On an isolated homestead surrounded by rocky terrain, a family lives in constant fear, nervously scanning the horizon, anticipating the arrival of something dreadful. It could be the “Wild West,” but this frontier is far more extreme: Mars, where the landscape is menacing and the people turn out to be even worse.
From the beginning of Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers, we sense there’s great danger lurking, as much as parents Reza (Elementary’s Jonny Lee Miller) and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella of Hotel Artemis and Star Trek Beyond) try to shield their precocious daughter Remmy (The Turning’s Brooklynn Prince) from realizing the extent of it. We get a tiny bit of exposition in an early scene—the couple left a decaying Earth in search of a better life, with hopes that Mars will someday be “just like Earth” in its prime—and the movie doesn’t make us wait very long to reveal its central mysteries. For instance, just how everyone’s able to walk around breathing Martian air (turns out there’s a giant dome overhead), and what Reza and Ilsa are so deathly afraid of.
The truth about Reza and Ilsa’s life on Mars becomes clearer once Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova) appears, which happens right after the family wakes up to see the word “LEAVE” scrawled in what looks like blood across their windows. Jerry believes he’s got a claim to their home, and his reasons are compelling. But even if they wanted to leave, the family doesn’t have anywhere to go. It’s implied, and the characters all believe, that their struggling farm is perhaps the last inhabited place on Mars, with other settlements and even cities gone along with the people who once lived there.
Jerry is optimistic that he can get the place “back on its feet,” and he soon restores running water to the house. But despite his good-faith gestures, there’s something undeniably slippery about Jerry. He barely takes a breath after a character’s death (which he definitely had a hand in) before forcing his way into the family’s lives, and another big red flag: he carries a gun at all times (Mars as a whole is pretty trigger-happy), and is prone to saying things like “I can protect you if you behave.”
At a certain point, Settlers jumps about 10 years into the future, and kid Remmy is replaced by teenaged Remmy (Servant and Game of Thrones’ Nell Tiger Free). The emotional progression of the character is handled very effectively, and you can really see how everything that Remmy went through as a child, including in those years we don’t get to witness, has shaped her as a young adult. Keeping her survival skills sharp is something she’s very aware of, especially since the manipulative Jerry is still a big part of her life, and is still finding new ways to be awful. Remmy’s not totally without a support system, though; she’s got her best buddy, a boxy little robot she calls Steve, who ends up being Settlers’ surprise standout character for reasons we won’t spoil here. At the very least—humanity may be doomed, but at least the future promises some cool robots.
Settlers, which is writer-director Rockefeller’s first feature, pursues some familiar themes. “Desperate people do despicable things” is right up there, along with bigger questions about whether humankind, when pushed to the brink of extinction, should try to fight back or just embrace the inevitable. But its story does manage an admirable blend of bare-bones construction (just a handful of characters, not a ton of dialogue, most of the action takes place in a single location) and intricate world-building. We don’t need the blanks filled in any more than they are to understand that Mars represents humanity’s last gasp; whatever happened on Earth, it’s so bad that people chose to claw their way to this barren hellscape for a fresh start.
The characters are carefully constructed to support this bleak vision, with the help of excellent performances all around (I hadn’t seen Córdova in anything before, but he’s about to star in the Amazon Lord of the Rings series and is very good here). You can see how these future people still crave an existence with comfort and stability, longing for things like music and art and companionship—but they’ve also been conditioned to snap into murder mode whenever necessary. And on Settlers’ perpetually violent Mars, it often is.
Settlers opens today in select theaters, as well as on digital rental and VOD.
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