2021, NR, 103 min. Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller. Starring Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Brooklynn Prince, Jonny Lee Miller, Nell Tiger Free.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 23, 2021
"Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid/In fact it's cold as hell." According to SF frontier drama Settlers, Elton John couldn't be more wrong, except when he added "And there's no one there to raise them/If you did." Remmy (Prince) has her parents, Ilsa (Boutella) and Reza (Miller), looking after her on their arid settlement on a terraformed future version of the fourth planet from Sol. But the inevitable attack by a trio of roaming ravagers throws their domestic contentment into chaos.
Settlers continues the old idea of space as the Old West, a place for rugged colonists to forge their own future with the occasional intrusion by equally individualistic bandits. But head ravager Jerry (Cordova), a veteran of "a war for less and less," throws that dusty idyll into chaos because of what he represents: not undomesticated chaos, but a more mournful take on the trope than has been traditional. While the recent Prospect found room for hope in a cosmos without conscience, writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller turns what seems to be a conventional continuation of space colony fiction along a more dystopian path. Everything is about the next logical step, while subverting expectations: after all, if the whole point of colonizing other planets is to get away from Earth, why do these stories end up so Terra-bound? Instead, Settlers ponders humanity's dichotomous flair for self-destruction and self-preservation - after all, if we messed up one planet, why would we be presumed to be be much better at tending to a new home just because it's a hundred million miles away (give or take). Even the ownership of the farmstead is not as clear cut as it first seems, triggering a queasy wandering of allegiances.
Much of this is shown from the perspective of Remmy, who can only truly count on the intentions of a loyal, boxy robot whose activation triggers a series of new questions. The more she comes to understand the intentions of adults, with their commitment to the survival of the species, the less she likes them, and the transition from young Remmy to a more mature and embittered version of herself (Free) only adds to those complications. That time jump works for the themes, even if it may infuriate anyone trying to work out exactly how the settlement survives, thrives, and even adds livestock in the middle of what is supposed to be the end of another world. Ultimately, the slow boil bleakness of the script, with its subtle ruminations of what it is to go on in a time of hopelessness, is what marks Settlers apart, even as it looks and feels like so many of the post-apocalyptic drought-plagued SF dramas of the last few years.