'Prospect' Review: The Best Indie Science Fiction Movie Since 'Moon'

(This review originally ran during our coverage of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Prospect opens in New York and Los Angeles tomorrow, November 2, 2018.)Prospect exists in a huge universe, one whose scope boggles the mind and imagination. And we are treated to only the smallest, most tantalizing glimpse. A taste. What a taste it is.

Here is an indie science fiction film so aware of its unavoidable budgetary limitations that it builds them into its own mystique. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but casually evocative descriptions of a dozen unique planets and unseen societies is worth $100 million. The scale of Prospect lies unseen in the margins, placing this tiny tale of survival smack dab in the middle of a galaxy that the film dares us to imagine. There's something special about that. Something powerful. And it certainly helps that Prospect is led by characters who immediately invest us in what's going on. We want to follow them, to learn more about them, because perhaps they'll guide us to the worlds they keep talking about.

Set in an unspecified future as imagined from the '70s (think of the analog spaceships and technology of Ridley Scott's Alien), Prospect intentionally feels like an artifact. Here is a movie that feels like an adaptation of a long lost science fiction novel, the first in a series of slim adventures found on your father's bookshelf. Books with cover art featuring men and women wearing spacesuits and in peril, traversing alien landscapes and dodging laser fire. Books whose stripped down prose reflect the desire to tell a personal story in an otherworldly setting. The details, the grand scale of it all, is just incredible background color for the more immediate, and grounded, tale.

Directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl have created something of a technical miracle with Prospect. This film looks great – it's easily the slickest bargain-produced science fiction film since Duncan Jones' Moon. And like Moon, that slickness serves a harrowing and intimate tale. The characters pull you through it all, even as you get lost in the details.

Prospect drops us into the deep end and asks us to keep up. Young Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her father Damon (Jay Duplass) venture to a distant alien moon to search for valuable resources mined from alien creatures that live under the soil. He's a drug addict, a mess, a jack-of-all trades looking to find that one last score. Her life seems to consist of being dragged to whatever unpleasant gig her father has dug up. Much remains unsaid between them.

And of course things go wrong. Their ship crashes and they soon encounter the shady Ezra (Pedro Pascal), who has been stranded on the moon for a long time. And soon enough, with the clock ticking down until they must leave the moon or be stranded forever, everyone is fighting for survival. Just not in the way you may think.

As Cee, Sophie Thatcher provides one hell of a heroine: resourceful, determined, and out of her depth, but unwilling to give up. It's the kind of performance that should make her a star. As the duplicitous Ezra, Pedro Pascal manages to evoke the dashing rogues of more famous science fiction tales while being broken, pathetic, and desperate enough to do anything to survive. It's the kind of performance that proves he should have been a star a long time ago. Thatcher and Pascal share a great deal of screen time in Prospect and their wary alliance is the hook for the entire film – they must rely on one another while steadfastly refusing to trust one another.

What goes down here is a very much a straightforward tale of survival, of space explorers dealing with a hostile planet and its often hostile visitors (and its poisonous air that requires a suit and plenty of fresh air filters). It's the flavor sprinkled on top that makes it all click. These characters are so ingrained in their world, so carefully written and performed to feel at one with their larger universe, that they speak volumes about what we do not see. Descriptions of previous homes and jobs conjure grand and awful images. Conversations about favorite books suggest a larger culture that exists just beyond this moon. Thatcher and Pascal offer performances so lived-in that they're walking portraits of a weary world with a rich history. Prospect is our window into a sprawling universe. There are more tales than these, the film promises.

It certainly helps that Prospect looks fantastic. The battered spaceships. The weathered spacesuits. The weaponry that looks like it's descended from tech both ancient and futuristic. It clashes, by design, with the untouched alien world on which the movie is set, a forest rewritten as something hostile and unknowable thanks to minor touches rather than expansive CGI. This is a low-budget film, but it never looks cheap. It's a small film, but it never feels compromised.

Prospect is the kind of science fiction movie we need to see more often, told by filmmakers who don't allow the vastness of their vision to get beaten down by the scope they're able to work within. It's an enthralling tale of trust, survival and redemption set in a universe that demands additional exploration. I don't need a Prospect sequel. It stands alone. But it did leave me starving for more./Film Rating: 8 out of 10