Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
► Settlers is available on digital platforms from 30 July.
Even before Hammer Films touted the colourful, silly Moon Zero Two (1969) as “the first space western”, science-fiction cinema had transplanted the western off-Earth to a series of ‘final frontiers’ (Star Trek was pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars”), and the tradition has continued.
Most of these genre hybrids trade in the suspense of High Noon (Peter Hyams’s Outland, 1981) or the high adventure of The Magnificent Seven (Joss Whedon’s Serenity, 2005), but Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers follows Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s Prospect (2018) in relocating the minimalist approach of subsistence farming/feuding westerns to outer space.
Life is tough on an insufficiently terraformed Mars (the hardscrabble Marscape played by impressive South African desert locations, rendered more alien by Willie Nel’s parched, bleached-out cinematography). Under a dome of artificial atmosphere, grizzled Jonny Lee Miller and earnest Sofia Boutella try to raise their daughter (Brooklynn Prince, getting a worthy follow-up to her breakout role in The Florida Project) away from the unspecified woes of Earth – the backstory of exodus and a seldom-mentioned war is barely sketched in, and life-or-death conflicts are staged with distancing effects that suggest doom is inevitable for everyone. The family’s daily routine of survival is undertaken without even the can-do attitude and expectation of rescue that sustained Matt Damon in The Martian (2015).
A menacing new presence (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who may or may not have a prior claim to the homestead, prompts a ten-year narrative leap that whisks the top-billed stars out of the picture. The last act focuses on the young girl, now played by Nell Tiger Free, as she warily tolerates a man she must collaborate with to stay alive. A touch of warmth is brought into the picture by the interestingly ambiguous workhorse robot Steve, a functional box with legs who nevertheless manages to be as expressive (and human) a presence as the waddling servitors of Silent Running (1972).
Settlers leaves many plot point events off screen to concentrate on the daily struggle, which makes it perhaps too dour for its own good. The generally excellent performances feel truncated because major events in characters’ lives (up to and including their deaths) occur out of sight and with minimal explanation, leaving survivors to trudge on. As in many wilderness westerns, the assumption is that land is never virginal – settlers always have to steal from those who stole it first, blurring moralities in contrast with the conventional goodies-and-baddies gunplay of Moon Zero Two.
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy