Western films and space science fiction have long been the two great tastes that taste great together, like beans and bacon-flavored food pills. From ’30s serials like The Phantom Empire, to the throwback sci-fi of the ’70s and ’80s like Star Wars and Outland, to modern mashups like Cowboy Bebop and Firefly, filmmakers have combined the two ostensibly incompatible genres to create something more. Prospect —a sci-fi thriller by first-time writers/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, released through Gunpowder & Sky’s sci-fi label, DUST—continues that tradition by presenting a world as bleak as it is textured.
“Space” and “the West”, as they’re traditionally portrayed, share many similarities in setting; both genres tend toward inhospitable environments, moral relativism, and haunting solitude, and both present an untamed frontier as alternately rewarding and dangerous. Space is, as Captain Kirk tells us, the “final frontier”, after all. In the 1981 film Outland, a riff on High Noon set on Jupiter’s satellite Io, miners risk life, limb, and sanity unearthing precious minerals for the promise of lucrative bonuses from their corporate masters, while an aging sheriff dreads a showdown with the “bad men” sent to kill him. Peter Hyams, the director of Outland, described frontiers in film as “sinister, dangerous places of enormous hardship,” where the chance at sudden wealth might force the normal rules of society out of an airlock. Prospect, with its dingy, industrial aesthetic, is thematically similar to Outland, though it also shares cinematic DNA with classic westerns like True Grit, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
In the film, teenaged Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her father, Damon (Jay Duplass), are “floaters”, penny-ante interstellar scavengers taking what jobs they can to pay off their cramped, unreliable ship. Cee dreams of escaping her life of responsibility and isolation, trying to lose herself in fiction or the ’60s Japanese pop music that permeates the film, while her father succumbs to a nightly dose of narcotic eye-drops. The pair has a limited amount of time to make what money they can before they have to catch the “swing” to another system, lest they be stranded around the nameless moon they’re orbiting. Damon reveals that he’s made a contract for one last job and takes them down to the moon’s surface, a green but toxic world that contains valuable but volatile organic gems that could net them a substantial profit. The moon isn’t completely uninhabited, however, and they soon find themselves at the mercy of Ezra (Pedro Pascal), a spacesuited bandit whose violent but genteel manner suggests a harder-luck Mal Reynolds. To say more would be to spoil the film’s tense turns and surprises, but like any good “heist gone wrong” film—whether a Western, space film, or both—a perfect storm of misfortune, greed, and bad decisions leads to a climax that will leave some dead and some merely alive but no richer.
Prospect began life as a Kickstarter-funded short film that drew praise for its unique production design and visuals at its SXSW debut in 2014 . The subsequent feature film retains the rich, fuzzy aesthetic of the short’s planetary scenes, but expands to show the contrast of the cold, soundless world of orbital life. As father and daughter trudge through the overgrown forests of the neglected moon, pink pollen slides through the air in tableaus reminiscent of Annihilation, another genre mashup where mystery and desperation collide in unfamiliar landscapes. In contrast to the organic lines of the film’s lunar setting, the scenes in space emphasize the hard sci-fi feel of an Alien or a Firefly, embracing the “used future” design philosophy that George Lucas brought to the original trilogy. In Prospect, the wonder of space travel is reduced to a life of quotidian drudgery; it’s a world not of warp drives and lasers, but of air filters, pre-flight checklists, sticky gauges, and hand-written notes taped to spaceship consoles. Damon and Cee take a one-shot long gun on their expeditions—shades of the “family rifle” of frontier stories—that must be tediously wound-up after each firing. Their prospecting tools (used to extract “gems” from alien carcasses) look like a dissection kit fortified with kitchen utensils, and their low-tech spacesuits have the feel of Soviet-era high-altitude gear.
The level of detail on display is arresting, but it’s merely the tip of the creative iceberg of according to the filmmakers. In an interview with Ars Technica, Earl (also the film’s cinematographer) described the production’s world-building theme as “throwing stuff away.” While developing Prospect, Earl and Caldwell developed a “Wikipedia of sorts . . . We totally have ideas for how the economics work or how the government works for places not even mentioned.” Building a tactile, believable world was part of their goal as early as the Kickstarter campaign; the pitch for the film declares their desire to “capture a piece of what makes 2001, Blade Runner and the original Star Wars so awesome: texture.” That texture takes the place of exposition in the film, and the viewer is dropped immediately into a universe of specific jargon, unreadable text, and dangers that the characters understand but the audience must learn to fear. That commitment of “throwing stuff away” lead to the excision of the scene-setting voice-over by Cee in the original short, but the resulting sense of disorientation at this familiar-yet-alien world makes the audience feel as adrift as the characters do.
The film’s cast of unfamiliar but talented actors helps to communicate that sense of detachment. Sophie Thatcher, in her first feature, is a centering presence as Cee, a young woman who was raised in the tedium and danger of a “floater’s” life, but remains mostly immune to the greed and desperation that invites danger. Pedro Pascal (late of Game of Thrones and Narcos) plays the bandit Ezra as a man with a bruised yet intact sense of honor that undoubtedly contributes to his lack of success in his amoral profession. Andre Royo (aka “Bubbles” from The Wire) also appears in a short but unnerving turn as the leader of a cult-like family driven feral by their isolation in space.
If the film has any shortcomings, it’s that the more action-oriented third act doesn’t quite live up to the strange and varied promises of its inital scenes. The last half-hour introduces us to a dangerous gang of new characters, each one loaded with enough intriguing idiosyncrasies to spawn an entirely new film. But Prospect, following the example of its genre forebears, commits itself perhaps too slavishly to aping their structure, all in service of an ultimately indeterminate conclusion. It’s possible that the film (like the standoff it depicts) couldn’t conclude without violence; all heist films and, indeed, most sci-fi and western films must end in some sort of showdown, and Prospect is seemingly no exception. But long after the guns are silent, the danger and hardship of the film’s well-developed space frontier setting is the orbit you’ll remain caught in.
Prospect opens November 9th in Regal Cinemas nationwide.