Writer and director Wyatt Rockefeller boldly embarks onto the Martian frontier for his feature debut Settlers, a dystopian sci-fi western. The plot centres around parents Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) as they seek refuge whilst striving to build a prosperous life for their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince). When their home is threatened by the mysterious Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the family face a desperate battle for survival.
A less-is-more approach is adopted for a minimalistic style and the lack of exposition, which may frustrate some, adds a layer of intrigue. There’s a foreboding hostility in the atmosphere and despite the vastness of the picture’s stark, dusty landscapes, it always feels as though danger is never far away. Tension is ramped up for some exhilarating sequences when the family are inevitably put under pressure, but for the most part, patient pacing is in place as Rockefeller subtly explores the weighty themes of identity and humanity.
Though the film is split into three chapters, each named after the adults in the piece, it’s young Remmy that emerges as the key protagonist, and the heart and soul of the story. Brooklynn Prince burst onto the scene in 2017 with her endearing portrayal of youthful energy in The Florida Project. In this central role, she shows her range with an incredibly mature performance. She shares an authentic dynamic with Boutella and Miller, who are both on good form also. Miller, in particular, playing slightly against type whilst sporting a magnificent beard, is excellent as the fearless leader of their tightknit wolfpack.
Towards the third act, Nell Tiger Free picks up the part of Remmy where Prince left off as the narrative develops towards the conclusion. This is no mean feat, but she carries the torch effectively, illustrating how the character’s strength and resilience has grown over time. She also furthers the interesting friendship that she has with a robot designed to cultivate land. Masterfully brought to life by puppetry and low-budget VFX, the machine, amusingly named Steve by Remmy during childhood, becomes quite pivotal to the plot, and their bizarre companionship is cinematic magic to witness.
An old-fashioned western but set on an evolving Mars, Settlers makes great use of its sci-fi elements to tell what, in its essence, is a very human tale of endurance through grit and determination. As thought-provoking as it is visually striking, this marks an impressive directorial debut from Wyatt Rockefeller.