Premise: Mankind’s earliest settlers on the Martian frontier do what they must to survive the cosmic elements and each other.
Settlers, the debut feature from writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller, is a sci-fi character study that never quite gets off the ground. Set on a lone Mars colony, it tells a tale of frontier desolation and isolation in a meandering and slightly unfocused way. A single family lives on the land and has to face the threat of people who appear to be marauders at first glance. As the film progresses, not much backstory (save for the bare essentials) is given as to who these people are or why they have staked their claim on the land. It becomes a moot point, however, as the film immediately becomes a 3-person character study with not much energy to the plot.
Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) live on Martian farmland with their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince). At one point, Reza tells Remmy about Earth with a whiff of wistful remembrance as they look up at the stars. And later when Remmy asks if her parents ever saw certain animals on Earth, they explain that Earth isn’t what it once was. Aside from that, there isn’t much context given to why they’re the only family on the land and why they are so clearly unwelcome. What context is given later is too brief and ambiguous in the grand scheme of things.
The film is split into three separate parts, each bearing a character’s name. These sections neither help nor hinder the overall narrative. Much like the characters themselves, the separate parts of the film are just there, existing. The first section focuses on Reza, who is hellbent on protecting his family. Since it’s the first act of the film, the ambiguity surrounding who he is protecting his family from serves as a solid enough hook. But the abrupt end of this section and the dangling backstories and lack of exposition only serves to squander any intrigue you may have in this first section.
“Chapter 2” focuses on Ilsa and her dealings with Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), one of the aforementioned marauders (of sorts). During this section, Ilsa finds herself and Remmy in the precarious situation of having to work alongside Jerry, if not depend on him fully. This section is perhaps Settlers‘ most interesting as it makes Ilsa’s distrust, Remmy’s confusion, and Jerry’s mercurial nature take center stage. We also get some much needed exposition and context for the characters’ living situation in this section. Unfortunately, it’s all too brief and comes too late in the story to really develop the characters’ relationships the way it should. And while the climax of this section is probably the most satisfying portion of the overall film, it would have been better served as the conclusion of the film overall.
The third and final section involves an older Remmy (now played by Nell Tiger Free) living and working alongside Jerry. The pair’s interactions are fraught with tension. Understandably so, given what has happened in the first two acts. But the decision to jump ahead to an adult Remmy and older Jerry dynamic leaves an obviously wide gap in the narrative. The tension from the first two acts works, but as we get deeper into the pair’s dynamic, the tension from Jerry and Remmy’s living situation takes the forefront. It’s interesting and disturbing (bordering on upsetting), but ultimately comes about in a way that’s intended to be surprising but is just disjointed. Jerry’s sense of purpose is the catalyst for the drama and tension in the last act of Settlers. It is somewhat seeded through the first two acts, but not in a memorable enough way to carry it through the entirety of the film.
Slow, character-focused science fiction can provide some of the best and most contemplative film watching experiences that the medium has to offer. Settlers has a couple intriguing ideas here and there, but those aren’t explored fully enough to leave a strong impression or influence the overall narrative. Instead, the film is bogged down by the less interesting character beats of basic frontier living on the red planet and ends on a note of uncertainty that feels more like an incomplete thought than a hopefully ambiguous end to the character arc.
Settlers is currently playing in select theaters and available everywhere On Demand.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
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