Best thing you’ll see all week: Prospect

, | Movie reviews

Movies are uniquely suited to building worlds by letting you listen and watch.  Traditional exposition is a crutch. Wasted time that could be spent showing me something, letting me catch something in the dialogue.  I’m already watching the movie, so I obviously want to be here. And if I’m watching, I’m listening. A movie should take advantage of my attention.  It should value it as much as I do. It should reward me. It should appreciate that I decided to be here.

There aren’t many movies that appreciate my attention as much as Prospect.

Lack of exposition piques curiosity.  Why did he say that? What did that mean?  Why is she writing those weird letters? Where are they going?  What is The Green? What’s that object she’s looking at that looks like an old wristwatch without a band?  Seriously, where are they going? Prospect has answers for most of these. It will let you infer the rest. Its central fact is a girl chipping away at a hard life with her father.  She’s bored. She’s frustrated. She has no friends. She is literally adrift. And then something happens.

First time writers/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl have expanded Prospect from their own fourteen minute short.  It doesn’t seem like they’ve added much, which gives their script room to breath. It gives the actors time to interact with a fantastic production design that puts to shame movies with bigger budgets.  Everything looks useful and used, like objects instead of movie props. Clothes are worn and frayed. Bulkheads are grimy. And those avionics! You could make quite the videogame out of all these switches and screens and buttons and readouts and faded manuals folded back after being referenced a hundred times. This is some of the most evocative sci-fi production design you’ll see this side of 1979.

The plot might be the stuff of a fourteen-minute short, but the characters didn’t get that memo.  They’re in a fully fleshed out universe with its own geography, economy, music, language, gestures, and even religion.  Are you paying attention? Because that’s all in there. It’s all in the moments in which the actors are talking and sometimes chewing on stylized dialogue.  If one of the characters sounds like Eugene from Walking Dead, that’s not bad writing. That’s an attempt to make it clear that he comes from somewhere else, that he lives a different kind of life, that he travels in different circles. “There was an event with my crew and then words and metal flew,” he says to explain why he no longer has a spaceship.  At another point in the movie, when he’s told no guns are allowed on the premises, he replies, “A wise and understandable measure. We shall stow them at our discretion and return shortly, unarmed.” Who talks like that? In Prospect, the guy who’s been living on the frontier for 20 years talks like that.

What ultimately makes Prospect work is how the relationship develops between the girl (the movie proceeds as if it’s never even going to tell us her name) and her father.  The girl is played by an appropriately low-key Sophie Thatcher, quietly poised between resignation and hope. Miss Thatcher has a simple unaffected sincerity. When she allows her character a measure of joy, it matters.  It lights up the movie. Jay Duplass plays her coldly efficient father as someone who was never prepared to be a father, much less raise a girl. This is frontier life, blue-collar hard labor, even dangerous. They could be a family on the verge of homelessness.  “This gutter job is just a temporary thing,” he mutters to her, maybe even believing it. Eventually, the heavy lifting in Prospect will be done by the immensely likeable Pedro Pascal’s disarming performance.

Prospect has a touch of True Grit and even Sisters Brothers, and not just because it’s a Western.  Space as the Old West isn’t a new thing. Before Firefly, there was Outland. Before Outland, there was probably even something else.  Caldwell and Earl lean into the conceit with confidence, invoking strangers at a campfire, homesteaders, horse trading, executions in the wilderness, a gold rush, grueling frontier medicine, even more grueling frontier medicine, and that one revolver that determines the balance of power.  The space suits have been carefully detailed and stressed, as bound to individual characters as horses to their cowboys. There’s no single type of space suit in Prospect. It’s as if each character got his suit from a different place, and he’s been wearing it and patching it for years. Again, the production design is absurdly good.  Not “good for a low budget movie”. Absurdly good, period. It’s part and parcel of this vividly implied universe without a lick of exposition, but to Caldwell and Earl’s credit, they never lose sight of what’s most important: these two characters. They understand that science fiction is at its best when it’s incidental.

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