut, she brings a combination of determination and youthful naïveté to her performance that is essential to the entire movie working. When the film starts, it seems like Cee is just young, overly concerned, and anxious to get home. But by the end of the film, it’s clear that she is the only grown-up in the room, the sole person who can hold onto her moral compass while the Wild West nature of prospecting reduces everyone else to con men or thieves.
Prospect is a collection of successful, carefully refined elements, all of which are meticulously put together in service of a vision that absolutely connects — and a story that ultimately doesn’t. It’s hard to know what to take away from the film. Caldwell and Earl do a remarkable job of placing viewers in Cee’s shoes, but by the third act, it feels as if the movie is working through the perfunctory motions of how to resolve the plot machinations, rather than really grappling with the emotional ramifications of what’s happened to Cee and her father. This is a story about a young woman forced to grow up in the harshest of circumstances, and while Cee learns to toss away loss, vengeance, and regret in the name of practicality, the very real human cost of those choices is left almost entirely unaddressed. That ultimately makes Prospect feel hollow. It’s an intriguing movie that has plenty to say about design and aesthetics, but little about the human condition. Not every movie needs that, necessarily, but in Prospect, it feels like a crucial missing piece.
Caldwell and Earl’s capability as visual storytellers, however, cannot be denied. In time, Prospect — like the short film it emerged from — is likely to be seen as a calling card, an example of what a talented filmmaking duo can do with limited resources and a specific, big-picture vision. For their second feature, though, it might be wise to worry less about the design and visuals, and more about the characters and storytelling. Films like Primer and Moon continue to stand out not simply for their world building, but because of the questions they ask, and the ideas that they leave audiences turning over in their heads. Prospect is impressive, but in that very crucial way it still falls a bit short.