Described as a western on Mars, the impressive feature debut of Wyatt Rockefeller certainly has traits of that genre and displays them quite self-consciously, but it’s far more than just a homesteader movie transferred to another planet. It could equally be described as an end-of-the-world film, as a lifeboat film in which ill-matched survivors of a calamity must get along, or just as a drama which happens to have an extraterrestrial setting… but which, with little modification, could take place on Earth as easily as Mars.
The Mars where it’s set (at some unspecified point in the apparently not too distant future) appears to have a breathable atmosphere—something that’ll be explained later in one of several well-timed surprises—but still doesn’t seem a terribly attractive place to live. There are no sleek, high-tech cities populated by androids and holograms and flying cars. Instead, Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) eke out a living on their dusty farm, overshadowed by vast lifeless rocks.
The grand project of settling the Red Planet hasn’t gone well, we gather. Even on the small scale of their home things are failing, and the plumbing doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the two parents discuss their former Earth lives with young Remmy, who’s never been there (“did you ever see a whale?” she asks, “an owl? How about an elephant?”), but although Mars is a disappointment it seems there’s no going back. There are allusions to the old planet being wracked by disaster, perhaps war, perhaps something environmental.
Reza and Ilsa, then, are in much the position of 19th-century immigrants to North America: promised balmy weather, fertile soil, and sunlit uplands, only to find their crops failing in the earth and their cabin buried in snow for half the year. To these travails are soon added Settlers’ equivalent of hostile Native Americans, particularly in the form of Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), after they find the word ‘LEAVE’ scrawled on their window.
Remmy, who grows from a bonnet-wearing little girl into a young woman (played by Servant’s Nell Tiger Free) over the course of the movie, is at the heart of things, with Settlers divided into three chapters each named after another character who has a significant relationship with her. She’s played effectively by two actors: Prince is especially strong as the young Remmy, with a kind of quietly frustrated anger that’s rare in child performances. Free, taking the role for the latter part of the film where Remmy’s about ten years older, boils with intensity as indeed does Boutella’s Ilsa, though maybe both risk being a little single-note.
The most impressive in a consistently strong cast, however, is Cordova as Jerry. It’s the most complex part in the movie by some distance; he slides out in and out of our sympathies, transitioning from enemy to family member, and then becoming a kind of enemy again. If he seems flat at first that’s simply because the character’s holding back, and slowly Cordova builds up a fully rounded man who’s every bit as understandable as the more immediately accessible family trio.
The fifth member of the cast is Steve the robot, essentially a heavy-duty drill that acts a bit like a pet dog when it’s off-duty, one of the few things in Settlers to remind us that this is technically sci-fi.
If it’s not sci-fi, though, what is it? Absolutely there are western overtones: one of the first objects we see is a chair on the porch (just as one might see in a Hollywood rendition of a pioneer cabin), and it’s easy to imagine Remmy’s later experiences as paralleling those of Debbie with the Comanche in The Searchers (1956). Reza even looks like a grizzled pioneer, and Jerry comes to at least slightly resemble a movie Indian.
But Settlers isn’t just a transplanted western—or, at least if it is, it digs deep into the themes underlying the western genre rather than just imitating the superficial trappings. It’s equally easy to see it as being about colonialism—indigeneity soon emerges as a point of contention—and equally, perhaps, as a study of the violence in which both the American settlement of the west and colonial settlement, in general, are rooted. Although (after an early and dynamically staged action sequence) the acts of violence in Settlers are few and far between and handled unmelodramatically or even elliptically, they are shocking.
Still, it would be a mistake to extend the allegory too far. For example, it’s a Mars native who brings some of the trappings of western civilisation to the newcomers, rather than vice-versa. While it clearly hints at these ideas, Settlers also works in its own right as a stark tale of conflict and survival, in an entirely convincing world. The Namaqualand desert of South Africa stands in for an unwelcoming planet, and production designer Noam Piper’s conception of Martian architecture is both refreshing and believable—mixing space-station-style corridors with conventional domestic interiors. Exactly what you’d expect, perhaps, from a terraforming society trying to create a new Earth away from Earth?
Rockefeller makes good use of spaces within, outside, above and below the house, exploiting distances both long-range and short-range to contrast with the highly constrained lives of the characters. Nitin Sawhney, meanwhile, contributes a superb low-key score which hovers above and behind the story rather than trying to tell it; guitar and piano contribute to the western feel at times, but none of it is a pastiche, and the paucity of diegetic sound on the empty planet gives the music unusual importance as well as contributing to the dead-end atmosphere.
Settlers is a slow movie with many long pauses, and even if a cursory plot description suggests otherwise, it certainly won’t appeal to those looking for an adventure in space. There are one or two naggingly unanswered questions, as well.
But the open-ended conclusion is obviously intentional and also suggests a further way to see the whole film, as a commentary on the future of humanity in general. Here, as throughout, Rockefeller (incidentally a descendant of John D.) has created a thought-provoking, haunting, original, and highly distinctive film that defies easy categorisation.
UK • SOUTH AFRICA | 2021 | 103 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Wyatt Rockefeller.
starring: Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brooklynn Prince, Nell Tiger Free & Jonny Lee Miller.