Upstart indie distributor Gunpowder & Sky had its first real hit this summer with the delightful father-daughter music dramedy Hearts Beat Loud. Now, it is debuting its new science-fiction label, Dust, with Prospect, the feature debut of writing-directing team of Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl. Indie sci-fi has always been an iffy proposition at best. (Hell, nonindie sci-fi, any sort of big-screen sci-fi, is more often problematic than not.) But this? This is how you debut an indie sci-fi label: with a smart movie that’s gritty-stylish, is all about genuine science-fictional ideas, and doesn’t feel like the kind of low-budget crap that misleads nongeeks about what SF is and tries the patience of even true believers.
Prospect is actually about ideas (as well as, of course, characters to get wholly engaged with and a plot that takes intriguing turns). It is mostly definitely not about the trappings — the spaceships and the weird aliens and the laser blasts — as if those are what make a story science fiction. So it can manage a lot on what is clearly a minuscule budget, and look and feel a lot bigger while doing it. Every little detail here speaks volumes and contributes to solid, visceral worldbuilding, creating a culture that is at once recognizably human while also hinting at something ranging far beyond the tiny slice of it we see. This little corner of it is a jury-rigged, fly-by-night one. Stuff breaks here. Things don’t always work like they should. And you’re pretty much on your own when that happens, because space is unfathomably enormous. And if you do happen to run into another human, you might need them for survival more than you might be comfortable with.
A toxic atmosphere can be suggested, for one low-budget example, merely by having your cast wear helmets… and if those helmets look beat up, if the accompanying jumpsuit protective gear looks like it’s been through too many repairs to be completely reliable, all the better. So it is when Cee (Sophie Thatcher) — a really memorable teen-girl protagonist who is badass yet who still feels like kid — and her dad, Damon (Jay Duplass: Landline, Paper Towns), arrive on a remote moon — which looks green and inviting but don’t try to breathe the air — on the trail of a big gem-prospecting take. Their work isn’t about mining: it’s more like pearl-diving, except the clams are alien creatures; we never even know if those creatures are plant or animal or of some other kind of biological kingdom as yet unknown on Earth. Getting at their valuable treasures is tough work, though. And then, as they’ve barely begun the job, they encounter Ezra (Pedro Pascal: Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Great Wall), another prospector, who is not the friendliest type…
Best not to know more than this. Where this goes takes an unexpected thread of working-class practicality the likes of which science fiction onscreen rarely deals with. Prospect’s future is not an optimistic, shiny one; it’s a realistic one, at least from today’s perspective, in which grubbing for a living is just what everyone has to do and in which risks — even potentially dangerous ones — are worth it for a chance to escape the grubbing. The characters here are drawn simply but sharply; is anyone truly making poor choices here, or necessarily desperate ones?
The frontier mentality of Prospect, which is thrilling in its uncompromising toughness, is another thing that we don’t often see in visual SF; it recalls that of Firefly, especially in its untranslated slang, in the rhythm of speech that is sometimes a bit alien to our ears. (The written language here is an unknown one; everyone speaks English, but we may presume that that is merely for our convenience.) One of the authentically sci-fi ideas, one that wouldn’t work in a traditional western story, is the ticking-clock deadline driving all the action: Cee and Damon arrived on the moon in a little lander ship, a mere dinghy of a craft that has come off a mothership making its last sweep through this planetary system; this route is being shut down. (Oh, the things that that hints at, and leaves us hanging about.) If they don’t meet the mothership in three days, that’s it: they are stranded. If you missed the last train out in the Old West, you could theoretically start walking, but that’s not an option here. There’s a real cold-equations reality at work in Prospect, the hard facts of space travel, the impossible distances and the fuel needs involved. There’s no cheating them.
I really love this movie, and I feel like it may become one that I’ll revisit often. It feels so lived-in, which is such a rarity for an invented world. I’m very much looking forward to what Caldwell and Earl come up with next, as well as what Dust will have to offer us in the future.