Could there be gold in them streaming hills? Scrolling through your preferred film service in search of something new but also good can make you feel like a crotchety wild west varmint panning through dreck in search of hidden treasure. It’s pleasing, then, that the sci-fi mining tale Prospect – a modest but gorgeously realised story of survival on a far-flung frontier – is a streaming gem where the characters are driven by the pursuit of gleaming gems.
On a remote alien forest moon where the mote-filled atmosphere is so hazardous it requires pressure suits and air filters to navigate, a stressed single father (Jay Duplass) drags his young daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher) out on a high-risk prospecting expedition. After a hard landing in their cramped space-pod, the pair have a limited window to sniff out valuable organic gems. After three “cycles”, the interstellar gantry that dropped them off will be headed home. If they miss their lift they will be stranded in this lush wilderness with only a musket-like dart gun for protection.
The gems are coddled in gloopy alien egg sacs but harvesting them is a nerve-jangling procedure requiring a steady scalpel hand: the dig sites are combustible and slicing a sac incorrectly causes the treasure to fizzle and spoil. The fact that the jittery dad seems to favour stimulant-infused chewing gum to push himself further does not fill you with confidence. Cee – who we first meet in a headphone-wearing reverie scribbling cryptic pictograms like a typically disaffected teen – seems sceptical about the whole thing even before her father reveals they are seeking a mythical bonanza nicknamed the Queen’s Lair.
That is when Pedro Pascal moseys into frame as the rascally Ezra, and if there was any doubt that this was an old-fashioned western transposed to a sci-fi milieu, his highfalutin Deadwood cadences and languid low cunning snap everything into focus. Before long, it is just Ezra and Cee trying to survive “in the green”, having forged a tentative alliance based on survival. “A good partnership is only made so by candid discourse,” advises Ezra in one of his many folksy proclamations, but while they are literally tethered together for life support their alliance is a rickety one, especially when the verdant jungle might not be as uninhabited as first thought. If their slim chance of escape rests on trusting each other, there are a lot of confrontations and negotiations – as well as some teeth-sucking scenes of amateur field surgery – to get through first.
The prickly human motivations of this pared-back story contrast with the woozy setting, a trippy but tangible alien forest that evokes the phantasmagoric mulch-land of Alex Garland’s Annihilation (another sci-fi marvel released in 2018). Prospect’s evocative effects work – including a throwaway shot of caterpillar made strikingly alien by some subtle CGI – is all of a piece with its frugal but evocative production design. Everything in Cee’s shabby space pod seems to have been created with a real-world purpose in mind. If you are the sort of person who pauses Alien to marvel at the design and iconography of the Nostromo’s various control panels there is similarly a ton to unpack here. The term “world-building” is sometimes used pejoratively to knock blockbuster movies that seem more interested in setting up potential sequels or spin-offs than telling their story. Prospect creates its own perfectly realised sci-fi snowglobe that manages to be aesthetically intriguing while never pulling too much focus from its life-or-death situation. The world seems real, and therefore so do the stakes.
What makes Prospect really sing is the fractious chemistry between Cee and Ezra, the mismatched odd couple who slowly begin to appreciate each other’s hidden talents. Who knows if Jon Favreau or any of the other creative talent behind The Mandalorian saw Prospect on initial release and were struck by Pascal’s ability to communicate emotion even via two-way radio transmission in a bulky helmet. In any case, it now looks like a warm-up for his bounty-hunting breakout. His co-star Thatcher also recently joined the Star Wars universe as a cybernetic street punk in The Book of Boba Fett (although she has much more to do in the buzzy survivalist series Yellowjackets, where she plays the teen version of Juliette Lewis’s Natalie). That these two performers have gone on to higher-profile projects is unsurprising but it is unclear what Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl, Prospect’s writers/directors, are working on next. Whatever it is, I will greedily seek it out.