Settlers review – audacious sci-fi western of frontier pioneers on Mars | Film

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Independent film-makers working on their debuts usually have a tough time getting the money together, mastering the art of networking and finding influential contacts. That may not have been a problem for 36-year-old debut feature director Wyatt Rockefeller, who only recently took a master’s degree in film at NYU; before that, he was part of President Barack Obama’s administration at the Environmental Protection Agency. He is also the great-great-grandson of John D Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. But Wyatt Rockefeller’s movie is no mere vanity project. He has written and directed an interesting sci-fi western in a starkly pessimistic vein, with an audaciously developed narrative and nice performances; all in all, the work of someone serious about cinema.

Jonny Lee Miller and Sofia Boutella play Reza and Ilsa, a settler couple on the planet Mars some way into the future, after some sort of ruinous war there; they have a daughter Remmy, played by Brooklynn Prince (from Sean Baker’s The Florida Project) who wears a cap eerily similar to a little girl’s bonnet from the era of Little House on the Prairie. The red planet is a desolate, dusty, rocky place, but they can apparently breathe the air, for reasons soon to be disclosed. And the family have a robot-servant the size of a dog, called Steve, a cross between Wall-E and R2-D2, but dourly mute.

Reza and Ilsa have always told Remmy that their life on Mars has been tough, but blameless and uneventful. That turns out to be a lie. The story extends into a bleak but weirdly plausible future, a frontier world in which women have to submit sexually to men they despise, but perhaps nursing revenge in their hearts. Settlers isn’t perfect: some of the storytelling beats aren’t hit as clearly as they could have been. But it’s a quietly impressive piece of work.

Settlers is released on 30 July on cinemas and on digital platforms.

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