My favourite science fiction films have always been the ones that feel lived in. Like Deckard’s apartment in Bladerunner or the scruffy, beige, utilitarian mess hall of the Nostromo, or – pushing it to the extreme – the entirety of Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God. To me it’s a mark of good world-building, and something that the original Star Wars: A New Hope did so well: I want to believe that the story I’m experiencing is just a slice of a much larger universe, happening beyond the frame. That the world doesn’t solely exist to serve the narrative.
Prospect puts a big, bold tick in this box right from the start. The film opens with the view of a beautiful, green and blue shimmering planet… through a scratched and graffitied window that has seen better days. It’s the perfect introduction to the film’s leads, teenage Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her beaten-down, substance-reliant father, Damon, played by Jay Duplass: two people clinging to solvency by their fingernails, scraping a living at the edge of the system.
With brilliant economy of storytelling, during the first scenes in Cee and Damon’s claustrophobic rented ship/living pod, directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell introduce us to the characters and set fire to the touch-paper of tensions that will play out over the course of the film. Everything in the pod looks cramped, scuffed, scratched and patched-up. It’s a way of life that Damon seems only to cope with through use of various uppers and downers, and that Cee has been forced to adapt to; we see her mending her broken headphones, hinting at her resourcefulness, her ability to fix what she can within a broken environment. We get the distinct impression that no one cares what happens to them. There’ll be no rescue should they get into trouble or miss their connection with the final freighter heading out of the system.
It serves to heighten the tension as well as a sense of isolation on the edge of space. Like gold-rush miners making for lawless camps and foothills, Cee and her father are headed down to “the green”; a verdant planet where valuable crystal ore can be found within the pupae-like sacs of alien foliage. Toxic dust fills the air, meaning helmets – and radio communication – are essential.
What follows is a tense, character-driven space western, where individuals, desperation, greed and loyalties meet and clash; imagine The Treasure of the Sierra Madre mixed with Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers, shaken together with Alien. It’s a heady cocktail, and one that revels in its occasional strangeness while never veering too far into pastiche.
The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal is perfectly cast as shady ore-miner Ezra, who speaks at first in a sinister, E.B Farnum-esque drawl, but gradually loses his wise-cracks as the reality, and humanity, of his situation becomes apparent. Sophie Thatcher meanwhile, carries this film as Cee. Her character could so easily have been badly written, reduced either to a helpless flower or a one-dimensional “badass”. But Cee is believable; someone who’s grown up in less-than-perfect situations, and as a result is world-weary and serious, but with a deep well of perseverance. Despite everything, she’s still naive, and still occasionally finds the joy of youth.
There’s a particularly touching scene where – after facing various horrors – she relays her love for a series of children’s novels. The actual books have been long lost during their wanderings, so she re-writes them from memory over and again, to escape her own world and stay in that of the characters. It’s a thoughtful scene and a brave addition to a film that could easily have descended into relentless action.
The cast of Prospect is small, but universally excellent, with some particularly memorable cameos from Andre Royo (you might remember him as Bubbles from The Wire) as steely, religious zealot Oruf, and Anwan Glover – of BYB and also Slim Charles in The Wire – as tough-as-nails mercenary Mikken.
Prospect was shot on a super low-budget for a sci-fi film – under four million – but as is sometimes the case when there are budget limitations, the filmmakers’ resourcefulness and economy of storytelling are what make it so great. Compare this film to one that’s considered low-budget by Hollwood standards, say 2012’s Dredd (fifty million). Not only does Prospect look as good (if not better), but unlike Dredd, Earl and Caldwell consistently use all of the ingredients available to them to full effect.
For one thing, they focus on the tangibility of the world. There’s not much CGI; almost all of the costumes, props and special effects were built and created by a dedicated team of artists, designers, cosplayers and engineers in a seven-month pre-production stint. In this way, Earl and Caldwell join the ranks of genre directors – from Peter Jackson with Bad Taste and John Carpenter with Dark Star – who began their careers creating their own special effects with memorable results.
And while the props and costumes may have been created DIY-style, they certainly don’t look it. Here’s where that deft world-building comes into play again; the characters’ space suits are of different styles – hinting at different points and eras of origin. Equipment is constantly running out or half-broken, guns require a hand-wound charge that means any physical conflicts must be carefully thought through. Even the heavy, clunky helmets serve the narrative. At various points, characters have to rely on switching or masking radio frequencies, blasting out music to hide their conversations from others.
Sound is used to great effect here, much of it recorded inside the helmets of the actors, so we hear their breathing, increasingly muffled and laboured as their filters begin to fail. The soundtrack too, is an juxtaposition of evocative ambient by Daniel L.K Caldwell, and incongruous yet somehow perfectly matched flares of 1960s go-go, like Rita Chao’s 1968 ‘Crying in the Storm.’
Overall, Prospect had me hooked from the get-go, and didn’t disappoint. I’ll comfortably say it’s one of the best sci-fi films of the last ten years, and the fact that it’s a space-western just makes me appreciate it all the more. A must-watch.
What’s that? You too like space westerns? Then you should check out my upcoming novel, Ten Low, set on a desert moon…
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