A western, on Mars. That’s the pitch with Settlers, the debut feature from Wyatt Rockefeller, a film that tells the story of a family farmstead in the middle of nowhere on Mars. True to its pitch, the story is difficult and bleak, but it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, while it does feature excellent performances all around.
As the story begins, a young girl, Remmy (Brooklynn Prince), lives on a run-down farm on Mars with her parents Reza and Ilsa (Jonny Lee Miller and Sofia Boutella). There’s a tension there right from the first scene. Reza and Ilsa seem wary of letting Remmy be outside. The farm doesn’t appear to be new, but neither is it productive. The reason for this becomes clear almost immediately, as a group of violent strangers arrive and attempt to intimidate them into leaving. Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the leader of these strangers, turns out to be the son of the people from whom Reza and Isla violently stole the farm.
The first act of the film is where most of the action happens, and after a showdown between the two groups, Jerry, Ilsa, and Remmy are all that are left, and they fall into an uncomfortable truce as they attempt to coexist on the farm. “Truce” is maybe too strong of a word because Jerry has all the guns, and he’s not about to let anyone leave.
This tension persists for the rest of the film as Jerry professes to be a kind host and knows how to make the farm lush and productive, but also has a sharp temper and is quick to violence if he senses anything is amiss. In the tradition of a western, if Remmy and Ilsa are the white settlers, Jerry is the noble savage on whose land they are encroaching, and he will not let them take back what is rightfully his. Make no mistake, though; Jerry is not the good guy here.
Córdova is both intense and unpredictable as Jerry, and even when Jerry is doing the things you expect, he makes interesting choices. Jerry is a man who desperately wants Ilsa and Remmy to believe in him as the man he presents himself as –the noble son returned to reclaim and bring hope to the farm–, rather than the man he truly is (and who they clearly see) –a violent savage who never relents his control over the people in his charge, even when he says he’s doing just that. That Córdova pulls off being both is something special.
Brooklynn Prince is a talented young actress as well. As Remmy, she carries the first two-thirds of the film (Nell Tiger Free takes over the role in the final act), and the story is told from her perspective. This helps build the tension as we, the audience, clearly understand what is being said or done better than she. Prince is believable and empathetic throughout, and her performance feels genuine in a way you’d normally expect from a much older performer.
Sofia Boutella is also evolving as a performer, this role offering more complexity than her more well-known roles; she rises to the occasion gracefully. Ilsa indeed spends a lot of the film in the same mode, but there’s defiance underneath what’s going on that makes her entirely compelling. Miller, who doesn’t have nearly enough screen time, makes the most of what he has.
Lastly, the production design of the film is incredible. It manages to walk that same tightrope as something like Alien; this looks like the future, but one that is both born of the present as well as worn down and lived in. In particular, the robot Steve is emotive and playful despite basically being a shipping crate with legs and is one of the best movie robots of the year so far.
The marketing makes Settlers look like an action-packed movie about a space farm being attacked by bandits. It isn’t that, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s something slower and more contemplative, and it won’t be for anything. It’s quiet and bleak, and while I think that its reach exceeds its grasp, it’s still an exciting first feature.
Settlers opens both in theatres and on demand on Friday, July 23rd.
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