'Prospect': Film Review | SXSW 2018

At moments, a gem, at other points, fool's gold.
3/10/2018

Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell's feature debut is a well-mounted sci-fi survival tale that oversells its virtues.

The first thing you notice are the smudges on the glass. We’re on a space freighter orbiting around some distant alien moon, and the thickly reinforced window is caked with grime and fingerprints. Sailing among the stars has all the charm of an endless car ride cross-country, and the negation of any high-tech awe and astonishment is a perfect note on which to begin the impressively made, if too eager to please, Prospect, expanded by filmmakers Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell from their 2014 short of the same name.

Teenager Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her dad, Damon (Jay Duplass), are on a clandestine mission to mine some precious alien gems for a lucrative payday. But their best-laid plan goes awry after they cross paths with a merciless rival. In the short film, the villain is a nonspeaking guy in a makeshift metal spacesuit. Here, the antagonist is the decidedly more verbose Ezra (Game of Thrones' Pedro Pascal), a thief and killer who talks like a reject from a David Milch television series and becomes something of an antiheroic father figure to Cee.

It’s clear Earl and Caldwell — who wear multiple hats as co-directors, co-writers and, in Earl’s case, cinematographer — have thought through every little detail of their future world. The tech is squalidly functional; like that window in the opening scene, everything’s been touched so often that the novelty has long faded. And the extraterrestrial terror is beautifully visualized. Exteriors were filmed in the Hoh Rainforest in Washington state, which allows for a lot of naturally verdant atmosphere, augmented by digitally created distant-planet vistas (straight off the cover of a vintage sci-fi paperback) and omnipresent poisonous dust particles, all visible to the naked eye, that resemble amoebas and protozoans.

Death, or the threat of it, is everywhere. It might take the form of an alumnus from The Wire — Andre Royo aka Bubbles as a malevolent castaway who’s created his own micro-civilization and Anwan Glover aka Slim Charles as the leader of a murderous pack of mercenaries — or the dagger-staring Sheila Vand, the girl who walked home alone at night in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). The crux of the tale is the reluctant alliance between Ezra and the eponymous adolescent prospect (who is also prospecting and has to make her own prospects and… we get it guys, clever title). Pascal and Thatcher are an outwardly compelling team, though they’re playing constructs instead of characters, hollow vehicles racing through this ragged future as opposed to convincingly long-term inhabitants of it. This disconnect gives the film, as is so often the case with first-time features, the overall obsequious aura of a calling card, a story that needed to be told only so other stories could be told.

There’s still plenty of evident, if nascent, talent, and not just in the effects work and world-building particulars. A scene in which Cee has to perform impromptu arm surgery on Ezra has all the right aesthetic and emotional reverb for which the movie otherwise strains. It’s not nothing, and augurs a hopeful forecast for Earl and Caldwell: better things to come.

Production Company: Shep Films
Cast: Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass, Andre Royo, Sheila Vand, Anwan Glover
Directors: Zeek Earl, Chris Caldwell
Executive Producers: Aaron Gilbert, Steven Thibault, Jason Cloth, Tracey Bing
Producers: Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Scott Glassgold, Dan Balgoyen, Garrick Dion, Matthias Mellinghaus
Screenwriters: Zeek Earl, Chris Caldwell
Cinematographer: Zeek Earl
Editor: Paul Frank
Production Designer: Matt Acosta
Sound Designers: Brendan J. Hogan, Jamie Hunsdale, Paul Eric Miller
Music: Daniel L.K. Caldwell
Co-Producer: Brice Budke
Production Manager: Steven Laing
Costume Designer: Aidan Vitti
First AD: Drew Langer
Set Designers: Taylor Sizemore, Brandon Meyers
Graphic Design Lead: Alex Park
Concept Artist: Laurie Greasley
Venue: SXSW (Narrative Feature, Visions)

99 minutes

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