Review: ‘Settlers’ (2021), starring Sofia Boutella, Brooklynn Prince, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Jonny Lee Miller and Nell Tiger Free

July 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sofia Boutella and Brooklynn Prince in “Settlers” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Settlers” (2021)

Directed by Wyatt Rockefeller

Culture Representation: Taking place on Mars over an approximate 10-year period, the sci-fi drama “Settlers” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Latino and indigenous people) representing humans who have settled on Mars.

Culture Clash: A husband, a wife and their young daughter live in isolation on Mars when their worst fear comes true: They become victims of a home invasion.

Culture Audience: “Settlers” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “danger in outer space” movies, but viewers should be prepared for a movie that quickly loses steam halfway through the film.

Ismael Cruz Córdova in “Settlers” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

The sci-fi drama “Settlers” seems like it was an idea that was originally conceived as a short film, but somehow it got stretched into increasingly dull junk that trudges to an unsurprising and lackluster end. There are moments of suspense early on in the film, but they’re not enough to compensate for a movie that wastes a lot of time showing unhappy people isolated in a house, or people running from the front yard to the house and back again. The movie repeats these scenarios too often for its own good.

“Settlers” (which takes place on Mars) is the feature-film debut of writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller, who shows some potential in being able to come up with an intriguing concept for a movie. The problem is that the follow-through in the storytelling is very weak. “Settlers,” which has a small number of people in the cast, needed better character development and more realistic human interactions.

More thought seems to have been put into the film’s first of three acts rather than the second and third acts. The result is an uneven movie where viewers will be disappointed at how much the story deflates into a nonsensical bore. “Settlers” doesn’t even explain how humans can survive in Mars’ atmosphere (which is 95% carbon dioxide) without any type of breathing devices.

“Settlers,” which was actually filmed in South Africa, doesn’t even look like it takes place on another planet. It just look like a typical desert area on Earth. The deficiencies in the movie’s production design can be somewhat excused by the movie having a low-budget, but there are low-budget sci-fi movies that take place on a planet other than Earth that still make more of an effort to simulate a planet that looks different from Earth. What’s more detrimental to “Settlers” than the unimaginative production design is how badly it bungles the “home invasion” part of the story.

The three chapters in “Settlers” are named after the three adults who have the most screen time and the most significant speaking roles in the movie. Chapter 1 is titled “Reza,” Chapter 2″ is titled “Ilsa,” and Chapter 3 is titled “Jerry.” Who are these people? By the end of the movie, you still won’t know too much about them except the basics, such as where they came from and why they’re living on Mars.

Reza (played by Johnny Lee Miller), his wife Ilsa (played by Sofia Boutella) and their curious 9-year-old daughter Remmy (played by Brooklynn Prince) are living in isolation in a house that looks more New Age than Space Age. Remmy’s only companion is a young pig named Cassie, which is kept in a small fenced-in area in the front yard. It’s eventually revealed that this family of three settled on Mars as refugees from Earth because Reza has a shady past and he wanted to start a new life on another planet. Don’t expect details on what Reza’s past misdeeds were, because the move never reveals that information.

Reza and Ilsa seem very afraid of anyone finding out where they are. They are armed with guns and knives. They always seem to be on the alert for sounds of other people who might be in the vicinity. In an early scene in the movie, when Reza is saying good night to Remmy before she goes to sleep, she asks him, “Are there people nearby?”

Reza seems nervous when he replies, “No! It’s just us.” Reza reminds Remmy that they’ve come to Mars because “we wanted more” than what Earth could offer. He also assures Remmy that someday, Mars will be just like Earth. In the meantime, the family has a greenhouse where they grow their own food. There’s no explanation for where they get water in this very desert-looking environment.

One day, the family wakes up to see that the windows at the front of their house have been vandalized with large block letters that read “LEAVE.” Funnily enough, the letters look like they were written from inside the house, which is a detail that the filmmakers didn’t think through, because it’s implied that the vandalism was supposed to took place outside the house. Unless the vandals knew how to do mirror-reverse writing, it doesn’t make sense that the words “LEAVE” would be written as if done from the inside, not outside.

Soon after discovering this vandalism, people can be heard howling like wolves in the distance outside. As a frightened Ilsa asks, “What if it’s the son?” Reza abruptly replies, “Don’t!” He grabs a gun, runs outside and yells, “Come on!,” as if it’s a dare for any strangers to come and get them. It’s a puzzling move from someone who’s trying to protect his family from a home invasion.

Remmy has a tendency to wander outside in the barren yard (usually to play with the pig) when her parents aren’t looking. Ilsa notices that Remmy has been missing while Reza was foolishly daring possible home invaders to go to the house. In a panic, Ilsa calls for Remmy, who’s in the front yard, just as some shadowy figures come out of nowhere and chase after Remmy, who’s running desperately back to the house.

An unnamed woman (played by Natalie Walsh) and an unnamed man (played by Matthew Van Leeve) have run the closest to Remmy. The woman snatches Remmy in attempt to kidnap her. Reza begins shooting, while Ilsa runs outside with a knife. And some people end up dead. It’s enough to say that Remmy is one of the survivors.

The character of Jerry (played by Ismael Cruz Córdova) is a man in his late 20s or early 30s, and he shows up unexpectedly at the house not long after this invasion. He’s armed with a gun and a knife, but he doesn’t hurt anyone in the house. However, one of the parents attacks him, but Jerry doesn’t kill that person in self-defense.

Instead, he makes a bargain: If he gets to stay in the house with the family for 30 days without being physically attacked or ambushed, he will leave his gun behind and leave them alone permanently. In the meantime, Jerry expects to be fed and taken care of in the home, and he offers to protect the house residents in return. He eventually reveals that his parents used to own the house, and he grew up there, which is why he came back.

Are Remmy’s parents squatters? And what happened to the house’s previous residents? Those questions are answered in the movie, which shows that there are reasons for Jerry and the house residents to feel anger and resentment toward each other. Jerry comes across as someone who is capable of doing very bad things and who has secrets of his own, but he seems to be sincere about keeping his end of the bargain. He has a primitive robot that Remmy has named Steve, which she treats like a pet dog.

Meanwhile, the movie has a somewhat useless subplot where Remmy sees something that makes her angry, so she runs away from home. There’s a badly filmed sequence where it looks like she gets trapped in a tunnel-like area that has a door that suddenly comes down in the entrance. But then, the next thing you know she’s back at the house, with no explanation how she got herself out of that predicament. The movie never goes beyond a limited area, nor does it explain what other people on Mars might be doing outside this house or how many other settlers from Earth might be on Mars.

The movie’s last chapter is a fast-forward of about 10 years, with Remmy in her late teens (played by Nell Tiger Free). It’s by far the most ill-conceived and uninspired chapter of this story, because the plot doesn’t really go anywhere until toward the end when Remmy does something that is very easy to predict. All of the actors are given unimaginative and stiff dialogue, so they don’t really get to show much talent in this movie, although Prince fares the best in trying to depict a believable array of emotions.

If your idea of an entertaining Mars sci-fi movie is to watch people prepare meals in a very Earth-looking kitchen, climb on rocks, hang out in a desolate-looking front yard, and have boring conversations in a very Earth-looking house where everyone looks uncomfortable, then maybe you’ll find some enjoyment from watching “Settlers.” These tedious scenarios make up more than half of the movie. But for everyone else who might expect an unpredictable story with interesting characters, you shouldn’t have to settle for “Settlers.” There are plenty of better and more memorable movies about life on Mars.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Settlers” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 23, 2021.