Life on Mars is quiet and desolate, but it pales in comparison to the desolation of spirit within the few survivors who remain. Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers is sci-fi at its most effective, an intense slow burn that teases a vast world beyond its limited borders, but functions as a claustrophobic thriller in which death and secrets are a prison. No matter how far humanity has gone to escape Earth, they’ve brought far too much of it along with them.
Essentially an ensemble of five, Settlers takes place on an isolated desert farm on Mars. Whoever decides to live in this place, which resembles a rundown trailer park, it can’t have been by choice. However, for patriarch Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), matriarch Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and their nine-year-old daughter Remmy (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince), it’s as close to “normal” life as they’re going to have. For Remmy, it’s the only life she’s ever known. A smart, inquisitive kid who is more curious about the outside world than her parents would like, Remmy suspects that others might exist somewhere out there. Reza assures her that isn’t the case, but when the word “LEAVE” is scrawled in big, bloody letters on their window, it becomes clear that is just one of many lies the child has been told.
For a first-timer behind the camera, Rockefeller shows veteran ability at a number of different styles. A chase sequence early on is sprawling and effectively high-wire, ending with a gut punch that disrupts the balance of the story we had begun to expect. Rockefeller uses this event as a catalyst to switch gears, not to reach outward but to look inward with the arrival of Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who invades the family unit and takes up uncomfortable residence. What evolves from his arrival is a tenuous, nerve-rattling chamber drama, in which compromises of self are weighed against security and identity. Jerry, who claims the farm is his childhood home, has come to reclaim it and does so with unnerving ease.
A charged three-way-dance emergences, with Rockefeller exploring the ever-shifting power dynamics between the adults. In this world, it’s survival of the fittest and deals need to be struck, things not easily given must be offered up for protection, and sometimes you seek comfort even in those who are the most threatening. Over the course of three chapters, each named after a character vital to Remmy’s existence, Rockfeller teases secrets that when learned will shape the child’s view of the planet and of humanity.
As a big fan of Prince’s exuberant breakthrough performance in The Florida Project, it’s impressive to see her do basically the polar opposite here. Remmy is quiet, deliberate, and curious, often keeping to herself and existing on the margins watching things she is too young to understand. The role morphs in expected fashion when Servant actress Nell Tiger Free takes over as Remmy, who has grown into a teen insightful beyond her years. It’s Cruz Cordova who you’ll have a difficult time turning away from, though. His presence is scary, even during moments of kindness you can’t help but feel on edge as if something terrible is always just a second away. When he and Boutella are together there’s a raw, dangerous sexual energy that really energizes the middle chapter when momentum begins to drag. Violence is at a minimum, but when it comes it rattles you. There is so little life in this barren land that death’s presence feels overwhelming.
As far as martian films go, Settlers is probably boasting the least in terms of resources. There are no huge, expensive setpieces, no extraterrestrial invasions, no laser rifles, no spaceships. But the limited budget and practical effects work in Rockfeller’s favor as he makes the most from South Africa’s vast Namaqualand desert. The journey Settlers takes us on is intimate and brutal, suggesting that no matter where humanity we can’t escape worst instincts.
Settlers opens in theaters and VOD on July 23rd.