Today’s post started as a simple movie review. Last week I reviewed Rim of the World, which if you missed last week’s post, I felt contained some highly innapropriate innuendo and more importantly served as a bellweather for cultural trends I don’t care for. So I thought I’d review a movie I liked this week as a counter-balance–so I wouldn’t seem like the guy who always disagrees and never likes anything. Thus, this week I set out to do a simple review of the movie Prospect, which like last week’s review, was a film I saw on my wife’s Netflix account. However, I found myself turning introspective as I thought about the review. Why do I like Prospect better? It turns out that a story that could be called nobledark or grimbright is much more in line with what I think is a good story than one intended to draw laughs but which honestly reports a culture with serious problems.
What is Nobledark? Or Grimbright?
The term “nobledark” surged to my mind as I was thinking of a way to descrbe the film Prospect. But then I looked up some definitions and found not everyone agrees what “nobledark” is. It turns out “grimdark” has a clear definition–grimdark is the a type of speculative ficiton story in which there really is no such thing as good and the story is filled with despair. There’s a struggle for survival going on and everyone involved inhabits various shades of corrupt. The saying, “Might is right” matches grimdark very well–and in fact, grimdark has dominated much of fantasy fiction since the 1990s. Think George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice as an example. (Though lots of other stories can be said to have grimdark elements–The Walking Dead has never been completely grimdark, but often isn’t far off.)
So after grimdark became a trend and someone created a label to define it (note, a grimdark mood took over much of fantasy before anyone coined the term “grimdark” to describe it), someone wanted to define its opposite. From my own, doubltless imperfect Internet research, it turns out some people latched on to the term “noblebright” as the opposite of “grimdark.” (Whereas others like the term “hopepunk.”)
Creating the term “noblebright” to define a basically optimistic world with heroic figures led to some people offering two other terms for moods in-between noblebright and grimdark. “nobledark” and “grimbright.”
“Nobledark” would be a story in which there are genuine heroes, but the story world is full of terrors and gritty. An epic struggle for good and evil is ongoing, but the heroes are holding their own. Barely. And “grimbright” would be a world in which there aren’t really any clear heroes and no epic struggle, within a story situation that’s a total wreck, but ordinary people are managing to hold on to some form of hope and make the world a slightly better place. Modern Batman movies probably would count as nobledark and the beginning of The Force Awakens, the part that depicts Rey as a scavenger on the planet Jakku, who is just getting by but manages to maintain hope in her heart–that would be grimbright. (By the way, Star Trek at its most opimistic would be nobelbright or hopepunk–a basically optimistic view of the story world, filled with mostly-good and heroic characters.)
Except, based on some time I spent chasing a Reddit rabbit trail of arguments before writing this article, not everone agrees with those definitions. Some people think both terms are completely unneeded, because pretty much every story that features an unpleasant setting, pretty much every dystopia and post-apocalypic world, would either be “grim” or “dark.” And those stories have been around longer than the terms “nobledark” and “grimbright.” Why not just call them “dystopian” or “post-apocalyptic” or “dark” or “gritty” or whatever? Do we really need to call anything “nobledark” or “grimbright”?
Ok, “they” who say that may have a point. Still, I’m going to borrow these possibly-unneeded-terms for the purpose of this post. Because I like stories that can be called nobledark and/or grimbright and the definitions I found for these terms are handy for my purposes here. I like these kinds of tales way more than grimdark (which I can actually find interesting in small doses, but which gets depressing fast), but also even more than noblebright or hopepunk.
Let’s Talk About Prospect
Ok, with some terminology defined, let’s return to talking about Prospect. I will not give away the entire plot, but a few spoilers follow. Of course.
The Netflix ad for Prospect featured a girl around thirteen years old walking around in a spacesuit with an adult man, somewhere with moss-covered conifers, probably in the temperate rain forest of the North American Pacific Northwest, which does in fact look a little alien. And my immediate thought was, “Ah, another low-budget sci-fi show. Probably is going to be cheesy.” But for some reason, I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.
Prospect Partial Plot Summary (Some Spoilers Included, but Not Everything)
In Prospect, a young teen girl (played by Sophie Thatcher) and her father start the tale in their personal lander, attached to a space station orbiting “the Green Moon” (which in turn orbits a gas giant). Well, in fact the girl is supposed to be in the lander, but is off elsewhere, listening to music. Her father scolds her a bit as she returns and asks her to do some chores.
