Of all the genre hybrids, the space western is one of my guilty pleasures. Films like Outland, Pitch Black and Serenity (and obviously Firefly) inhabit worlds that feel firmly established, and the tropes translate readily across the genres. Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s Prospect is another entry, that is maybe a bit more overt in it’s genre influence. It’s a cool, retro-looking sci-fi that shows what you can do with a low budget if the concept is original enough.
Cree (Sophie Thatcher) and her prospector father Damon (Jay Duplass) land on a planet where they are due to gig for precious stones. Having drifted from their meeting point, they have to travel through inhospitable terrain to meet their contacts, coming across some undesirable elements, chief among them Ezra (Pedro Pascal) who forms a brittle truce with them on their journey.
Prospect has a lot more in common with westerns than science fiction. It makes liberal use of genre conventions, and the characters are well worn archetypes; the resourceful girl, the greedy prospector, the inscrutable indigenous people and the sinister gang of bandits, there’s a shorthand that sets them up efficiently. The main characters are also clearly defined and despite the otherworldly setting, they all feel like real people.
Thatcher is a credible lead, but is more reactive than anything else. It helps that she has such colourful support from Pascal, who clearly revels in his role as the charismatic outlaw. The two have great chemistry, which helps to sell the bond that develops between the two. Even the supporting cast get memorable little character beats. I especially liked the way one of the villains uses blaring music to disorientate the heroes. It’s only a little thing but it has a really unnerving effect each time she does it. The soundtrack and the score by Daniel Caldwell are both appropriately alien and idiosyncratic, lending the film it’s distinct personality.
The look and set design is wonderfully makeshift and has a great lived in quality. The feel of being simultaneously in the past and the future gives the film a true alien feel. The design of Cree’s rifle is especially nifty, and there is a sort of minimalist aesthetic that still packs a punch. I hate when science fiction is all slick and shiny – It feels so much more authentic when everything’s all scruffy and worn in.
It’s a tough job establishing the details of an alien planet without it either going straight over the audience’s head or feeling like flat exposition, but Prospect does this brilliantly. It establishes the nature of the environment in an organic way that relates to the plot, and the world building is really efficient. It doesn’t spell everything out for the audience, which is refreshing.
There is a slight drawback in the retro spacesuits though. The dialogue is often muffled, and consists of a lot of very dense, made-up terminology that leaves a lot of scenes virtually incomprehensible. Pascal’s character is the most guilty of this, waxing lyrical in a very colourful dialect, often not making any sense at all. It’s great if this somehow is relevant to the context of the film (such as in Firefly) but here it feels like a bit of an affectation.
There’s a lot to be said for doing something simple, but well. Prospect isn’t as thought provoking as Moon or Annihilation, and it’s on a smaller scale than something like Interstellar. Instead it’s an effective genre piece, hitting all the right notes with a couple of surprises. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but it’s still a solid science fiction film, and with a 95 minute runtime it never outstays it’s welcome. Definitely worth a watch.
There will be a screening of Prospect at the Prince Charles Cinema on 11th April, launching the Sci-Fi festival, and it’s available on DVD & Digital HD from Monday 29th April, 2019