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A young girl (Brooklynn Prince) in a bonnet sits in a bright yellow desert in the poster image for Settlers Photo: IFC Midnight

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The indie sci-fi film Settlers feels subversive, but maybe not on purpose

It paints an unusual but muddled image of space colonies and life on Mars

Language is a slippery thing, and our subjectivity and lived experience can shape the definition of a word. Take the word “settler.” In the U.S., the word is historically associated with the European occupation of the Americas, and it brings to mind a certain narrative: the sprawling, unfriendly frontier, the aggressive act of bending the land to one’s will, and the assumption of wide-open areas, ready to be tamed. That final element of emptiness is key to the romanticization of staking a claim, and the strongest component of the indie sci-fi Western Settlers is how it understands that corruption and colonialism go hand in hand.

The strangest element of Settlers, though, is how writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller tilts that understanding, then fashions the film’s heroes and villains through his distortion. It doesn’t feel like purposeful subversion. Somewhat reminiscent of Passengers, another sci-fi film where the person presented as the good guy very much isn’t, Settlers is visually compelling (shot on location in the gorgeous Northern Cape in South Africa) and competently shot. Rockefeller has a strong grasp of his genre’s outer-space-expansion themes, as his characters settle on Mars. But while cinematographer Willie Nel emphasizes the barren nature of an alien world through slow pans over jagged mountains and rock piles, upward gazes into an inky night dotted with stars, and an unnerving sequence in an abandoned tunnel, Rockefeller struggles to shade in its characters, their motivations, or the trauma on Earth that led them to abandon the planet.

Are the central family part of a larger group leaving Earth? Would the audience see them differently if they described themselves as “refugees” rather than “settlers”? How did Earth gain a negative reputation among the galaxy’s other planets? Does Mars have its own native inhabitants? Why choose this planet if it’s so inhospitable?

Brooklynn Prince as Remmy kneels to touch a boxy four-legged robot in Settlers Photo: IFC Midnight

A script doesn’t have to answer every viewer question — a movie should exist on its own terms. But Settlers is so bare in these general world-building details that its characters float untethered, and a major mid-film reveal seems like a narrative shortcut rather than an opportunity to dig deeper into the story. Other decisions, like dividing the film into separate chapters named after various characters, but only maintaining one individual’s perspective throughout, also feel like a thwarted opportunity to switch things up. Settlers opens with a riveting sense of mystery and a thrilling attack scene that pays homage to the film’s Western roots, but then deflates, minute by minute, toward a disappointingly lackluster conclusion.

Set on Mars at some future date, Settlers centers on a homestead that its central family is struggling to invigorate. Surrounded by steep cliffs that collapse regularly into rockslides, underneath omnipresently hazy skies and a burning red sun, father Reza (Jonny Lee Miller, strangely cast as a character with a traditionally Iranian name) and mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) do their best to shield daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) from the direness of their situation. Ilsa’s greenhouse is struggling to produce vegetables. They’ve tried for years to raise pigs, and only have two. And the family is clearly living in fear of their surroundings.

Whistling wind, a squeaking gate door, and thumps in the night all bring on a certain routine. Reza grabs a rifle, Ilsa reaches for a knife, and Remmy hides. The speed with which they do this suggests practice, and the frantically whispered conversations between Reza and Ilsa that Remmy eavesdrops on fill in other details about the other people who might be living on this planet. After this tense banger of an opening, Settlers interrupts the family’s lives by introducing Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), whose piercing blue eyes are reminiscent of Chani in Dune, and whose array of tattoos and scars suggest a rough-and-tumble life. He can help the settlement thrive again, if the family will let him stay. It’s an offer they might not be able to turn down, if they want to live. But Jerry’s presence pushes Remmy to an anger that drives her curiosity about her surroundings into recklessness.

The “stranger forces their presence on an isolated family” device can go in wildly different directions in dystopian or horror fare, from Z for Zachariah to It Comes at Night. But Settlers is frustrating for its lack of imagination about what could happen when a male outsider gets in the middle of a married couple, especially given the script murkiness that frankly makes all the film’s female characters into victims-in-waiting. The film’s third-act swerve adds a grotesque wrinkle to these relationships. It raises questions Rockefeller barely attempts to answer, in terms of who has the right to lay claim to the natural world, and it adds an element of gender politics that the film’s characters aren’t nuanced enough to tackle.

Ismael Cruz Córdova as Jerry stands in a barren Martian landscape in Settlers Photo: Graham Bartholomew/IFC Midnight

All this adds up to the sense that Boutella and Prince’s strong performances are wasted. The two actresses and Miller are keyed into the same high-anxiety frequency. That early attack on their home, with Reza and Ilsa yelling information back and forth to each other to pinpoint a sniper, as Rockefeller’s camera tracks their panicked, sprinting bodies, taps that frequency, and makes the action exciting. Boutella has always balanced ferociousness and fragility well, and Prince has an impressively seething stare.

But then Settlers introduces Jerry and immediately uses him as a battering ram of complicated ethical questions, and because the hilariously named character (a maybe-Martian called Jerry?!) is so nebulous, Cordova’s performance suffers. A time jump also cloaks Remmy in opacity, reducing her entire essence to what her body can do. Although Settlers is told primarily from her point of view, the film fails to communicate who she becomes as she grows.

Films could do worse than mimicking some of the narrative overlaps between Aliens and High Life, but Rockefeller only repeats other science fiction, rather than inventing big ideas of his own. The result is that the film’s most interesting ideas — Ilsa mournfully saying of Earth, “We don’t know where we’re from”; terraforming as a kind of genocide — go unexplored in favor of a story that scrapes low enough to propose sexual assault as character development. When Reza tells Remmy that someday, Mars is “gonna be just like Earth,” a braver sci-fi offering would spin that line as a warning. Settlers is almost, but not quite, that movie.

Settlers opens in theaters and on VOD on July 23.