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Settlers is a sci-fi film so far away from what people usually term sci-fi that it barely qualifies. In fact it opens looking like a western – big craggy mountains in a dusty landscape – and then plays out like a wildlife documentary.

The sort of wildlife documentary where a new male lion arrives on the scene, kills the old leader of the pride and then moves in with the lionesses who were already there. It’s the law of the savannah.

In this scenario the existing cubs usually get killed, a fact innately understood by young Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) after new male Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova) arrives at their remote settlement, displaces dad (Jonny Lee Miller) and starts making a move on her mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella).

Until the arrival of the stranger this was a happy family of three trying to carve out a new life on Mars, where, it’s suggested, a bit of tinkering with the atmosphere has made the planet habitable if not entirely hospitable.

Now, with dad out of the way, mother and daughter are part of a new trio, one in a state of permanent tension – Jerry wants Ilsa, Ilsa wants Jerry dead, though being an attractive woman of a certain age, and Jerry being an attractive man of a similar age, a bit of propogation of the species might not be entirely off the cards. Remmy, stuck in the middle, looks on with trepidation, tending to the family’s pig and becoming fascinated with a robot that Jerry’s brought with him. It’s the sort of low scuttling boxy bot that might have escaped from 1972’s Silent Running. Think R2-D2 with fewer communication skills, or a small fridge on legs. Sci-fi freaks, that’s your lot so make the most of it.

Ilsa and Jerry in a darkened room
Something’s gotta give, right?

Writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller (he’s one of those Rockefellers, but let’s not hold it against him) runs through the permutations with this cast of characters and squeezes the maximum amount of tension out of early scenes where tentative, potentially dangerous human relationships act as a metaphor for space exploration (or vice versa).

Sofia Boutella has a savagely beautiful face and as casting decisions go, she’s majestically right. A proud lioness. Is Ilsa scowling at Jerry or pouting at him? Brooklynn Prince does with old fashioned acting what Boutella can do with presence alone, and in the scenes where mum and new guy Jerry look like they might be edging towards carnality she runs through a range of emotions – alarm, disgust, horror, resolve – in short order and helps give the film an emotional resonance it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s Remmy who’s in danger here; her mother is protected by her desirability and everything in Prince’s performance suggests that Remmy absolutely knows this in her bones.

The tension does not hold to the end, and without getting too spoiler-y, the film suffers from the lack of Boutella once her character recedes into the background, and more emphasis is thrown onto Cordova, who has struggled to find coherence in Jerry’s character. This becomes most obvious in the culminating powerplay between Jerry and an older and so sexually partnerable Remmy (now played by Nell Tiger Free) that’s a replay of the earlier one between Jerry and Ilsa. What sort of a man is Jerry? All instinct? Just keep the human race alive? Entirely selfish? It’s hard to say.

It’s all done on a tiny budget, I’m guessing, though the technical skills are high. Cinematographer Willie Nel shoots it all in various shades of ochre, dust in every fold of skin and settled in every crack and corner – the rust-coloured landscapes of South Africa make a passable Red Planet. Nitin Sawhney’s score is simultaenously gorgeous and spooky, helping to build the tension and atmosphere with its hovering melodies and its barren electronic drones.

If hard sci-fi is all about interplanetary tech and contact with alien species, this is sci-fi at its very softest – a story about human beings doing the things human beings do when they’re not held back by the norms of civilisation. It’s Rockefeller’s feature debut. He’s done a good job.

Settlers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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