This quiet and bleak chamber piece works very well during its engaging opening act, and tension racked finale. Sadly with a middle act that never tries to answer the questions poses, Settlers ends up leaving us a touch frustrated with what could have been a fantastic film. However, Brooklynn Prince and Nell Tiger Free bring standout performances with Wyatt Rockefeller marks himself as a filmmaker to keep a keen eye on – an impressive debut.
Following an ecological disaster on Earth, a family eke out an existence on a desolate Martian homestead. Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and his wife Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) do their best to protect nine-year-old daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) from the dangers of the surrounding landscape. But when hostile outsiders appear in the nearby hills, Remmy becomes aware of the disturbing reality of her situation, that her parents have shielded her from all this time. She is taken hostage by the outsider, Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), and as time goes by, the probability of escape for Remmy grows increasingly remote.
With such an intriguing premise, Settlers should work so much better than it eventually does. The opening act is rife with tension; Remmy should not be outside due to some unspoken danger. We don’t know what or who is out there, but they have sinister intentions. As Wyatt Rockefeller reveals his hand, we are given a film that focuses on many topics that audiences, especially those who watch the science fiction film at home, can easily connect with. The sense of isolation and anxiety fills these characters thanks to the remote location and vast landscape in which it sits.
For all of the good work in that opening, the middle act flounders greatly by spending far too long doing nothing of any real note. Especially so when we are thrown into the final act, which is full of energy. While Brooklynn Prince is very good in her role as young Remmy, there needed to be a quicker to the older version (Nell Tiger Free) as we have far less time with her and to see what she goes through is traumatic, enough, but would connect so much more if we had that extra time with her.
The sense of threat in this middle portion isn’t nearly as potent as it needs to be, especially in comparison to the final act. The film is hampered due to the lack of menace in Jerry during this portion. What he asks of Ilsa is given quickly and questions whether this is for the safety of her and Remmy rises, or is it to help populate the planet? Neither gets fully answered, which is a theme that is prominent in Settlers.
This is not to say the middle section is without merit, there is still a lot of tension present as we try to see what Jerry’s intention is and what will happen to the family, but for a film that was already quite muted, it slows down the good momentum it had built up. The final act is excellent if a little artificial due to how short a time has been with grown-up Remmy. Rockefeller sticks with his theme in the last two acts and seems persistent with it, and frustratingly, yet understandably so.
Despite that, Córdova and Free do some great work to bring us back in with the thrilling climax Rockefeller writes. Thinking back on the switch up, it is difficult as obviously by that point in the film, we are all in on Prince’s portrayal, and we don’t want to lose her. But, Rockefeller is clever enough to portray this switch-up in a responsible lesser-seen way, especially if you look at Settlers as the Western it is trying to be.
The questions that Settlers never tries to answer can be frustrating at times. If people moved and were able to stabilise the atmosphere on Mars, why aren’t there more people around? Where is everyone, and why are they all terrified of strangers? These are simple questions that Rockefeller doesn’t need to answer in his film, but because he has created such a visual and interesting world, your mind wants to know more, to be more immersed within it. He has made a tremendous double-edged sword in this regard, but if you can get by not wanting to know more about the reasoning behind the world these characters are in, Settlers is a very solid film.
Prince and Free are the standouts here as they have to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting throughout Settlers, as the adult cast keep the film steady with the constrained performances. Córdova is an interesting antagonist as if the information he provides is genuine. Then he has a right to be there. But then, by using such methods and carrying a sense of malice within him, we rightfully can never feel as if we can trust him. By toeing the line, he becomes complex enough, yet by staying in the middle for so long, his actions, either way, are hard to swallow. Even if he takes on a specific role within Remmy’s young life, how could we trust a person that does what he does?
With some fantastic production design by Noam Piper and gorgeous cinematography from Willie Nel, Settlers certainly looks the part. Sadly the script lacks a compelling middle act, and by keeping it so insular, you struggle with understanding the whole. Again though, that is a credit to the work in the opening and final act that we become frustrated with the film. Nevertheless, if you know not to expect to have many questions answered, this is a great watch; it just could have been better.
SETTLERS WILL BE RELEASED ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS (iTunes / Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Google / YouTube and Microsoft) ON JULY 30TH
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