New to Netflix, Prospect is an above-average sci-fi Western gem

A father and daughter are prospecting for gems on a moon in this sci-fi now streaming on Netflix. Not over-explaining the sometimes unusual specifics of their tale, the directors’ world-building pays off in what could easily have just been Western trope regurgitation in a space setting, writes Steve Newall.

The notion of a science fiction Western is nothing new—there’s a whole sci-fi subgenre of them often called (wait for it) Space Westerns. Star Trek notably explored the final frontier, Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity approached the concept with little subtlety, and 1981’s Sean Connery-starring Outland was basically High Noon in space, to name but a few examples (see also: Han Solo). Now on Netflix, last year’s indie sci-fi pic Prospect impressed with its initial trailer, which sold the film’s stunning production design—indebted to Alien, sure, but depicting its own blue-collar, lived-in universe. Enjoyably, what could have been a very literal fusing of genres when a down-on-their-luck father/daughter mining team gets in trouble in a lawless environment has a lot more to offer than just being an exercise in trope regurgitation.

Key to what makes Prospect tick is strong casting and character development, the aforementioned aesthetic sensibility, and a welcome decision by writer-directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell not to over-explain the sometimes unusual specifics of their tale. Following Cee (Sophie Thatcher) and her dad (Jay Duplass) to a forest moon in search of gems, Prospect quickly makes it clear there will be no literal panning for gold. The gems they seek are painstakingly extracted from biological organisms, while the pair wear cumbersome space suits to ward off a fatal alien infection. It’s a nifty visual trick against an otherwise-beautiful forest backdrop that leaves a lot of sinister threat to the imagination, and also means an accident (or not-so-accidental projectile) can prove deadly.

That’s relevant when the pair encounter Ezra (Kingsman: The Golden Circle’s Pedro Pascal) alongside his rail-gun-equipped outlaw accomplice, as well as the notion of their ultimate destination, a motherlode guarded by mercenaries. Add a ticking clock to the mix (the last ship back to civilisation leaves soon), and there are plenty of Western elements on offer that add to the film’s tension, and plenty of surprises as well, including proving unexpectedly grim in places.

With seemingly a lot of world-building to inform proceedings, but much of it unseen, the filmmakers keep a firm hand on the wheel, with Prospect remaining engrossing until the last. All the hard work would be let down without a lead like Thatcher though, whose feature debut here brings to life a multi-faceted teenager dealt a bum deal in a galactic backwater, and provides the emotional anchor for the filmmakers to spin their above-average sci-fi yarn.