Critique of “colonists”: an intimate and puzzling journey to Mars
If there is life on Mars, there must also be death on Mars: this is the simplest conclusion of “Settlers”, an austere, scorched, and sometimes bumpy, slow-burning sci-fi in which the relocation to the Red Planet cannot save humanity from its worst instincts. Tracing the tumultuous family dynamics of four former Earthlings over the course of a decade as they attempt to forge new lives on a hostile surface, Wyatt Rockefeller’s polished and confident debut feature most clearly succeeds as a feat of Minimalist World Building – Building an extremely desolate Martian farmhouse in the Namaqualand Desert of South Africa, where the avenues of exploration seem endless and escape impossible. The world of Rockefeller’s story might indeed be more richly imagined than its story, which tends to spin to slow motion after a tense opening. However, a beautiful and surprising whole lends a human weight to this premiere of Tribeca, which could lead its writer-director to more sumptuous visions.
With IFC Midnight set to release “Settlers” on July 23 in theaters and on-demand, this muted genre piece seems more likely to cultivate an audience on smaller screens, but not for lack of panning on its part. There’s more than a hint of the Western Frontier to Rockefeller’s dark outer space drama, starting with how cinematographer Willie Nel’s camera languidly examines the parched, baked clay vacancy. of the surface of Mars, with its plains, mesas and undulating horizons – the arid sandstone expanses of Vioolsdrif, a village near the South African-Namibian border, serve as an evocative substitute.
This doesn’t seem like a place you would settle down as a last resort: for the fearless survivors Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), this is where they hope to cultivate a facsimile of life on their own. ancient uninhabitable planet. . “The Earth is not what it used to be,” Reza tells their nine-year-old daughter, Remmy (Brooklynn Prince), who only knows the blue planet as a distant point from stargazing nights. When he continues to think that one day their current home will be “like the earth,” that doesn’t seem like a totally optimistic prophecy. For humanity – or whatever proportion of that made the journey – has not only brought crops and livestock to Mars, but also violence and weaponry. Although Remmy has never met a soul other than his parents in their peaceful encampment, it soon becomes apparent that others are watching them and not appreciating their presence.
Rockefeller is racking up clues that they are not alone with a sense of dread that tightens more and more, going into all-action mode with an impressively orchestrated cat-and-mouse shootout that nonetheless proves to be a little red herring. One would expect “Settlers” to develop from here into a larger tale of the Martian War, but what follows has the economy and privacy of a bedroom room, because the family is ultimately disturbed by a single invader: the stoic soldier Jerry (a superb Ismael Cruz Córdova), who claims that the farm is in fact his own family heirloom, and calmly asserts his claim whether the settlers choose to leave or not.
A compromise is reached, but not without bloody conflicts and sexual negotiations: the question of what, or who, they leave for the future in this barren wasteland hangs uncomfortably in the balance. If Jerry’s arrival on the scene drastically changes the focus of the narrative, it takes a while for the Rockefeller script to regain its itchy momentum. The same tensions are torn off repeatedly between the principals in the second of the film’s three chapters.
The adults’ mistrustful stalking of each other plays out largely through the anxious but not completely understanding gaze of Remmy, which Prince plays with a cautious, porous reluctance quite different from the juvenile right freewheeling his escape tour. in “The Florida Project,” and duly echoed by “Game of Thrones” star Nell Tiger Free, as the character ages into his unreleased adolescence. Boutella and Miller convincingly imbue her parents with mother-bear guts and hurt hippie idealism, respectively, but it’s Cruz Córdova (fresh from the TV series “The Undoing”) who is the most presence. exciting movie. Volatile even in its immobility, and passing from tenderness to patriarchal toxicity, the unpredictability of its characterization feeds “Settlers” through its most crucial passages.
Even at their most dynamic, however, the human figures in the film are necessarily overshadowed by their expansive and punitive environment, which was vividly achieved across departments on a modest budget. Of particular note is Noam Piper’s rustic-industrial production design, which plays up the shapes and tones of the landscape in a way that appears to be convincingly hand-built. The same goes for the film’s sufficiently understated practical effects work, with significant help from veteran puppeteer William Todd-Jones. In the ranks of cinematic journeys to Mars, “Settlers” ranks among the less fanciful and lavishly invented, but it’s all the more effective for its earthly restraint: you can change the planet, suggests Rockefeller, but humanity remains behind. pretty much the same.