Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Life on Mars is no day at the beach


    Few movies are as focused as Settlers and, in the case of this story about stranded Martian colonizers, that focus can be cruel and unremitting. 
    Settlers has little or no interest in the technology of survival -- a biosphere enables its inhabitants to breathe -- or in the earthly breakdown that brought colonists to Mars in the first place. 
    The movie's interests center almost entirely on what people will do to survive.
   Minimally populated and sparse, Settlers raises questions about whether the characters we see are the only residents of this desolate world. Might there be other, unseen colonists on the fabled Red Planet?
   Filming in a South African desert, director Wyatt Rockefeller turns Mars into a planetary frontier resembling an isolated outpost in the mythic Old West. 
     The story begins by introducing us to Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), and their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince).  
    For this trio, life has a bereft quality that's mirrored in the unforgiving Martian landscape. 
    One day, the trio -- sole occupants of the movie's biosphere-- sees the word "leave" scrawled on the transparent shield that separates them from the lethal Martian atmosphere. 
    A group of invaders wants to appropriate what might be the planet's last habitable space. They wear oxygen masks and are armed. A small battle ensues and a new character -- Ismael Cruz Cordova's Jerry -- enters the mix. 
    No fair telling exactly how but the power dynamics inside the biosphere shift as the story poses questions about how much the characters can accommodate themselves to the new reality of other people and the conflicts they breed.
     The only other creatures in the movie are a pig that Remmy treats as a pet, some chickens, and -- if you want to stretch the point -- a robot named Steve, a boxy machine with stem-like legs. Steve screams of low-tech inefficiencies but has just enough personality to prompt empathy.
     The actors are up to the task with Prince (familiar from The Florida Project) giving the film its anchor. As time passes,  Nell Tiger Free takes over the role of Remmy and Rockefeller moves toward the film's uncompromising conclusion.
   Settlers  doesn't entirely hold up when you begin thinking about its backstory, the groundwork that paves the way for Rockefeller's drama. Moreover, the movie  requires patience, particularly at times when the story loses its drive.
    But Rockefeller effectively abandons us in a forbidding environment with characters who are forced to confront themselves and make choices that spring from unalterable necessities. 
    As a result, we're left to wonder whether these characters aren't playing a terrible end game.

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