Anne and I have just returned, delirious with amazement, from a rainforest on a distant planet.

That is to say… my wife and I have just enjoyed the privilege of attending a filmmakers’ hometown preview screening of Prospect. Granted, this kind of movie isn’t for everybody: It’s hard-core science fiction, full of spaceships, alien life forms, dangerous foreign environments, and heavily-armed explorers operating outside the reach of any law enforcement (that is to say, it’s bloody and violent).

But Anne is both a poet and a sci-fi nerd. And I’m a film critic with a particular love for films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars; an SPU professor who encourages students to study, think critically about, and appreciate excellence in filmmaking; and an author of fantasy novels.

So this was like a dream date for us.

And it was a thrill to dive into a crowd of cheering sci-fi fans who were enthusiastic about this dream-come-true movie from the opening to the closing credits.

They had good reason. This wasn’t just a screening: It was a celebration, marking one resourceful filmmaking community’s arrival at the end of a long and taxing journey.

And while I didn’t work on the movie directly, it was a joy to see the triumph of three filmmakers whose dreams took root during their years as Seattle Pacific University undergraduates: Zeek Earl, whose student screenplays I had the joy of reading and critiquing; Chris Caldwell, who as a young man dreaming of making movies encouraged me in my film criticism; and Brice Budke, who attends my church, and whose financial expertise made this unlikely movie possible.


Cee and her father Damon in Prospect.

A futuristic vision with classical bones

Prospect follows the story of a young woman named Cee (Sophie Thatcher of TV’s The Exorcist and Chicago Med) whose father Damon (Jay Duplass) brings her along on an interstellar treasure hunt to a remote moon, where he’s aiming to dig up a mother-lode deposit of gemstones that will help them get out of debt and secure a better future.

But when they run into other, similarly motivated scavengers, do they earn the right to be seen as heroes? Do they have the moral high ground? Or is this just a battle between ruthless hunters who will stop at nothing to come home with the treasure?

The answer — at least when it comes to Damon’s decision-making — quickly becomes clear, and the storyline take a drastic and violent turn, leaving Cee separated from her father and frantic to salvage some kind of hope for survival in this strange and unpredictable environment.

Threatening them both are a mysterious pair of crooks-for-hire, and soon Cee will find herself in a situation where her survival depends on her ability to discern how much she should trust a gun-slinging opportunist called Ezra (Pedro Pascal, whose charisma steals the movie from his costars).


Sophie Thatcher is gutsy and compelling as Cee.

How’s the movie?

Clearly, I cannot claim to be entirely unbiased in any commentary on Prospect, but I’ll try to be fair. To make clear that I’m not suspending critical discernment, I’ll begin here with matters I might have highlighted as needing a little more attention. But keep in mind, these are quibbles. If I didn’t know these filmmakers, I would still have been powerfully impressed.

So let’s start with the screenplay.

Prospect, while it boasts exquisitely designed (and handmade) costumes, sets, and world-building enhancements, is somewhat lacking when it comes to depth of narrative and complexity of character development. And the weakest link is, unfortunately, the main character: Cee.

Cee wins our sympathies primarily because she is young and vulnerable, and characters who get our attention because they’re vulnerable may hold our attention through suspenseful scenarios, but they don’t live on in our imaginations unless they have distinctive personalities and memorable backstories that give us particular cause to hope for not only their survival but their success. Cee is defined by sketchy references to her pop-culture preferences (playlists of futuristic pop music, a particular young-adult storybook), the absence of her mother, and her sense of uncertainty about her birthplace. It’s a decent foundation, but I would have liked to get to know her better.

Still, she’s compelling. And in the role, young Sophie Thatcher is remarkably convincing: She makes the character persuasively knowledgeable about space travel and various scientific procedures (like performing surgery on alien specimens to harvest their internal surprises, as well as surgery on other human beings to save their lives), and she gives Cee an authentic mix of fear and resourcefulness in the midst of crises.

Ezra tests the limits of Cee’s trust in Prospect.

This is enough to bring the character to life, but we end up with more questions about her than answers. The film might have been stronger if the script had revealed more about how Cee’s passions — music, literature, her longing for her mother, and her budding conscience — shape her decisions. A good point of comparison would be Mattie Ross, the young heroine of the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’s True Grit (a story that clearly served as inspiration for Prospect). Mattie’s opinions are always clear, but so is the arc of her character development: We want her to survive not only because she’s suffering, but also because she’s on her way into wisdom.

