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Prospect
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by Jay Seaver

"Science fiction made messy with care."
4 stars

A lot of independent science fiction films like "Prospect" hit the genre film festival circuit - mostly as shorts, but sometimes as features - and truth be told, many aren't very good despite the clear love for the genre and impressive effort put into creating a world with what they can find and build. What makes this one stand out is the same as what made the short version pop four years ago - not just being a notch better at creating a dingy analog future, but finding an impressive cast and building some tension there.

It opens on a spaceship making the last scheduled trip around the moon Bakhroma Green; Damon (Jay Duplass) and his daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher) will be dropped in a pod with the hopes of finding enough aurelac crystals over the next few days that when they rejoin the ship on its return voyage, they'll be able to set themselves up comfortably for the first time in Cee's life - quite possible, if Damon's claim to know where the legendary "Queen's Lair" is. It's a dangerous satellite, with poisonous dust in the air and the crystals themselves formed in burning organic pods. That's before the eloquent but stranded Ezra (Pedro Pascal) gets the drop on them, and the alliance forged at the point of a gun is just as unstable as you might expect.

It's a fool's errand more often than not to try and guess how filmmakers created a shot, but sometimes the way filmmakers use effects is worth pondering. There's a moment early in the movie, when the audience has thus far only strayed as far from the cramped pod as a nearby passageway, when the camera pans up from that dingy, practical, analog environment to show a ship that may not be CGI but has a different sort of detail, and which in addition to moving away seems to be spinning enough to simulate gravity. It's a quietly fancy shot that cements how much Damon and Cee are grasping, helping later scenes which might choke on sci-fi details land. There's a similar feel on the moon, where some modest effects work reminds a viewer that it's an alien world but letting the feel that it could swallow people whole come from the location they chose.

The general world-building is good, too, in unexpected ways that show a little extra effort. It would be easy to have environmental suits come off the rack, but everybody's being a different design tells a story, from Cee's being relatively new and well-maintained compared to her father's to the functional but imposing ones seen later. Flywheels are used to charge weapons in a way that's easy to understand and which intuitively sets limits in the viewer's heads, and while all the switches, contour maps, and cards containing instructions and checklists never seem anachronistic, they also seem useful on a planet where recharging devices with touchscreens and heads-up displays might not be easy. It also links what Cee is up to more to the extremely dangerous spaceflight of the twentieth century rather than the pushbutton handwaving of something like Star Trek.

The story connected to all that is fairly simple for all its events and twists, but that serves it well enough. Someone who did not know that this was expanded from a fifteen minute short might not see that various episodes have been tacked on to draw it out, but there is occasionally a sense that things have been stretched a bit. As with a lot of stories built around doing what it takes to survive, it can sometimes feel like a series of events that don't really affect one another or build to something. There's a story in there about Cee coming to terms with an even more uncertain future and how much to trust Ezra, but it often seems like a lot is based on random, semi-contradictory information pulled out when needed and encounters that don't feel like they represent something bigger or do much more than fill time. Action, when it happens, is chaotic and messy so that the confusion doesn't punctuate tension the way it could.

The main cast can cover the film's occasional shortcomings quite well. Pedro Pascal plays a fun but somewhat familiar type, the guy in the western who obviously had some higher education before coming to this lawless place and thus has a sort of showy eloquence (in space-western terms, a slightly darker version of [i[Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds). He's careful to step back from it being too theatrical, and has a kind of unusual success later in the film when it seems like he doesn't know how to play a scene and that this confusion is oddly appropriate. Jay Duplass handles what's asked of him as Damon - a drug-addled mess who nevertheless seems to be holding it together - well enough that it's not until later that one maybe notices that he does a really fine job of making gibberish sound like things people would say and making sure that there's a connection between the messed-up and capable sides of Damon's personality. It's Sophie Thatcher that's the most impressive, though, putting Cee's emotions on her face because she's not nearly as talkative as the men around her, selling what sort of desperation she knows and which she hasn't quite internalized based on what the scene needs, and letting a bunch of unchecked emotion pour out in the scenes that emphasize that she's a young teen in a way that sounds genuinely relatable even though it is also very specific.

All of this adds up in a way that lets one see how "Prospect" got as far as it did, from a short that caught the eyes of people who would help make it a feature, to a feature good enough to play top-tier festivals rather than secondary genre events, to one that gets some theatrical booking rather than just going straight to video on demand. It's good enough to believe in, even if at first glance it looks like someone trying to pass off looking homemade as having more soul than the big boys.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32115&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/01/18 16:33:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  02-Nov-2018 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
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Directed by
  Zeek Earl
  Chris Caldwell

Written by
  Zeek Earl
  Chris Caldwell

Cast
  Sophie Thatcher
  Pedro Pascal
  Jay Duplass
  Andre Royo
  Sheila Vand
  Anwan Glover



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