Unsettling, yes. But Settlers doesn’t quite solidify.
The feature debut from writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller posits a Martian landscape where a pioneering couple (Jonny Lee Miller and Sofia Boutella) do their best to get by in what looks like a damn lonely place. Their daughter, Remmy (played by Brooklynn Prince of The Florida Project and, later, Nell Tiger Free) has never experienced Earth except from a 233.5-million mile distance, give or take a few. Elton John warned us about parenting there. This couple didn’t listen.
Not that they didn’t have their reasons for bailing on the big blue marble. Those reasons are touched on subtly but effectively in early scenes where we become familiar with the quiet existence of this family. Earth is apparently a worse place to be, and so they rationalize satisfaction at just having food to grow, pigs and chickens to raise and a place to be.
The semi-serenity, though, is interrupted by a threat, which comes as a well-staged shock. It not only raises the stakes but reminds us that we don’t know a whole lot about the Mars that these folks inhabit. Are there other settlements? How populous is the place? And why are those folks out on the periphery so pissed off?
After a well-staged action sequence, that (invading? reclaiming?) group of outsiders is whittled down to one (Ismael Cruz Cordova) who, we later discover, is wrestling with a Thanos-worthy issue: Can he do something horrible that he firmly believes is for the greater good of humanity?
While it doesn’t quite aim for or reach the bleakness of, say, The Road, Settlers does paint a pretty damning picture of where we are heading. Only a simple robot — who later in the movie breaks character — lightens things up along the way.
“Settlers” has, at its heart, a willingness to wrestle with the kind of issues and choices that are central to some of the best science-fiction short stories I read in my teens. And I’m glad to see such issues central to onscreen space adventures. But stretched to an hour and three quarters, with lots of staring into the bleak landscape and with a backstory never quite clarified, Settlers sags.
Still, I crave more such fresh cinematic science-fiction takes. I want more Moon and fewer Alien wannabes. I’ll continue to seek out CGI-free tales such as this. It takes a lot of talent to create a new world, brave or not.
The makers of Settlers have given their Mars tale atmosphere, they just didn’t create a story that generated the necessary energy to keep it running.