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Settlers

Director – Wyatt Rockefeller – 2021 – UK – Cert. 15 – 103m

****1/2

The lives of a one-child family living on a farm on Mars are changed forever by the arrival of a hostile outsider – out on digital platforms from Friday, July 30th

Reza (Jonny Lee Miller from Regeneration, Gillies Mackinnon, 1997; Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, 1996) and his wife Ilsa (Sofia Boutella from Climax, Gaspar Noé, 2018) have emigrated to Mars to take over a farm which they now run with the help of their nine-year-old daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project, Sean Baker, 2017). Growing vegetables and rearing pigs, they seem very happy with their lot, not least because that the Earth the couple left behind was not in a good way… We hear very little about it beyond a conversation where Remmy learns her parents never encountered whales or elephants, only dogs, even as that planet hangs in the sky as a constant reminder of where they came from.

The light has a reddish glow. Everything around the compound is dirt, rocky outcrops and occasional areas of bush and scrub. There is no-one else around apart from the three of them. Or so it seems until one day, their idyllic humdrum is shattered forever by the appearance of the word ‘LEAVE’ daubed in brown on the outside of their compound in what could be local dirt or possibly blood or faeces.

To her parents’ horror, Remmy goes outside to feed the pigs… And then the strangers attack. After a skirmish and fatalities… And some time… One of the strangers moves in, Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who promises to put down his gun after thirty days if they can all get through that time without violent incident. He activates a simple farming robot named Steve which as well as performing various work tasks likes to fetch a thrown ball. Remmy warms to this droid.

However, tension sexual and otherwise between the newcomer and her mum threaten to further change Remmy’s world. In the final reel, Remmy (Nell Tiger Free from Servant, TV series, created by Tony Basgallop, 2019-?) has grown into a teenager, with all the confusion and questioning of the world around her that that implies. And the nature of the sexual tension has changed…

This is cleverly structured into three chapters, each named after one of the three adults. And yet, the central character is none of these but rather the child, Remmy. You’ll buy the outward trappings of Martian landscape and technical-looking farm buildings and presumably the cold temperature has been raised to a level that supports human life by some sort of terraforming process, although nothing is done to address the issue of Mars’ gravity being about a third of that of the Earth.

It’s not really explained, but there appears to be some sort of bubble or barrier around the farm quite some distance out from it. There’s also a huge doorway and a long tunnel which Remmy discovers and of which, it transpires, Jerry already knew.

Steve the droid is well realised and a nice touch. There’s no silly Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) anthropomorphism: he’s like the family or farm dog. Because the film is set on Mars and is essentially about a family isolated there, it will attract comparisons to the likes of Robinson Crusoe On Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964) and The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015) which are about characters isolated on Mars, albeit lone persons.

But it could just as easily have been set on an isolated farm somewhere where a stranger turns up, bringing to mind post-English Civil War drama Fanny Lye Deliver’d (Thomas Clay, 2019) and controversial Cornish siege tale Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971) although it’s nothing like as sexually explicit as either and nowhere near as violent as the latter. Indeed, Settlers would make for a terrific double bill paired with Fanny Lye Deliver’d, a film with innumerable similarities but told from the point of view of the mother not the child.

If the Martian sci-fi trappings don’t run all that deep – you’d be better off reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy – they do at least allow writer-director Rockefeller to deal indirectly with such concepts as immigration and invasion by a foreign (or alien, if you will) power. (Be advised there are no aliens in this movie beyond human beings from Earth moving to Mars.) Jerry turns out to have been born on the farm of which his parents were the previous owners, and the process of how Reza and Ilsa came into possession of the place is dubious to say the least, even if the exact details are never spelled out.

Family dynamics play a large part too, especially given that the family is a self-contained unit in an hermetically sealed world. And since both the older Jerry and the young Remmy were born both on Mars and, in fact, on this particular farm, they clearly have a great deal in common. Although there is also a great deal of other difference which drives a wedge between them.

Ultimately, this is a film for introverts, with a very small number of characters and minimal social interaction. I personally got a lot out of it, but I suspect extroverts won’t find much of interest to them here, and I would imagine the more extroverted reviewers will dislike the film intensely for that reason. So it may get a mixture of positive and negative reviews. As an introvert, however, I can tell you there’s a great deal going on. The performances are strong and believable, with Brooklynn Prince and Nell Tiger Free as the child and the teenager particularly good. As a bonus, there’s a memorable, low-key score from veteran composer Nitin Sawhney. Not a film for everyone, but if you’re naturally drawn to peace and quiet, or isolation, then watching this is likely to pay considerable dividends.

Settlers is out on digital platforms in the UK from Friday, July 30th.

Trailer:

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