There’s only so much stomping away after arguing with your parents you can do when you’re in the vast reaches of space, where stomping too far means courting imminent death by asphyxiation, or worse. If only that sly metaphor served as the territorial limits for Wyatt Rockefeller’s well-equipped but non-committal sci-fi drama “Settlers,” which instead ventures beyond and becomes increasingly muddled in tone and intention as it loses itself in the genre’s grander trappings. There’s a scrappiness to the material that’s to be admired, but “Settlers” increasingly becomes a satellite orbiting around the most interesting version of itself.
Rockefeller’s movie, releasing Friday via VOD and serving as the feature debut for its writer-director, makes an ambitious bid of widening his story’s existential scope while restraining the most immediate stakes to the internal dilemmas simmering within our protagonist, Remmy. We meet her through the eyes of “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince, and things start out intriguingly intimate as Rockefeller captures and limits our attention to her, her parents Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), and the small plot of farmland they preside over.
We might think they lived in a version of the unconquered Wild West, and aside from the flourishes of futuristic tech and tell-tale reddish hue emanating from the land around them, they essentially do. The banjo thrums of Nitin Sawhney’s score and melancholy textures of Rockefeller’s filmmaking speak to his most novel conceit: The idea of pseudo-Western unfolding on rural stretches of Mars, where nostalgia takes shape in gazing toward that familiar blue-and-green orb in the sky, in young Remmy asking her dad if he’d ever seen a whale and in reminiscing about memories of an Earth which “isn’t what it once was.” There’s a sense of freedom here, but cinematic law dictates the counteracting agent of lawlessness must also rear its head.
So it does here, in the form of mask-wearing scavenger-types dressed like “Mad Max: Fury Road” extras who invade the workmanlike rhythms of this quiet slice of Martian life just as we’re settling into it—the first signs of “Settlers’s” tendency to lurch into sharper dramatic frequencies with rather inelegant jolts of the tonal dial. Suddenly, the family finds itself fragmented, Reza’s patriarchal role has been filled by the mysterious Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and Remmy’s narrow worldview is upended entirely. Familiar routines become makeshift ones as “Settlers” toes the line of evolving into a Stockholm Syndrome saga without ever fully committing, and while Prince effectively conveys a wary suspicion of Jerry, the stoic approach taken by Boutella and Cordova are a bit too rigid to hint at any true motivations. As a result, any action Ilsa and Jerry take feels slightly out of character.
Our confusion makes some sense when we watch the events of “Settlers” through Remmy’s perspective of a youngster struggling to reckon with the complications of evolving desires born in the space of isolation (or, rather, the isolation of space). This movie is about relationships transplanted to physical new worlds and emotionally unfamiliar terrain, and our sympathies are linked tightly to the young space-farer. But the merits of “Settlers” as a portrait of readjustment when readjustment is the only choice one has become muddled as Rockefeller’s meditative approach collides with whims of hurried storytelling. Narrative ambiguities don’t always reside in the right places, either, and while our hearts are tugged by the starkness of Remmy’s self-sufficiency, “Settlers” has a drama-draining tendency to conveniently forget about certain characters once they’ve left the story.
That’s a strange thing to witness in a movie that begins with such laser-eyed focus on those characters, and indicative of where the promising Rockefeller still has room to grow into as a storyteller. Sci-fi films can always use a fresh perspective, and his is a glint which shines brightest as Remmy peers at the world around her with equal parts caution and curiosity. But he hesitates to see his dramatic instincts through, and his intriguing three-chapter arc about parenthood as seen through the child’s eyes – each segment finding Remmy in increasingly dire circumstances, although a third-act time jump is unconvincing – instead concludes closer to a trio of short stories in which the anger and tension of each has been curiously self-contained. “Settlers” never feels as haunting as it should given the things we see, the blood that’s occasionally shed.
Indeed, the way it steadily implies that this small cast of characters may not be the first pioneers of Mars but potentially the last humans anywhere in the galaxy feels like Rockefeller shying away from the story’s roots. Questions about people we don’t see are the ones that linger on the final frontiers of our mind, instead of the fates of those we’ve followed over the course of this movie.
"Settlers" is not rated. It's available Friday via digital platforms.
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Sofia Boutella, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Jonny Lee Miller
Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller
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