Perhaps the primary reason that Prospect comes up short in Cee’s characterization is because of its prioritization of — and, let’s face it, delight in — thrillingly staged face-offs, showdowns, shootouts, and narrow escapes. While I would have preferred a finale less reliant on pew-pew-pew!stab-stab-stab!run-run-runfight-fight-fight! , I’m well aware that I’m in the minority as a conscientious dissenter when it comes to resolving sci-fi adventure with violent clashes. For fans of the genre, scenes of spectacular combat are often the main event, the biggest thrill, the basic building blocks of the narrative.

So most audiences are going to come away from Prospect having seen what they bought tickets to see: spectacular, otherworldly visions that create almost unbearable suspense, culminating in an explosive finale.

And on that count…

When it comes to sci-fi, this movie learned from the best.

In the tradition of Alien‘s handmade hardware and effective intimacy, Prospect makes us believe by avoiding digital wizardry for most of its running time (the few outer-space spectacles are dazzling, immersive, and state-of-the-art). Almost everything we see onscreen is real, made by brilliant craftspeople, giving a rough and lived-in detail to every space traveler’s helmet, every steam-punky weapon, every bizarre alien life form unearthed at the treasure-hunter’s dig. I love how Cee’s space gear and clothing are decorated with insignias representing her favorite pop-culture phenomena, just as my own MacBook is busy with the logos of bands, brands, and vacation destinations.


Actor Pedro Pascal steals the show, but does his character Ezra steal the treasure?

What might be the film’s most powerful advantage is its Pacific Northwest rainforest setting, in which the play of light, shadow, greenery, clouds of dust and insect life, and more combine to offer an environment that stands out in an era of digitally constructed landscapes. If Terrence Malick were making hardcore science fiction films, they would look a lot like this.

And it isn’t just the hardware. The adventure, as sci-fi action goes, is intense, frenetic, and immersive. This isn’t the first space adventure set in a glorious rainforest, but Return of the Jedi set us rocketing through the trees on speeder-bikes; by contrast, these travelers have to run for their lives on foot, burdened by heavy armor, stumbling through moss and vines, clambering over fallen trees, and beset on all sides by clouds of space dust and dangerous alien organisms. And that makes the gunfights and hand-to-hand combat between Cee, her father, and the rifle-wielding enemies that much more visceral and unsettling.

The intimate and difficult chemistry between Cee, her father, and Ezra is always engaging and tense, largely due to the fact that their conversations buzz, snap, crackle, and pop through unreliable speaker-headset acoustics. Straining, I caught only about half of what the characters said, but that’s not a problem. It seems like a deliberate strategy to increase a sense of realism and to make us lean in to pay closer attention.

This is the most believable sci-fi stuff I’ve seen in a long, long time.

What’s more, it’s also meaningful.


A hunter with a heart of gold? Not exactly, but…

The film’s most meaningful work is done in the character of Ezra, who arrives as a frightening villain, and who remains a frightening villain, but one who shows increasing potential for redemption.

In a scene-stealing performance that is two parts Nathan Fillion (Firefly) and one part Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Pedro Pascal is a force to be reckoned with. And speaking of the Fillion resemblance, the dialogue in Prospect — best realized in Ezra’s voice — plays like a minimalist episode of Firefly: this film is more a Western in structure and dialect than an exploration of science fiction concepts. It’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre stuck together with superglue and staple guns.

Technology and nature do not get along very well on this green moon.

The story finds its moral center not in Cee, but in Ezra. He’s convincingly reckless, self-serving, and unhesitatingly violent. But as he follows his instincts for the sake of survival, he also reveals a clear awareness of the compromises people make for their own advantage, and begins to develop an admiration for Cee’s similar drive and her willingness to compromise. Might he end up teaching Cee something valuable, perhaps lessons he’s learned the hard way? Might he even be capable of caring?

You’ll see. If I say more, I’ll spoil the fun.

Overall, Prospect tells a story about how opportunism and greed endanger the bonds that keep us all alive, and — for one essential middle scene, during a long walk in the woods — about how stories help us find meaning and purpose in an existence that wants to convince us that survival is all that matters.

And while I might hope for a sequel that digs deeper into the virtues of character and the power of poetic sensibilities, I am absolutely satisfied by this film’s convictions about the power of tangible particularity, its wonderfully realized world, and its go-for-broke efficiency, making the most of every moment, every prop, every ray of light, and every leaf and caterpillar in the forest.

Ready? Into the woods!

Who in the world is THAT? You will just have to see for yourself.

Go see it at the Seattle International Film Festival… or you’ll have to wait for its eventual theatrical release

Prospect will have several screenings at the Seattle International Film Festival in the next couple of weeks.


Anne loved it.