As the billionaires of Earth start to make plans to vacate the planet they have helped destroy, cinema has begun exploring anew the ethical and sociopolitical ramifications of what it would actually mean to leave this world behind and start life anew on Mars. By and large, the prospect of interplanetary travel is not good.
The underground space station in James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019) is a dour place with design features meant to protect the mental health of its residents. Even in Ridley Scott’s generally upbeat 2015 sci-fi film, The Martian, it’s not hard to notice that Matt Damon’s Mark Watney and his team leave a small village of space junk behind them.
The small farm that serves as the central location of Settlers, the debut feature from filmmaker-cum-philanthropist Wyatt Rockefeller (yes, of those Rockefellers), isn’t quite so grim. It’s a genial space where a small family is trying to coax a bounty from their greenhouse and protect their livestock. But it’s not hard to notice that there are no neighbors to be seen and that Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) is more than a little on edge about his wife Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) spending too much time outside.
His anxiety is rewarded as strangers begin appearing in the hillsides. They howl like animals and paint a simple message on the settlement’s kitchen window: “Leave.”
The deliverer of that word is Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), the son of the farm’s former owners. It seems the current occupants violently took possession of the land, and Jerry has arrived to reclaim it by the same means. Before too long Reza is killed and the strangers enter into a fragile detente with the women of the house.
Press notes dubbed Settlers a “sci-fi/Western”, a tidy genre grouping meant to contextualize the underlying themes of the film. Rockefeller intends this story to be a post-modern Western, with the message that no matter how far humans get from Earth, inequality and colonialism will follow. And we should be surprised when that results in conflict and bloodshed.
The Western elements of Settlers mostly fall into the background for the film’s latter half. But it’s the writing of Jerry’s character—and the casting of a Puerto Rican actor in the role—that keeps a hold on those tropes. Some of the time, he’s a noble savage who understands best how to multiply their livestock (a confusing development as there seemed to be only one pig in the pen early on) and turn the garden into a flourishing bounty. For the rest, he’s an unwashed heathen who takes what he desires.
With his home back in his possession, he turns his attention to Ilsa. She succumbs to her imprisoner’s advances for the sake of diplomacy but Rockefeller leaves little doubt that Jerry would have forced himself on her before too long.
As Settlers wears on, the allegory gets lost. Rockefeller excels at creating the feelings of isolation and fear that courses through the film like streams of lava. Remmy soon learns just how alone she and her family are on Mars. As she grows into her teen years (the character is taken over in the last act by Nell Tiger Free), she has to come to terms with the male gaze as wielded by the only man in her orbit. Rockefeller doesn’t let us forget what evil deeds men are capable of.
But the seclusion undercuts what could have been a deeper look at the privilege rooted in the history of colonization, and in what Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their ilk are proposing with regards to the future of humanity. There’s little interest in how Remmy’s family or the original settlers wound up on Mars. Neither are the class distinctions between Jerry and the other characters delved into.
The story at hand is thrilling enough. The sociopolitical dynamics of how it fits into a likely larger network of interplanetary landgrabs could have only made the impact of Rockefeller’s cinematic portent that much stronger.