Why seek the horizon? Neil Armstrong found new perspective out there beyond the atmosphere. To witness our home as little more than a chunk of space dust trapped in perpetual rotation around the sun revealed an immense universe withholding infinite untapped intelligence. To reach skywards is noble. Maybe even divine.
Exploration for exploration’s sake is a masturbatory exercise. Captain Kirk sought the final frontier with clenched fists masking hairy palms. His answer to the call of adventure was a respectable, “Because it’s there.” He steered the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise towards the second star to the right and straight on till morning. Heroism achieved via a “grass is always greener” mentality. The instant us apes transform space flight into an endeavor as routine as strapping behind the wheel of a Honda Accord is the moment prairie gets converted into Walmart. Adventure becomes shopping. Perspective yields to financial stability and expendable income.
Prospect is a sci-fi Western that recognizes the virus of humanity. The horizon has been lassoed and hogtied. Every possible angle on Earth has been observed. No matter how far away from our planet we get we look back and see just another rock. The space out there is another ocean to dump our sludge. Cee (Sophie Thatcher) has spent a lifetime dragging her heels along various extraterrestrial commercial highways. Her father Damon (Jay Duplass) is a blue-collar grunt exhausted by the week-to-week survival that planetary mining allows. He needs a big score and a deal struck with mercenaries on an isolated toxic moon is the potential solution he craves. Anyone can prospect the precious gems beneath the soil, but it takes a true technician to harvest them.
Father and daughter collapse into a forest that rejects their very presence. The air is not only unbreathable; it’s acidic. Every blade of grass, every tree branch, carries a threat to their lives. Add other roving earthlings to that deadly brush, and familial dreams turn into nightmares. Gold rush stories are always investigations of the depths that humans will happily descend for their piece of the pie. Economic freedom is a too-good-to-be-true fantasy that guides fingers to triggers, and knives towards throats. Damon and Cee barely begin their trek to the bonanza before a pair of cutthroats happens upon them.
Ezra (Pedro Pascal) is a snake that wears a pleasant smile despite his fangs. He’s bad news from frame one, but his infectious charm will have you rooting for whatever bend in the narrative is required to pair hero with villain. Pascal slithers fully aware of the mesmerizing quality emanating from the twinkle in his eye, and when he strikes, it’s with a satisfaction akin to sexual release. You immediately want to re-experience the sensation. There are no white hats in this party. In their march to fortune, necessity dictates bargains among their posse, but while one eye looks forward, the other must track the movements of begrudged partners. Never mind the impending doom of their destination, for any creature to last longer than a minute on this moon demands a deadly constitution. Every face is a target.
Prospect never succumbs to nihilism, even when greed and desperation fuel its engine. Filmmakers Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl certainly condemn the human race as outlaws and bottom-feeders, but in their lead, they plant the tiniest seed of optimism. While the plot rushes Cee towards blood work, character solidifies empathy. Cee is a dreamer, never meant to toil in the despair of her father’s occupation. She latches onto music and literature, art that connects her to home and the mother she barely remembers. Thatcher plays Cee with a stern deliberation that permits equal authority whether she’s holding a pen or a pistol. She may not belong in the wilderness, but hope lies in her resolve.
The film leans hard into its steampunk aesthetic but is not looking to supplant substance with style. The costuming and production design certainly relies on a familiar western blueprint, but the look is stripped to relay a practical, tangible reality. As in the environment of Ridley Scott’s space-trucking Alien, the sci-fi world built around Prospect’s characters is one of mundane feasibility. Space travel is possible, and a bit of a pain in the ass.
Caldwell and Earl are enjoying themselves as they smash cowboys with astronauts. The language jumps out of mouths with speed and a purple flourish. If easily enticed by quizzical vocabulary, an audience member could get lost within that impossible terminology. What exactly each line relates to is not important as long as you get the gist. Just as you accept the blend of past and future in the wardrobe, the dialog rushes over your ears and is mostly there to establish mood, tone, and setting.
The sci-fi Western is a rare breed, and one genre fans approach with crossed arms. Prospect has something to prove and succeeds by keeping its style simple and recognizable. Caldwell and Earl are not here for highfalutin notions of exploration. Leave that to Trekkies and NASA nostalgists.
That is not to say that they have nothing on their mind. Both Science-Fiction and Westerns are often realized to examine or expose societal concern. The monsters of Prospect are a mirror to the shame we carry as European invaders that built houses on native bones. Manifest destiny is inevitable and arrives on a wave of death. That is the world we have inherited, and like Cee, we only need to survive the territory of cutthroats without succumbing to their behavior.