Far from civilisation, a prospector and his daughter come across a pair of desperadoes – and the inevitable face-off leads to the close-mouthed young woman and a talkative bandit taking a trek through a hostile landscape, forced to overcome mistrust and depend on each other for survival … and the prospect of a profit. Every so often, some filmmaker notices that there are a lot of similarities between the horse opera and the space opera, and sets out to make a science fiction western – Moon Zero Two, Outland, Outpost, Precious Find, Soldier. This debut feature from writer-director Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell is the first such genre hybrid in a while, and interestingly takes on the influence of recent Western touchstones – the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Deadwood – rather than harking back to Leone or Ford.
Expanded from a short, it’s a small story – and it sometimes seems that the chief tactic the writers have used to stretch things out to feature length is making one of the characters a chatterbox with a line in non sequitur patter – but a rare instance of proper, pulp s-f-style universe-building, allowing the audience to extrapolate what the greater universe of the story might be from small details (like the bizarre fusion pop music the girl listens to, an elaborate religious execution ritual, and the precise workings of protective helmets with filtration systems). Damon (Jay Duplass) brings his young daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher) to a wooded moon called ‘the Green’ in an area of space known as ‘the Fringe’ because he has word of a site where valuable ambergris-like gems (‘aurelac’) can be mined, in a delicate business that resembles fishing for pearls in alien eggs – we never find out whether the fleshy sacs they have to be cut out of are animal or vegetable or something else, but the process is thought-through and believable.
The pair’s space pod is a relic that barely survives landing, so they have the additional problem of getting a lift off the planet even after they’ve made their fortune – and their relationship is approaching crisis point, as Cee is being forced to accept that her father is reckless (and suffering the space equivalent of gold fever) and getting sloppy about the practicalities of survival. After a tense encounter with Ezra (Pedro Pascal) and his diving-suit-helmeted silent partner, and a messy shoot-out, Cee finds herself linked to the man who ‘technically’ killed her father – literally linked by a tube, since he needs to feed off her filter because his is broken – and forced to rely on her prisoner to cope with perils. Also on the moon are some ‘religious settlers’ (space Mormons?) and mercs supervising that strange execution, which affords small roles for welcome presences Andre Royo (The Wire) and Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). Among the genre conventions trotted out are gruesome frontier surgery, a shifting balance of power depending on who’s got the guns, and the sense that only the youngest characters really have a chance (and that a slim one). It augments its location work with murk filters and unobtrusive CGI-tinkering with the sky, dominated by the huge planet this moon orbits, and makes locations similar to those of the oddly parallel Leave No Trace seem properly alien.