“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
“In fact, it’s cold as hell
“And there’s no one there to raise them if you did…” —“Rocket Man”
Turns out Elton John and Bernie Taupin were at least half right. As we see in the elegiac and haunting but ultimately underwhelming and mystifying sci-fi mood piece “Settlers,” a family trying to survive on Mars is constantly reminded this truly ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids — but it’s NOT cold as hell up there, and as for the assertion “there’s no one there to raise them if you did,” that’s not true but also kind of true and I know that sounds complicated and convoluted, but there you have it.
With the village of Vioolsdrif on the Northern Cape of South Africa standing in for Mars and providing a suitably bleak yet awe-inspiring backdrop, “Settlers” is a hybrid of existential sci-fi drama a la “The Martian” with an old-fashioned Western about pioneers facing nearly insurmountable odds (as tipped off with that title). Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller divides the story into three chapters, all set on Mars in a compound where there’s ample water and electricity, pigs roam about and one can walk outside without the need for suits or masks.
After some unexplained catastrophe years ago on Earth, a group of colonists arrived on Mars — but at this point the only survivalists around are Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), her husband Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and their 9-year-old daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince). Reza regales Remmy with stories about Earth and the family has sing-alongs at night, but there’s an impending sense of dread lurking outside. Remmy’s parents warn her never to stray too far, but we wonder: What kind of future are they expecting for their child? If there’s no one else around, is this the end of the human race?
Not so fast. The family comes under attack from a group of heavily armed intruders, including Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who claims their house is actually the home he grew up in before his parents were killed, and he was pushed out as a child. (It’s not clear where he’s been all these years. Much is not clear in “Settlers.”) After a slow-build interlude where it’s clear Jerry isn’t leaving and is a man of violence despite his polite, soft-spoken demeanor, we flash forward a decade, with Nell Tiger Free now playing Remmy, who lives in constant fear Jerry will sexually assault her, as he’s made it known she’s either going to sleep with him “willingly” or he’ll rape her. (Either way, that’s rape.) It’s a dubious choice to make this the central conflict in the final act of “Settlers,” and the resolution is at first tough to watch, and then, quite frankly, ludicrous.
“Settlers” is a well-made film, with stunning visuals and top-tier production design. The small ensemble is excellent, in particular young Brooklynn Prince and then Nell Tiger Free creating a seamless transition from Remmy as a girl to Remmy as a young woman. Both actors are outstanding. Ultimately, though, “Settlers” is more about setting a mood and painting a picture of hopelessness than explaining what happened before the story, what’s happening beyond the borders of the compound and what lies ahead for Remmy. It feels incomplete.