As someone who watches a good deal of science fiction, I’ve got to give it up every time I see a new movie or TV show that refuses to spoon-feed its audience. Rather than being recognizable as our current world only with some modern tech or by adding a text crawl, voiceover, and endless exposition to ensure we understand every single aspect of its universe, these sci-fi offerings drop us into some futuristic or alien world and expect us to keep up. It doesn’t automatically make a movie good, but it does at least engage our brains at the same time that it tries to entertain. We’ve got to follow the story, same as we would with anything else. The difference is that, at the same time, we’re also trying to work out the rules of the thing.
Prospect, the feature adaptation of the 2014 short of the same name written and directed by Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell, is that kind of science fiction. It introduces an alien planet, new life forms, new technologies, but doesn’t pause to explain any of it. The movie expects us to keep up. We learn the details visually or through dialogue exchanges between characters, but never in that pointed way where it’s obvious that the screenwriters are having people stand around and explain things to one another for the audience’s benefit. It’s a smart movie, and it assumes we’re smart, too. After a summer’s worth of movies that have treated me like a dummy, it’s a welcome change of pace.
Sophie Thatcher plays Cee, a kind of futuristic prospector who, along with her father (Jay Duplass), travels to a distant moon in order to harvest valuable gems contained inside organic life forms living under the moon’s surface. Their craft is damaged, the moon’s environment is toxic, and they soon discover they’re not alone. There are countless dangers the pair encounter, maybe none more so than a fellow scavenger they encounter, a man by the name of Ezra (Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones).
Caldwell and Earl have achieved something very difficult in the current cinematic landscape: they’ve made a modest, low-budget film that refuses to cut corners or compromise. The phrase “world building” gets tossed around a lot these days, but here’s a case where it truly does apply: world building is what Prospect does best. The characters — and, by extension, the screenwriters — are familiar enough with the world that they don’t need to stand around explaining it. There is a sense of history that has gotten us to this point, even if we’re not told what that history is. Best of all, there is the sense that Prospect tells one small story that’s taking place in one small part of a vast universe. The world is built well enough that it extends beyond the frame of the film, beyond the mechanics of the plot. So many indie movies are myopic by necessity — they have to remain hyper-focused because they can’t afford anything else — that it’s nice to see a film that feels like one small piece of a much, much larger puzzle.
Beyond the assuredness of the filmmaking and the attention to world-building in its science fiction, Prospect is worth seeing if only for the performance of Pedro Pascal as Ezra, a character who is impossible to pin down. He’s the most developed of all the characters, who are admittedly thin (even Sophie Thatcher at the center isn’t given much to play), and the character it seems Earl and Caldwell took the most delight in writing. His dialogue comes straight out of a Coen Brothers movie, all florid and eccentric and filled with interesting turns of phrase. (Describing an altercation that ended in a shootout, Ezra says “Words and metal flew.” I love that.) While this is Cee’s story, it’s Ezra who provides the emotional arc of the film. The shifting dynamics between the two of them help make Prospect as much a human story as it is science fiction.
Prospect may ultimately be too minor key to truly resonate, but it at least carves out its own unique space by establishing its own world with its own rules. It’s a movie that, if nothing else, should act as a calling card for the talents of these filmmakers, who manage to do a lot with a little and make a little seem like a lot. In Hollywood terms, I know that means handing them a big-budget remake or a Star Wars spin-off, but I’m not interested in any of that. Let them make more original science fiction. Prospect demonstrates that they’ve got the stuff.