REVIEW: Settlers (2021)

settlers_posterNew science fiction film Settlers is earnestly made, but struggles with both an overly-familiar story and a particularly grim tone throughout. It will likely find an appreciative niche audience, but mainstream success was honestly never an option. It is currently available via home media.

Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) live on a remote Martian outpost with their young daughter Remmy (Brooklyn Prince). When they come under attack from a mysterious group of raiders, it changes Remmy’s life forever and reveals previously hidden truths about her life on Mars.

Settlers is a modest science fiction film with an intimate scale and a lonely, isolated location. In effect it is something of a western: a small family eking out a living on a rural homestead, menaced by bandits who come down from the hills, and so on. It is a very familiar combination of genres, albeit with some interesting world-building and story development as it goes on. One major flaw is that simply not enough things happen to justify a feature length. As an extended short, while difficult to distribute and sell, it would at least have a more sustained pace. The film also stumbles in its ultimate reliance on the threat of sexual assault to drive its conflict: it is a tired stereotype, and not a pleasant one, and the film’s climax in particular would have performed admirably without one. It is a watchable film, but it begs for patience – not just for the plot but for its writer/director’s inexperience.

While Miller and Boutella are effectively cast to give the film some known stars to sell it, the bulk of the drama belongs to Prince, and to Nell Tiger Free and Ismael Cruz Còrdova. The former plays Remmy in the film’s later scenes, while the latter plays an intruder on the farm named Jerry. Còrdova works deftly to give his character a sense of ambivalence, but ultimately the screenplay goes for easier directions. Brooklyn Prince, who gained strong notices for her work in The Florida Project, really does give the piece its heart and soul.

The film is the feature debut of director Wyatt Rockefeller, one the numerous heirs to the famed Rockefeller fortune. He has had a fascinating career to date, including stints on the boards of both conservation group the River Network and the National World War II Museum – not to mention his political work Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign and for the Environmental Protection Agency. Early into the last decade he dabbled in cinema, directing two short films and producing a number of others. The filmmaking bug clearly took hold, since here he is: fresh out of undertaking a joint MBA/Master of Film at NYU and writing and directing his first feature film.

On one level I cannot deny that the idea of the ultra-rich essentially buying themselves film careers is a somewhat odious proposition – particularly if you have ever had a conversation with a first-time filmmaker who has just spent more than a decade of their life working for the one big break. There can be a point to that early career struggle: it teaches compromise, and ingenuity, and more often than not ensures that when that break comes the new director is going to grab the opportunity with both hands. I honestly cannot sense the hunger in Settlers, and I do wonder if its relative slackness as a film comes from the comparative ease with which it was likely set-up and funded.

Of course Rockefeller is hardly the first billionaire heir to launch a career in filmmaking. Travis Knight, director of Bumblebee and Kubo and the Two Strings, is heir to a $24 billion fortune, while Oscar winner Chloe Zhao could likely have afforded the budget of Eternals without Disney’s involvement had she wanted to. What wealth brings all aspiring artists is time: to focus on craft, to network and travel, and to train. Given the immediate advantage gifted to them by circumstance of birth, I find I expect much more of the rich. Settlers is intriguing, but quite frankly it should be exceptional.

It is difficult to deny Rockefeller is treating his new career seriously: he started with shorts, has produced other filmmakers, and even put part of his life on hold to go back to university to better learn trade and technique. What remains to be seen his how he continues to use his creative privilege, and what sorts of films he makes going forward. 

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