Detail is king in Prospect, the debut feature from writing/directing duo Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl. There’s little to latch onto in the opening minutes that could be called “familiar” outside the general setup: two human characters, father and daughter, in a ship floating through space. But the young girl is writing in an alien language, her father is administering a strange drug, and the process they both engage with to launch their pod down to the surface of a nearby planet is about as complicated as the entire mission in First Man. There’s a device that the father holds in place and continuously winds like it’s a jack-in-the-box, though its purpose is never actually articulated.
World-building is the key to good science-fiction, whether that world is wholly foreign or just slightly askew from our own. The level of detail present in Prospect has garnered comparisons to Moon and even to Star Wars, both of which are high praise indeed. It’s evident from the very start of Prospect, though, that we’re diving even deeper into unfamiliar territory, making the film of stronger kin (visually, at least) with indie sci-fi like Automata, Young Ones, Monsters or District 9.
The Star Wars comparison is apt in a different way (and no, not just because Pedro Pascal will be starring in The Mandalorian). I recently lost a bet and had to rewatch The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and I was struck by a few first-time visits to far-flung planets. In the original Star Wars trilogy, we visit the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine and are treated to a smorgasbord of unique characters. We visit Cloud City and feel the bustle of the mining colony. We visit Endor and meet the native species, learn their character traits, see their homes and family units. In Phantom Menace, though, we visit the vast underwater world of Gungan City and see that it’s…pretty much empty. There are big gaping orbs in which characters walk around, but no one seems to be doing anything. In Clones we visit the stormy Kamino and get the same thing: blank, empty hallways. The sets here are detailed, sure, but they don’t feel quite real.
The detail of Prospect, like the original Star Wars, is crafted in such a way that we feel the experience of the characters in everything they do. This is lived-in detail, world-building that succeeds not by designing interesting-looking props but by giving the sense that those props have importance and are of use to the characters (unlike, say, a hallway). The notebook in which Cee (Sophie Thatcher) writes is filled with an unfamiliar language, but we also see it’s filled with crossed-out passages. Why did she commit this writing down only to strike it? Is this a diary? A letter to another character? As her father (Jay Duplass) continues to wind up that thing, maybe it doesn’t matter that neither of them have expounded on said thing’s function; it’s clearly important, it has a process to it, and perhaps those elements engender more wonder at the end of the day.
We eventually do learn, of course, that this thing is single-charge ammunition for a rifle of sorts. When Cee’s father is killed on the planet surface, she’s left to fend for herself with no way back to the mothership. Prospect derives its atmosphere from lived-in detail in nearly every frame of the film, but it derives its story from a classic American Western. This is not a secret for very long, if ever, and by the time Cee and Ezra (Pascal) happen upon a homestead in search of medicine and supplies, one has to question why the Space Western isn’t a more popular genre. Yes, Star Trek was frequently described by Gene Roddenberry as a Space Western, and maybe Star Wars trended closer to a Western than it ever had before with this year’s Solo. But besides Firefly/Serenity and the anime Cowboy Bebop, it’s rare for the influence of a Western to play such an overt role in a space-set odyssey.
Prospect is nearly a Western first and a sci-fi film second. Ezra is the archetypal drifter, the lone gunman with a slick tongue and a penchant for double-crossing. Cee falls into the role of the classic Western protagonist, her family killed and her new environs unfamiliar. Parallels abound to dark, backstabbing Gold Rush tales like Deadwood or even the “All Gold Canyon” segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. At times both the intense level of detail and the American Western influence dovetail into something beautiful, like the homestead scene and the ensuing medical surgery. The fact that each spacesuit is different than the next, just as each cowboy riding along the plain has a unique and memorable look, again speaks to both lived-in design and classic Western forebears.
Caldwell and Earl are now a duo to watch after their debut feature, based on their short of the same title. While not an altogether flawless film (scenes lacking Pascal’s Ezra are noticeably less dynamic), Prospect pulls from underutilized cinematic traditions and makes an incredibly strong case for the revival of the Space Western. This is the true Triple Frontier — the first frontier of the West, the final frontier of space, and a filmmaking frontier to which we should venture far more often.