' ' Cinema Romantico: Settlers

Tuesday, August 31, 2021


Set at some indeterminate point in the future on Mars and told through a child’s point-of-view, “Settlers” is like a movie specifically from Newt’s POV in “Aliens” but if she had grown up on Luke Skywalker’s moisture farm absent all the attendant backstory. Granted, those are two action movies and Wyatt Rockefeller’s British sci-fi indie is almost entirely stripped of traditional action, the opening shoot-out, of sorts, a bit of a feint as what ensues is much more atmospheric and ambiguous. Indeed, “Settlers” never bothers with more grandiose matters of space, preferring to stick close to the ground, a three-hander giving way to another three-hander before giving way to something else, seeing space not so much as a final frontier, per se, but a new frontier, like their little colony is John and Alexandra Cameron’s cabin in “Last of the Mohicans.” The drama here is in how hope is tempered by the eternally imminent need for survival and how survival itself comes with a cost. 

As “Settlers” opens, Reza (Johnny Lee Miller) and his daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) are looking at the stars. She picks out Earth, which is how we learn they are on Mars, Reza’s vague explanation that Earth isn’t what it once was sufficing as motivation for bringing him to the Martian frontier. Loving glances between Miller and Sofia Boutella as Ilsa, his wife, give a sense of familial bliss even if wide shots of their little farm underline the loneliness while snippets of whispered conversation between the parents bring dread. We hear the latter down a long hall, the camera looking up from Remmy’s point-of-view, an early signifier that this is her story, just as she’s the one who stumbles upon the terrifying order smeared on their home’s window: LEAVE. That command comes from Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), claiming this was his childhood home, armed and ready to reclaim it, leading to a standoff that happens so early you can’t possibly think this is the whole movie. It isn’t, with some twists, or perhaps spoilers, as the old guard calls them, ahead.

Reza doesn’t survive, and though all of Jerry’s cohorts fail to survive too, he does, installing himself as the new man of the house, the isolation of their home putting into stark perspective the calculations that Ilsa must make for her child, even as her explanation for what happened to Jerry’s parents explains what she might also do to him. Like Cruz Córdova’s blue eyes, which can seem scary or soft depending on the light, his performance delicately shifts moment to moment, genuinely friendly toward Remmy one moment and then intimidating the next. The character is less frightening, in fact, stumbling about with some kind of Martian intoxicant than he is in a politer register, a true and terrifying manipulator. Prince, meanwhile, excels, giving an incredibly natural child performance in so much as she manages to truly the embody the sensation of being a normal child, existing in what is, to us, a strange world but is, to her, the only world she’s known, and epitomizing the sensation of being a young person acting out when life as she knows it is upended. And the way Prince gradually has Remmy shut down rhymes with how Nell Tiger Free plays the part upon taking the baton from Prince when “Settlers” flashes forward, as a sullen teenager who has entirely cut off communication and whose only rebellion is to escape.

Remmy also makes friends with a curious, friendly WALL-E-ish robot, whom she nicknames Steve, though “Settlers” never fully develops this unlikely relationship, exposing it as mere set-up for developments later when Jerry finally pushes this teenage girl too far. How the outpost runs, meanwhile, essentially fades into the background. Not that it’s the overriding point, of course, though the movie would have been strengthened with a sense of what this place is about. Still, the sense of place is strong, the desert of South Africa’s Northern Cape convincing standing in for Mars in such a way to make it feel like the red planet rather than the red planet as generated by a computer. And even though the narrative can’t help but feel as if it begins to spin its wheels, sort of duplicating story points from earlier, that also feels emblematic, of a world with no end, which is what the ending crystallizes in its own eerie way, a sci-fi bent on that youthful yearning to break away. 

No comments: