The western and science fiction genres share several similar themes, particularly when the subject of the latter is exploration into the unknown, essentially transporting the frontier from the American West to the edges of outer space. It can be exciting and fascinating and introspective when done right. Unfortunately, writer and director Wyatt Rockefeller’s film “Settlers” doesn’t execute its themes as strongly as it could have, although there is something to be said for its bare-bones style and storytelling.
“Settlers” gets off to a promisingly intriguing start. The story is set on a homestead on the Martian frontier at an unspecified time in the future. The homestead is inhabited by a small family, refugees from Earth looking for a new start: father Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and their nine-year-old daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince). Their life looks peaceful—they have a small farm with pigs nestled among the alien hills—but the presence of an unknown threat is immediately noticeable when we see the word “LEAVE” painted in large letters, in blood, on their window. An attack brings them into contact with Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a man who was raised on the homestead and, believing that Reza and Ilsa either killed or pushed out his parents, thinks that he is entitled to be there. What follows is a tense back-and-forth as Jerry, Remmy, and Ilsa circle each other. Sometimes they seem almost like a family, and Jerry’s familiarity with the place brings their dying farm back to life. But Jerry’s drive to survive, even at the expense of the independence of the others, is a constant threat.
“Settlers” is a movie that is set on a foreign planet in the future, but could easily have been set on Earth, right now. Rockefeller’s film—his narrative feature debut—tackles numerous topics, including the refugee crisis and the struggle immigrants face making a new home in a new place as existing residents who don’t want them there try to push them out, and the control women have over their bodies. But the film doesn’t really carry these themes fully to fruition over the course of the film. The latter subject, for instance, isn’t really breached until the movie’s final act (the story is divided into thirds, each part named for one of the characters). And even the immigrant storyline is only sparsely realized through the film’s few meatier dialogues.
The majority of the meaning we derive from the film comes not from the script, but from the performances, most notably Prince and later Nell Tiger Free, who plays Remmy as a young woman. The rest of the cast are fine, if sometimes overly broody, but Prince, a consistently marvelous young actor, effectively conveys Remmy’s curiosity and confusion about this place that’s supposed to be her home, and the adults who inhabit it. We see the other characters primarily from her point of view—perhaps that’s a large reason why it feels like we only get a surface view of these characters. Later, Free transforms Remmy’s childhood uncertainties into conviction. She knows what she wants and doesn’t want, and that shifts the power dynamic between her and Jerry. Córdova’s Jerry is the next most interesting character, primarily because he’s so unpredictable. And as distasteful as some of his actions are, they are also rational to a certain degree. That’s not to say that we ever truly emphasize with him (the way he inserts himself into the lives of these two women is disturbing), but we do understand him.
Shot on location in the South African desert Vioolsdift, “Settlers” makes great use of the wide, desolate landscape to convey an environment that looks both foreign and isolating. Almost all of the action is confined to the homestead, further grounding the film in a way that feels more western than sci-fi, and also diverting focus away from the alien and more toward the human. In fact, perhaps the most typical sci-fi element of the film is Steve, a robot who Remmy befriends. Steve, essentially a cube with feet, manages to be cute and full of personality despite an absence of any actual features, a credit to puppeteer William Todd Jones and the VFX team.
“Settlers” begins and even ends on a pretty strong note, but it drags so much in the middle that a good deal of the interest it generated at the start has disappeared by the finale. It’s an interesting exercise in restraint and crossing genres, but perhaps its biggest shortcoming is that it lacks the sense of wonder that those genres should inspire.
“Settlers” will be released in select theaters and on demand on July 23. Runtime: 104 minutes. Not rated.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.