This sets the expectations that this character, the teenage girl–her name is “Cee”–is more or less the same as other teens, no matter what the story setting is. Though the viewer discovers as the story progresses that she isn’t at all ordinary.
Her father reveals a scheme to find “the queen’s lair”–a particularly rich source for a type of gemstone that will set them for life. It turns out some mercenaries have found the lair and have asked her dad to harvest the gems. The gems are extracted from an alien living organism, rather like pearls, but have to be handled in a specific way, or else they will be destoyed. Which is why the mercenaries need his help. With the catch they only have limited time, because the space station is preparing to leave the Green Moon forever.
The pair, the girl and her father, set out to land their pod near the lair, but the pod malfunctions on landing, so they aren’t one the site. The two set off on foot to meet up with the mercenaries. Wearing spacesuits because of a mold in the air that kills human beings, rather like story “Parasite Planet” in the Worlds of Weinbaum anthology I published.
On the way, the pair run into robbers and take a stand against them. I don’t want to give away too much of this part of the story, but let’s say the girl holds her own, both fighting and retreating when it makes sense to do so. The boss of the robbers, Ezra, winds up replacing Cee’s father on the quest to find the alien gems. (Note that Ezra is portrayed by the Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, who you may know as the man under the armor in The Mandalorian series.)
By the way, I really enjoyed the way the character Ezra speaks. He’s got that long-sentence 19th Century eloquent but menacing thing going. Really good writing and acting.
Continuing on the way to find the gems, the pair run into a small band of religous cultists, who offer to purchase the girl. She escapes them and attempts to leave the Green Moon, but can’t. She again joins Ezra on the quest for gems and the two of them find the camp of mercenaries and the Queen’s Lair of gems.
Something goes terribly wrong with their plan, but they manage to fight their way to an escape, not only immediate death, but the Green Moon itself, soon enough not to be trapped on the Green Moon forever. During the fighting, and even before the fighting, without giving too much away, Cee proves to be courageous and risks her life to save Ezra–a man she has no particular reason to save.
Before the final scene the story shows Cee interested in a fantastic novel she read once, still caught up in her music when she gets a chance. Still recognizably a young teen–but actually a noble and heroic one, when the situation called for it.
The Gruesome Storyworld of Prospect
In Prospect, everyone is greedy for something. Well, except Cee. Also, it’s one of those gritty story worlds in which people will not hesitate to kill you to take what they want.
Even the gemstone the characters extract in the story requires slicing into an alien lifeform, pulling out a body part, and chopping into an alien piece of meat. It’s clearly a brutal form of prospecting, with no interest in whether the (apparently unintelligent) aliens survive or not.
The Green Moon is beautiful, but deadly. You can’t ever expose yourself to the air, always trapped in a spacesuit or a cleared shelter because of the molds.
Cee is clearly in greater danger as a teen girl than the men are–not only because she is smaller and less experienced, but because of the menace of rape and sexual exploitation. Which doesn’t prevent her from acting with courage when needed.
In spite of her courage, Cee doesn’t quite rise to the level of being a hero, because the stakes are mostly personal. And the villains are not epic. So, on the grid of stories we discussed already, Prospect should be defined as “Grimbright.”
Why I Recommend Prospect and not Rim of the World
Overall, I really like the movie Prospect and recommend it. Note though that the special effects are not as good as the acting and dialog, but are not actually silly at any point in the story. Also, sometimes minor characters seem surreal, especially some of the mercenaries. I would not say the story is perfect, but most of its elements hang together very well. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.
Rotten Tomatoes gives Prospect an 88 percent, but the IMDb rating is 6.2–which is barely better than the 5.2 rating for Rim of the World. Which of course raises the subject of why I like this movie much, much more than Rim of the World. (Because I do.)
A critic might ask of me, is it better to portray a teen girl in danger of sexual slavery than some “harmless” innuendo? Is it better to show a world in which most people are greedy and dangerous than a basically silly world with oblique pornographic references in which many people seem to have good motives? Or in short, how could I possibly object to the morals of the Rim of the World and not to the arguably less-moral world of Prospect? Is this just a Christian fixation on prohibiting sex coupled with a tolerance of violence (as Christians are often accused of doing)?
