Ah, Mars, one of our planet’s closest neighbors is soon to be a billionaire resort. The planet has been a scientific fascination for generations, inspiring wonder and terror. No other planet gets its own class of alien, the Martian. But if there’s one thing Hollywood will say, it’s that “Mars” has a costly curse. The last two decades have shown multiple big attempts at making blockbuster films set on Mars, which are usually met with disastrous box office returns and laughable reviews. Maybe this has something to do with plots that would more likely find a home at a 50’s drive-in, but who really knows. Lately, we have seen a new approach taken with more character driven films set on the planet, which have been faring better with critics. On this new Mars is Settlers, the directorial debut of Wyatt Rockefeller.
Remmy, played by Brooklynn Prince, is the only child of Ilsa and Reza, played by Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller. The small family lives the simple life on a secluded farm on a terraformed Mars, after undisclosed conflict drove them from Earth. Life seems peaceful, until the settlement is attacked by raiders bent on taking the land. The pack leader, Jerry, played by Ismael Cruz Córdova, has his own agenda, revealing that this settlement was stolen from his parents by Remmy’s parents. Ensuing conflict leads to a tense truce where remaining parties must coexist. Young Remmy is now forced to ask the serious question of which is safer: living with the stranger who could kill her and her family or looking out for help in Mars’ hostile terrain.
Settlers presents us with a classic Western tale, depicting Mars as the new frontier. The planet’s natural red hue lends the film a Spaghetti Western vibe. The future feels believable, but the sci-fi element is still downplayed, aside from the inclusion of a charming robot companion. Rockefeller takes a similar approach to Duncan Jones’ 2009 film, Moon, setting a tense character drama on a different planet. That result is non-stop tension just like it is for Remmy; you’re never sure of the predictability of Jerry, and wonder who else is out there when you’ve grown up in isolation.
It goes without saying that the film looks great, with cinematographer Willie Nel able to make the South African landscape feel barren yet threatening, through wide shots that have the viewer constantly checking for friend or foe in the background. Yet, he manages to convey a sense warmth in the tighter interior shared between Remmy and her parents. Editor, Johnny Daukes uses those elements to create a slow, tense burn that leaves you caring for the outcome of these characters, even if you’re questioning their motives at each turn, while also giving equal story to the major character, segmenting the film into three chapters. Finally, the music by Nitin Sawhney ties everything together with a folksy tone that ranges from apprehension when Jerry is present, to a curious sense of adventure as we explore a little more of the red planet.
On the casting side, rising genre icon, Sofia Boutella really gets to shine as the emotional center of the film. She conveys a nurturing, protective mother who maneuvers between a wide spectrum of complicated emotions, wrestling the anger and guilt of her family’s current situation. The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince proves she’s a rising talent as Remmy, confused about two worlds she doesn’t understand and is now forced to grow up in the face of a conflict she’s not part of. But the film never forgets that she’s still a child and has her limitations. Jonny Lee Miller begins his performance as a kind father, but quickly surges into safeguard mode, prepared to go down fighting to protect the homestead. Finally, there’s Ismael Cruz Córdova as the complicated Jerry. Though not outright villainous, his vague backstory hints that he’s been molded by tragedy and only wants to reclaim what is his so he can pick up where he left off. He’s a complex character that at times you loathe and yet sympathize with. But Córdova is a threatening presence that keeps the audience as wary as he is.
Settlers is a well-made thriller with sleeper-hit written all over it. Take out the sci-fi elements and you’re still left with a tense western that comments on the cycle of violence perpetuated by revenge. There are no heroes and villains, only tragedy destined to repeat itself. As we watch the farm slowly begin to prosper, the seeds of that revenge begin to bloom. IFC Midnight will be releasing Settlers on July 23rd and I highly recommend it. Wyatt Rockefeller comes out of the gate swinging with this one.
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