Still from the movie Settlers

Photo by Vertigo Releasing

Review: The Martian Western thriller Settlers is well-made but opaque

Wyatt Rockefeller’s debut as a writer and director is the ambitious Martian survival thriller Settlers. It plays very much like a Western, not only visually with its red desert views and creaky cabins on the frontier, but also thematically. Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), her husband Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and their daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) are lone settlers on Mars. The exact reasons why and under what circumstances they left Earth is not fully clarified. That possible desolation on another planet seemed like the better option might be a clue. Like many in the Westerns, they were a family searching for a better life, and the frontier held such promise.

And desolation is what they get. The three have spent significant time at the new homestead, but many parts of it have fallen, or were always, in disarray. There is water but not via pipes, a greenhouse but not much grows, a few lone pigs roam what would have been a fully‑fledged farm. Since Ilsa and Reza seem like capable people, you can only conclude that the state of things is not due to negligence but rather that something went wrong with the colonisation effort on arrival. This is further hinted at in the film’s initial escalation when a group of unknown assailants attacks the family. One of them, Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), ends up in the settlement and makes some hard‑to‑swallow claims.

From such a preamble, you expect Settlers to gradually reveal more about the nature of the entire operation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. There is nothing wrong with being open‑ended or ambiguous. Many independent sci‑fi movies draw their very strength from playing the mystery element right as a way of exploiting the power of a great screenplay when there is no galactic budget to allow hiding behind special effects and such. But when too little information is presented, anticipation turns into frustration. Worse, without enough knowledge of what got the characters here and how they feel about it, their current actions are hard to interpret. It’s simply hard to tell whether a particular reaction makes sense or what’s really at stake. For example, whether Earth is now an empty planet and the few people we see are the last remnants of humanity probably says something about how they would feel about the existential importance of procreation. (This is, of course, not just some random example.)

Settlers is a well‑made movie. The cinematography is gorgeous, shot on a remote set outside Cape Town, South Africa. Some scientific impossibilities are cleverly overcome by plot points which allows for a depiction of Mars that is not the same old spacesuits and pressure domes seen a thousand times before. Brooklynn Prince, whose starring role in The Florida Project in 2017 won her a Critics Choice Award, is the real focal point of Settlers. Often without uttering so much as a word, she fully expresses the fears of a child in distress, but always with a streak of determination. The young Remmy, in Prince’s interpretation, is an unbreakable spirit. These elements, along with excellent production design and score, makes Settlers an enjoyable experience despite what is left to be desired from the plot.

Settlers premieres in cinemas and on VOD in the US on July 23, 2021, and on VOD in the UK on July 30.

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