UK/South Africa. 2021.
Director/Screenplay – Wyatt Rockefeller, Producers – Julio Fabrizio, Joshua Horzfield & Johan Kruger, Photography – Willie Nel, Music – Nitin Sawhney, Visual Effects Supervisors – Sebastian Barker & Jean-Michel Boublil, Visual Effects – Automatik FX (Supervisor – Sebastian Barker), Steve Creature Effects – Millennium FX (Designers – Neill Gorton & Rob Mayor), Production Design – Noam Piper. Production Company – Intake Films/Jericho Motion Pictures/Brittle Star Pictures.
Ismael Cruz Cordova (Jerry), Sofia Boutella (Ilsa), Brooklyn Prince (Younger Remmy), Nell Tiger Free (Older Remmy), Jonny Lee Miller (Reza)
Ilsa, Reza and their young daughter Remmy maintain a farm on Mars. The farm is raided by strangers – Reza shoots two of them only to be shot and killed by the third. The remaining stranger Jerry comes to Ilsa and Remmy, telling them how the farm belonged to his family and that he wants it back. They come to an agreement to let him stay and cooperate together. Jerry is persistent and he and Ilsa become lovers. He later kills her after she tries to stab him. Left alone with Jerry, Remmy grows into womanhood but still holds resentment over his murder of her parents.
Wyatt Rockefeller is a descendent of the famous Rockefeller family. Wyatt’s background has been in political organising, including working on Obama’s first run for presidency, as well as for a number of environmental and sustainability organisations. Prior to this, Wyatt has made several short films. Settlers was his feature-length directorial debut.
In the last few years, following hits like Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015), there have been an upturn in films that realistically depict space missions within the Solar System. Settlers sits within but is not quite one of these – it concerns itself with the colonisation of Mars but the details of the colonisation, in fact most of the science-fiction elements of the film, are ignored. You do spend much of the film wondering why everyone on Mars is breathing regular air but this is ingeniously explained in a mid-film twist. Indeed, the film is incredibly sketchy about the details of why the situation exists as it does – such as what has caused the planet to be abandoned – anything beyond the immediate situation.
In reality, Mars is of zero relevance to the story from a locational point-of-view. There is almost nothing about Settlers where you could not rewrite what happens as a story about pioneers on the American Frontier, during the Gold Rush, the Australian Outback or anything around that period. In such a story, Jerry would simply become a prospector returning to a claim where another family had moved in in his absence; the robot would get replaced by a dog and so on. The one purely science-fictional moment is the scene of Conceptual Breakthrough where Brooklyn Prince suddenly discovers that the valley she lives in is surrounded by an invisible dome (although there is no explanation of why this is the case – not that it would be difficult to manufacture one).
In actuality, what Wyatt Rockefeller wants to tell is a not a science-fiction story. Certainly, Settlers falls into being SF in terms of his inclusion of robots and a Mars setting. On the other hand, you could easily change those without changing the story. At the moment, Hollywood is very much taken with presenting stories about women, people of colour and different sexualities and doing so in a way that creates empowerment and strong role models. All good and one supports their efforts. But it has to be said that there a number of occasions where this agenda gets in the way of storytelling. Here Rockerfeller tells a story about a mother and a girl dealing with a man who pressures and then forces them into sleeping with him on the pretext that this is needed for breeding purposes to populate the planet, all before Remmy stands up to him.
This works effectively as a story about women’s empowerment. Part of me thinks the story might have been even more interesting if one were to ask what would have happened if Remmy had submitted to Jerry and had his children – where would someone under those conditions and in such an environment find the strength to stand up to him? Or if she were to submit in the belief she was doing it for the good of survival, would she be struggling against her own sense of duty to stand up? However, the film takes a much easier path of the easy black-and-whites of a girl taking a stance against a man forcing himself on her.
I think this is a story that would have worked more believably if it were set in the gold rush or a remote cabin on the American frontier – there the end with Remmy walking off alone would have considerable strength and empowerment. The problem here is that this is told as a story set on Mars. For all her empowerment the end of the film represents, the outcome would surely be considerably less than desirable. Here Remmy standing up and walking off into the desert alone on a planet that we are told is nearly uninhabited would surely be a suicidal move that would be limited to precisely the amount of air in the tanks that she was carrying on her back. The main problem here is simply that telling a woman’s empowerment story has ended up trumping the fact that the film has chosen a science-fiction scenario that would in reality have fatal consequences.
The film was shot in South Africa, which more than effectively leads to the desolate seeming reddish sands. The entire film is economically contained within a single valley – the most it ventures beyond is up onto the rocky outcrops surrounding the valley on a couple of occasions..