Written and Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller.
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Nell Tiger Free, Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Córdova, and Jonny Lee Miller.
Mankind’s earliest settlers on the Martian frontier do what they must to survive the cosmic elements and each other.
First-time feature-length writer and director Wyatt Rockefeller has a confidently distinct style, mood, aesthetic, and core message for Settlers. The film also gives Brooklynn Prince her most complex and dramatic role yet since her unbelievably powerful turn in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, so on some level, it would have always been watchable regardless of how much of a slow burn it is, or it’s shakier elements (the film is trying to do and say a lot, biting off more than it can chew once the third act approaches).
Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) live on an isolated Mars settlement with their nine-year-old daughter Remmy. Earth is no longer inhabitable, and this tight-knit family is some of the earliest settlers, equipped with everything they need to thrive and survive. The family does everything from growing vegetables to feed pigs while educating Remmy on basic mathematics and spending quality time together, whether stargazing with dad or getting swept away in mom’s guitarist talent. They appear to be as alone as can be, but sneaky conversations between Ilsa and Reza indicate otherwise, as does Remmy’s own snooping around.
It doesn’t take long to get an answer, as the following day, the word “leave” is written across one of the outpost windows in blood. A firefight ensues between Reza and the other settlers (who were covered head to toe and are carrying tactical weapons), but for Remmy, something else is going on (aside from the natural terror of the situation). It’s the first time she realizes her parents are lying to her, almost betraying her, which becomes a recurring thing even if they mean well, and in the case of Ilsa, are ferociously protective. Throughout any violent sequence (there’s not much here besides the explosive upending of idyllic and peaceful living), the direction sticks with the perspective of Remmy; easily the wisest choice there is to make considering this is her story.
The aftermath of this minor skirmish brings about the presence of Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a soft-spoken yet intense man explaining that he is only reclaiming his rightful home. Some exposition clues us in that these parents may not have made the best choices themselves and could be paying the price for that. Additionally, given the colonialism spin on Mars, a case could be made that there is a more profound allegory to explore here, but it is, unfortunately, one of the subplots in Settlers that doesn’t crystallize into anything meaningful or engaging.
Nevertheless, Jerry insists he is staying. There’s also not much Ilsa can do about it since there’s nowhere else to go (everything else is just dust and sand, exquisitely captured nonetheless) and with Reza now dead. I won’t say how he dies, but again, something that specific doesn’t matter anyway because all of this is meant to be seen from Remmy’s eyes and emotions. This creates a new dynamic where tensions are initially high but seem to cool down once Ilsa decides that Jerry is not bad. He knows his way around fixing up the place and even has a utility tool robot (it’s meant for excavations and looks like a monochrome crate with mechanical legs) that Remmy ends up befriending and amusingly draws a face on.
Still, there’s always a sense that Jerry is a dangerous person with ulterior motives. Matters are made more complicated for Remmy as she catches a glimpse of a romantic relationship developing between the two. To her, it most likely feels like another stab in the back (which is followed up by an emotional exchange from mother to daughter), further fueling her already adventurous impulses that are already barely able to be contained. From here, there’s a revelation that re-contextualizes the story so far, all as Ilsa has to make a final decision on what’s best for her and Remmy.
Following that suspense, Settlers jumps ahead roughly ten years (Nell Tiger Free now plays Remmy). The narrative drastically shifts direction into something that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the story, but more disappointingly, an incredibly cliché series of events. What can be said is that the acting remains outstanding, with one particular character seeing shades of gray morally before quickly devolving into violence that, unlike the opening, feels out of place. Put it this way; it’s confusing that IFC is releasing this under their Midnight banner of horror movies until the final 30 minutes. However, the unwavering humanistic and dedicated dramatic approach to cosmic affairs and the superb talent in front of the camera (not to mention how gorgeous and atmospheric the visuals and tone are) make Settlers a relatively easy watch despite its quietness and thick nuance. There’s a rationale and empathetic logic to all of these characters’ choices, even if the third act is flimsy.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com