Fans of minimalist yet immersive science-fiction need to keep their eyes out for “Settlers”, a beguiling British thriller written and directed by Wyatt Rockefeller. The movie tinkers with some of the genre’s most recognizable tropes, using them to create a somber and melancholic examination of human nature. And while it’s true that this type of moody contemplative sci-fi doesn’t draw the same crowds as the showier action-packed epics, it’s still a warm reminder of how rich and diverse the genre remains.
Set (mostly) in the confines of a single location, “Settlers” does a great job of utilizing its setting. But it’s the story’s strong human focus that stands out most. A first time feature film director, Rockefeller shows a keen understanding of the kind of movie he wants to make. And he has the discipline to stick with his vision rather than go down some easier and more conventional paths that would have made this a different and much less-effective movie.
The story uses a three-chapter structure which at first seems like a needless device but ends up making sense considering the film’s use of perspective. Everything unfolds through the eyes of a young girl named Remmy (played in the first two chapters by a sublime Brooklynn Prince). She lives with her parents Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) on a remote run-down settlement on Mars, nestled in a valley surrounded by stark craggy ridges. Her parents insist they’re alone, but there’s an unshakable sense that they known more than they’re letting on.
Remmy only knows life with her parents. She’s never seen another human and earth is nothing more to her than a glowing speck in the star-filled sky. Her father Reza fills in the blanks with hazy answers to her questions: “Earth isn’t what it once was,” and “We left because we wanted something more.” But other than that it’s mostly left to her imagination. Reza tries to encourage Remmy with unconvincing promises that things will one day be “just like earth.” But Remmy is suspect and so are we.
The “we are alone” ruse is shattered when the family wakes up to find the word “LEAVE” smeared across their window. Soon after, in a tense and skillfully framed encounter, three armed intruders in dusty tactical gear enter the settlement. Both Reza and Ilsa fend them off, but in a flash the facade of domesticity and security is shattered. Even worse, Remmy is faced with the painful realization that much of what her parents have been telling her is a lie. There lives are upended even further when Reza leaves to secure the perimeter and doesn’t return. Instead a mysterious stranger named Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova) arrives.
From there the film evolves into a slow-simmering chamber piece with Jerry moving in and staking a claim to the settlement and Ilsa protecting Remmy with a mother bear ferocity. Jerry and his intentions are shrouded in mystery and Córdova’s steely restraint ensures that we never get a firm read on him. Meanwhile Boutella is a revelation, portraying Ilsa as quiet but tenacious and full of grit. Her maternal instinct mixed with her will to survive makes her a fascinating yet formidable presence.
But from the very start the story revolves around Remmy. Prince’s sparkling breakthrough performance in 2017’s “The Florida Project” was overflowing with youthful energy. It’s amazing to see her dial it back to such a degree. Through her we watch a young girl’s dreamy optimism slowly dissolve as she gets a better grasp of her bitter reality. Prince gives us our emotional center and does a terrific job setting up a final chapter that jumps ahead several years. Nell Tiger Free plays the older Remmy and does a good job adding new layers to the character.
As mentioned, “Settlers” is deliberately paced which is just the right speed for this type of intimate and contemplative outer space drama. But the story does take a significant leap in the last act that could have used more buildup. It’s a dramatic and weighty turn yet it feels as if we missed something important that gets us to that point. The actual ‘thing’ that happens is incredible effective, but this is easily a case where less isn’t more.
As “Settlers” eases from a simmer to a boil the story’s bleakness becomes more evident. It feeds into the film’s idea that no matter where we go, we can never escape the ugly side of human nature. Yet there are moments of sympathy and compassion, such as younger Remmy befriending a robot she names Steve. It’s considered nothing more than “a tool” by the others, but she treats it with kindness and empathy which proves helpful later on. These are the interests that lie at the heart of “Settlers”. And as we work our way through them you can’t help but be pulled in by Rockefeller’s savvy direction and his evocative setting. The curious side of me wishes his approach wasn’t so subdued and that he hadn’t left so many blanks unfilled. But it’s hard to be frustrated when the end results are this good. “Settlers” releases July 23rd.