Prospect - an expansion of the 2014 sci-fi short film of the same name from writing/directing duo Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl - has a lot going for it. From the handcrafted sci-fi aesthetic that feels like a hipster update on the blue collar cosmos exploration of Ridley Scott's Alien, to the gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Earl, who's shot the lion's share of the team's shorts), to the rather impressive costume design (as every space suit feels flexibly tattered and worn), there's no doubt these two can bring their creative sketchbook to life and make it all feel tangible. Even the organic alien matter that father/daughter digging team Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and Damon (Jay Duplass) excavate out of the wooded moon they land their small craft on has a tangible gooiness to it, molded prop work that's slathered in KY Jelly to make us imagine its icky texture on our own paws.
Unfortunately, Caldwell and Earl should've spent as much time developing Prospect’s characters as they did attempting to bring this poisoned forest orb to life. We're never really given any reason to care about Cee or Damon, so when they befall a pair of ruthless competitors (one of which is played by Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal), it's difficult to get too worked up over their lives being placed in danger. Instead, Caldwell and Earl fill each character's mouth with this mushy jibber-jabber that seems more fit for a lost Western TV pilot (think: sub-David Milch, but in Nostromo breathing gear). All we hear is technical jargon that means literally nothing outside of being verbal window-dressing for this new take on interstellar travel. While the effort to amalgamate genres in such an ostentatious style is certainly admirable, the focus is shifted toward the wrong filmic elements in almost myopic fashion.
In fairness, every actor is trying their hardest to really make this gibberish work onscreen. Duplass may have the most thankless role, becoming the movie's mumble-sci Janet Leigh, as Pascal's Ezra kills him off, only to have Cee take the murderous thug captive, hoping he'll lead her to his spaceship so they can high-tail it out of this endless stretch of impossibly tall trees. During their journey, they come across a few collections of stragglers - both which include former Wire regulars like Andre Royo and Anwan Glover - who really are nothing more than moving obstacles for Cee to scurry away from, leading to one monotonous standoff and chase after another. The weapons these working-class villains wield are just as cool and homemade as the anus-looking alien pods our hero encounters, but no amount of lo-fi production design can make up for a lack of dramatic stakes.
There's a Paper Moon component to the relationship that develops between Cee and Ezra as their dynamic shifts throughout their expedition. The seasoned vet often needs to step up in order to try and save both his own skin, as well as this teenage girl's. Had Prospect zeroed in on this dynamic a little more, it would probably play a little better than the glorified directors’ reel the picture truly is. Yet in the end, Caldwell and Earl might prove with their feature debut that some shorts should remain just that: quick bursts of character and world-building that should never be expanded past their original fourteen-minute length. Prospect is a failure overall, but there are enough intriguing textural aspects to the movie that you hope this pair of up-and-coming auteurs can find someone to write for them, so that their idiosyncratic vision is applied to an actual story we can care about.
Prospect will continue to screen at SXSW Sunday, March 11th, at the Alamo Lamar (9:15 PM), and Wednesday, March 14th, at the Stateside Theater (10:00 PM).