Special Effects: B
Prospect is a prime example of the joy in discovery that can come with attending film festivals. You know very little about these movies going in, and you find yourself delighted by the surprise of something you might not have had any idea you'd have any interest in.
And this film holds particular interest to Western Washingtonians: it was shot entirely locally, most of it in or around Seattle; interiors built in a warehouse in the Fremont neighborhood. Some of the exteriors were shot in a park in Shoreline. And for the purposes of the story, it works: a father and daughter are visiting a forest moon to do some prospecting (hence the title) for a certain type of valuable gem, which must be carefully harvested out of something that looks like a cross between a white radish and a stomach organ, which lives in the ground.
We really learn nothing about the time period otherwise -- the setting is either in rickety spaceships or, in the vast majority of the story, in these forests -- and that's okay. The script, co-written by Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl, who both also co-directed, is by easily the best thing about this movie, and reveals its strengths with every turn of the plot.
The only predictable thing about it is that things go wrong: this father-daughter team finds themselves pressed for time in getting what they need and getting their ship back off this moon, but they encounter a couple of other people who have similar aims. From there on out, in their increasingly desperate endeavor not to get stranded, the story is both tense and unexpected.
They key players are Transparent's Jay Duplass as the father (he and his brother Mark have longstanding relationships with filmmakers in the Pacific Northwest, and have starred in several movies set here); Pedro Pascal (perhaps most recognizable as Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones) as his would-be nemesis; and most notably, a fantastic newcomer Sophie Thatcher as Cee, the no-nonsense teenage daughter. There are a few other parts in the film, but probably three quarters of it is focused only on these three.
Now, the production design in Prospect can be a little . . . janky. I have mixed feelings about the look and feel of their small ship that takes them to the moon's surface, with its vague shades of Nostromo working-class griminess. That sort of design could fly a lot more easily in films from the seventies, but this decidedly analog means of both transport and communication, clearly a product of budget constraints, has more the feeling of an alternate dimension than a future we can actually expect.
But, the performances, and especially the story itself, make such things quite easily overlooked. Even the special effects, also clearly rendered under budget constraints, have that effect, as those are impressive given the limitations. The sight of a huge planet in the sky beyond the tops of Washington's forests makes for some memorable imagery. The air in these moon forests are also supposed to be toxic, so they are shot with bright lens filters and given an otherworldly look with white specks always slowly swishing through the air. It's only this toxicity that necessitates the suits the characters wear while they are outside, which make for several pertinent plot points.
Between the writing, the editing, and the setting, Prospect makes for a deceptively simple and eminently satisfying story. It's science fiction without the usual trappings of unnecessarily convoluted technological details. They basic story -- a young girl faced with odds stacked increasingly against her as she faces a need for escape -- could easily be taken out of this context and plopped into a present-day setting, but it wouldn't be as interesting.
This movie isn't at all concerned with real-life science, which potentially will annoy viewers with any such knowledge. The best science fiction tends to use real-world knowledge as a jumping-off point, and Prospect doesn't necessarily do that. It simply establishes its own world with its own rules. But it is also a well-constructed story that unfolds with a finesse all its own -- to such an extent that I have been very careful not to give to much away. Once you get a chance, just see this movie. You won't be disappointed.