A Cleaner R Rating for Prospect than the TV14 for Rim of the World
First, a rating as in a story containing negative triggers as commonly defined is not the main reason to like or dislike a story in my opinion. But if we are going to do that kind of compare/contrast, it turns out Prospect is cleaner than Rim of the World in terms of rating. Which might be surprising, because Prospect is rated R. Significantly, it’s not marketed to the young teen market, even though it has a young teen character.
Prospect’s most graphic scenes in terms of violence actually revolve around extracting the alien gemstone, which shows a lump of meat being cut, and a case of a medical amputation, in which little is directly shown. Otherwise, people get shot or stabbed, but the spacesuit covers details. It is by no means a splatterfest. Rim of the World shows plenty of people getting killed as well. Not realistically, but still.
In terms of profanity, Rim of the World walked up to the line of its rating on multiple occasions and used what words it could. Prospect has only one moment of cussing that I recall–not a moment everyone will like, probably, but there in the story for specific reason. And just one moment.
In terms of innuendo, Rim of the World has plenty more than just the three cases I pointed out in my article last week. Prospect contains no innuendos–well, there’s an oblique suggestion the mercenaries might sexually assault Cee if she goes to them alone, but as an innuendo goes, it’s one without appeal.
In terms of sex, Rim of the World features one particular moment of ogling that stands out above everything else, but no actual nudity…but Prospect has no examples of ogling characters or images. Not even when the cultists offer to buy Cee. Just some sexual menace–but that’s clearly shown to be a bad thing, something undesirable.
Not Rating, but Expectations Mark Prospect as More Moral than Rim of the World
In fact, that’s really the key thing. Prospect portrays an awful world and awful people, but never gave me the sense that it was trying to portray that world as normal. We can cheer for Cee because even though she is in danger and given bad examples, she desires to do what is right and in fact partially succeeds. She saves herself–and a stranger whom she has no particular need to save. She is not a perfect person, but her character points to an idea of good and evil–evil exists in the story, even if it is so common that nobody is surprised when it shows up–but the central character is not a part of that evil And in fact opposes evil in multiple ways.
Evil in Rim of the World is the aliens trying to kill everybody, which of course is a no duh bad thing. But nothing about what the main characters do that I find objectionable, whether ogling or making innuendoes or crying because they are going to die a virgin, etc, none of those things are portrayed to be bad. Just ordinary stuff.
We could say Rim of the World normalizes these behaviors and of course it does, but my main reason to object to the movie was because of one of the things one of my critics thought invalidated my point. The critic stated the movie simply reflected the way kids are, awkwardly claiming more sexual knowledge than they actually have. Yeah, but “the way kids are” is main element of what I complained about. I think “the way kids are” in our culture is oversexualized.
Imagine traveling back one hundred and fifty years into the past in a time machine and noting how many thirteen-year-olds would be smoking. A lot would be. While some people of the period would agree with you that’s a bad thing, many would shrug their shoulders and say, “Hey, that’s just what kids do.” You’d immediately reply, “But is that what they should do?”
Likewise, of course there’s an age in which boys especially but also girls are going to have a lot of sexual interest. But they aren’t necessarily going to announce that they’ve already had a threesome with two women as one of the young characters in Rim of the World does. They aren’t necessarily going to think pretending to be sexual experienced is cool and admitting to being a virgin (at 13) is shameful. Yeah, it may be this kind of behavor is in fact normal right now in our culture, but it should not be normal. Or course sexual interest will be normal—but a culture of expectation concerning sex, that having it as soon as possible is good–that doesn’t have to be normal. And having it in ways common to porn–that also doesn’t have to be normal, either.
In fact, I think being a Christian puts me at war with the world in a way. Not a war in which I burn things down and shoot people, but a war in which I oppose the standards of the world and offer other standards, ones I believe God has inspired. Note not all Christian people think that way. Not all fans of speculative fiction are on board with me to be sure.
I like the nobledark and grimbright type of stories because they reflect what I see is reality. The world is not good–it cannot be trusted. But that doesn’t mean it’s nothing but bad. There still is good to be found. But you have to look for it, fight for it even. And we need both heroes and ordinary people to stand against what’s wrong, in both big ways and small.
When I put it that way, it seems like nobledark and grimbright or dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and otherwise dark and gritty stories should be what Christians authors of speculative fiction mainly write. Of course, that’s not how things are and isn’t even true of all the stories I like best. But it’s true of some of them.
So what are your thoughts on this topic? Have you seen Prospect and if so, what did you think? What do you think about the categories of grimdark, noblebright, nobledark, and grimbright? Please leave a comment below.