From the honey-gold sunlight that spills amber-thick through a canopy of century-old trees to the dancing specks of iridescent pollen that swirl in the foreground of nearly every scene, “Prospect” has one thing that most indie sci-fi movies don’t, and which any human desperately needs when traveling to unfamiliar worlds: atmosphere. Cleverly expanded from a short film of the same name, co-writer-directors Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell’s low-budget debut offers thinking audiences an economy ticket to a distant moon, scrapping most of the usual in-flight entertainment in favor of a lean excursion to a scenic space outpost.
In short, what Earl and Caldwell have done here is the antithesis to your typical interstellar blockbuster, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Passengers,” where everything looks new and sleek, as if it were designed by the engineers at Apple. “Prospect” takes place on the fringes of such stories, long after the matinee-idol heroes have boldly gone. Closer in spirit to Douglas Trumbull’s “Silent Running,” it’s the story of two scavengers, Damon (Jay Duplass) and his daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher), who chance a risky mission to a resource-rich moon.
On Earth, the father-daughter team might be thought of as “blue-collar”; here, who knows how far away from “home” (turns out Cee was born on another planet), their working-class status shows via secondhand spacesuits and jerry-rigged air filtration systems. When their rickety capsule goes on the blink, Damon gives the console a good smack. Behind him, the CPU sparks, then belches forth black smoke. If Damon can get this beat-up old spacecraft to the surface without crashing, this may well be its last voyage.
From this point forward, “Prospect” hews closer to the western formula than it does traditional sci-fi — though the two genres have always been closely tethered, preoccupied as they are with the challenges that confront pioneers on the lawless frontier. A space prospector on the tail end of what could be likened to a gold rush, Damon has come to collect Aurelacs — curious gemstones that grow in slimy organic sacs, which must in turn be harvested from gaseous pods via a delicate process conceived by the film’s creators (all of which suggests a cross between pearl hunting and a David Lynch movie).
Damon has heard of an Aurelac mother lode known as the “Queen’s Lair,” but there are so many desperados about, reaching the site will be no cake walk. Soon enough, Damon and Cee stumble across two bandits who complicate their mission considerably — although it should be said that father and daughter have different goals (he dreams of getting rich enough that they never have to work again, whereas she’d be content to get off this moon alive), and the bandits might not be as despicable as they first appear.
In time, Cee comes to trust a fellow bottom-feeder named Ezra (played by “Game of Thrones” actor Pedro Pascal), eventually adopting him as a kind of replacement father figure. He’s certainly better company than the other misfits left on this godforsaken moon, even if the movie never develops the emotional dimension needed for any of its interpersonal relationships to matter.
Constructing character does not appear to be Earl and Caldwell’s strong suit (what’s satisfying about Cee owes almost entirely to Thatcher, a fresh face who tricks us into assuming she’s just a callow teen, when in fact, she proves to be the film’s toughest character). On the other hand, the duo show a real aptitude for world building, immersing the audience in a situation where the characters know their way around, but viewers must puzzle out the strange gear (a laser-harpoon-like “thrower,” for instance), symbols (including an unfamiliar alphabet), and expressions (Ezra talks like a character out of “Deadwood,” making stylized pronouncements such as, “I am not immune to intrigue”).
These days, every sci-fi movie seems indebted to “Star Wars,” and though “Prospect” is too modest to share George Lucas’ grand vision, it definitely recalls the opening act of the original movie, in which Luke Skywalker longs for adventure on Tatooine (with its twin suns, old droids, and endless expanses of sand). As this is a “green moon,” in place of desert, we get overgrown forest. And when Cee finally does reach the horizon, she sees the planet they are orbiting loom high on the horizon — a nice touch in a mostly-practical movie whose visual effects are limited primarily to foreground filters and greenscreen backdrops. Detailed sound design and a score composed of bassy rumbles and eerie tubular noises flesh out what the eyes cannot see. Though the narrative is small and the stakes are low, it all feels like part of a bigger universe. If anything, this is what the standalone “Star Wars” movies should feel like.