On locations, limitations, loquaciousness, and the durable formula of mismatched treasure-seekers
Prospect Gunpowder & Sky
Director: Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl
Screenplay: Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl
Starring: Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass, Andre Royo, Sheila Vand and Anwan Glover
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 1.85:1
November 9, 2018
(out of four)
A movie oughta feel like someplace, somewhere. Not just anywhere; it should feel like it belongs there, only there. Or, in the best examples, like the place belongs to the movie itself.
Whatever can be said about Prospect, good or bad, one can't accuse it of the interchangeability of setting that plagues so many other films. The store-brand cities, the store-brand* dystopias and jungles and offices and neighborhoods. We've seen our share of store-brand celestial bodies, too - often when there was more than enough budget to build one from scratch, but just not enough imagination to invent it. For Prospect, it was the opposite. Reportedly made for less than $4 million, Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl's sci-fi indie is nothing if not fully at home in its own environment. Even if one is familiar with Washington's Hoh Rainforest - where most of this film and its 14-minute 2014 predecessor were shot - it undoubtedly makes a credible, vibrant stand-in for Prospect's uninhabited frontier planet, a lush forest haunted by rumors of hidden riches.
* Obviously, in some cases the interchangeability or anonymity of a setting is the very point, so for the sake of clarity, those examples are not part of this equation.
To say this is a triumph of location scouting, production design, photography and directorial vision on a small scale would be doing it a disservice - it's a triumph in those categories full stop. The story may wobble and the script may strain to reach its ambitions or do good by its influences, but the space in which it all takes place is a marvelous atmospheric cocoon - its beauty somehow threatening, its alien qualities inviting. Earl and Caldwell immerse us in an earthy haze of moist greens and dry yellows, the inhospitable air suffused with floating dust particles aglow like miniature fireflies.
That the location is required to do so much of the heavy lifting indicates that the filmmakers are aware of where their strengths lie. There are rarely more than two characters in any scene, and it's not a particularly chatty movie. And though there's a distant objective in mind (buried treasure, basically), we're surrounded with so much environmental detail and color that the movie becomes much more an exploration of this new land than an exploitation of it. The latter is the endgame, of course - the bounty being the "Queen's Lair," an abundance of a rare and valuable mineral - but the paths along the journey are rich territory in their own right.
The mismatched prospectors are a scoundrel and an orphan - Ezra (Pedro Pascal) and Cee (Sophie Thatcher), respectively - and she's only an orphan because the scoundrel made it so, killing her father Damon (Jay Duplass), who had the misfortune of being in the same area of land and searching for the same thing. Ezra's original partner died in the same ruckus, and so the remaining two are more or less stuck with each other. Being something of a veteran of this game, Ezra could have attempted to go it alone. And if Cee hadn't shot him, he may have done just that, and left the girl in the same shallow grave as her old man. As it stands, he needs a healthy partner and she needs to get off this moon once and for all. So, they'll find the Queen's Lair, they'll split the loot, take off in the only remaining available ship, and after that they'll be on their separate ways. That's the plan, anyway.
The recognizability and reliability of the template goes a long way for the script; it comes with its own built-in comfort zone. An outlaw and a kid, a couple of weapons, an unknown landscape, with riches at the end of it. And the occasional unexpected figure roaming around the corner. It's good that the film is so comfortable in its formula, because the filmmakers fail when they try to exceed their stylistic capabilities. Pascal is tasked with delivering a style of grandiose, mealy-mouthed dialogue that, despite the actor's best efforts, is rather embarrassing. It sounds like Caldwell and Earl were going for something along the lines of David Milch, but wound up settling for a second-rate imitation of Joss Whedon, with Pascal's Ezra as their would-be Mal Reynolds. That they wanted to draw a distinction between that character and our blue-collar father/daughter underdogs - in personality, education, social status - is clear enough. But the fact is, for all the filmmakers' other merits, in attempting this kind of verbose, pregnant language they are far out of their depth. The heightened syntax and Shakespearean notes just come across as clumsily unnecessary. It's like listening to a poem written by someone who's aware of poetry but has never written it before.
But Pascal and the impressive Thatcher - a poised young actress who never overplays a moment - share exactly the sort of tension they're supposed to in a pairing like this, and their subdued adventure tale glides along nicely toward its clearly foreshadowed but briskly executed conclusion. Movies like this often have an audition vibe to them; there's great low-budget sci-fi and then there's low-budget sci-fi that seems like an attempt to prove its makers should be given more money. What I admire about Prospect is the level of hands-on care, which works in service of a very clear idea of what this movie was intended to be - and where. From the industrial aesthetic of the craft in which Cee and her father lived and traveled, to the lighting and color choices of these Hoh Rainforest locations, Caldwell and Earl saw all their limitations as opportunities, never as handicaps.