Fear & Loathing on the Red Planet

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid in Wyatt Rockefeller’s new space Western, ‘Settlers.’

Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers impresses upon the viewer a pessimism about the Mars fever shaking the billionaire class; we could terraform the stuffings out of that big red rock and still only have an expensive and barren wasteland.

This capable, well-cast debut by the producer-turned director Rockefeller is being called a space Western. It’s perhaps more of a home invasion movie… a type of film that can also be a Western, as in Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947). Not much of a fan of that genre. Maybe I’m oversimplifying Straw Dogs (1971) — a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do thriller made by Sam Peckinpah, most distinguished as a director of Westerns. Home invasion films are the kind of film that lather you up and then shame you for responding. Where’s your civilization now, eh, Mr. Liberal? Underneath all your fancy tolerance, you’re just one more yob who can’t wait to see the rapey villains get shot. What’s also always bothered me about such hot revenge dramas are the way they stimulate those little fascist molecules in the heart, the ones that tell of a law even older than the ancient law of property. I mean that ape law, the one that says the strong deserve what the weak can’t defend.

Rockefeller sets up a three chapter drama spanning the course of about 10 years; Mars is played by Namaqualand, a remote desert corner of South Africa near the Atlantic coast. In the first section, the table is set: a nuclear family working a hard-scrabble patch, under some sort of invisible dome that keeps all the winds and poisons of the Red Planet out. They have a suite of dusty, exhausted thrift-shop furniture, a saggy couch on the porch; they keep pigs and raise some half-dead plants in a plastic greenhouse. The dad, Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), is a humane, gentle man who shows his daughter the blue speck in the night sky where they came from.

“Earth’s not what it was,” he tells his young daughter, Remmy (Brooklynn Prince, who played the adorable Moonie in The Florida Project). At night Remmy’s lovely mother, Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), plays acoustic guitar. There’s also a robot, a battered metal box on crab legs; Remmy chalks a happy face on it and names it “Steve”. “Can he sleep with us?” she asks. “I don’t think he sleeps,” says her father.

We sense a wariness in the parents, a possibility they don’t want to mention. One night it comes true — the word “LEAVE” scrawled in big bloody letters on their window, and figures armed like soldiers on the perimeter. There’s a skirmish and a death, and then a new “settler,” Jerry (the ominously handsome Ismael Cruz Cordova), comes to stay. At this point, we hear the backstory —  perhaps a little underdeveloped — of how Reza, Ilsa and Remmy got their farm. It has to do with the rivalries between native-born Martians and newer arrivals. We have to make an assumption, based on watching The Expanse, that born Martians consider Earthlings as wastrels… that they we were a people who had a great planet and squandered it, as opposed to those who had to labor like mules just to eek out a marginal existence in a land harsher than the Gobi desert.

Rockefeller handles the stirring tensions between the green-eyed and hunky Cordova and Ilsa, with Remmy caught in the middle and feeling like Hamlet watching his mother being courted. The edge of danger is always there — Jerry hides the kitchen knives from Ilsa — but the worst thing is that he makes his promises come true. “I’ll get this place back on its feet,” he says. Sure enough, he plumbs the water back in the kitchen taps, and the barnyard animals begin to multiply and the plants flourish. These passages of Settlers seem to resemble the Old Testament — there’s a ritual the cast has of dabbing the foreheads with ashes after a funeral, and Jerry is a patriarch, unquestionable and firm, asserting his dominion. And the ladies of the house are just part of his domain. By the time of the third chapter, Remmy (played now by Nell Tiger Free) is grown, moody and solitary. The question is who’ll be the next to be buried under a cairn of rocks on the hillside. Rockefeller — a real Rockefeller, who at one time worked on the Obama campaign — approaches all the problems of creating Mars with thrift, the low-tech robot crushing the Martian soil with gunshots, presumably to extract water. Settlers doesn’t go in for elaborate futurism beyond a globe-like flashlight Remmy carries as she explores a mysterious airlock. The sound design makes this Mars seem real, heralding the offscreen menace. The war whoops of the intruders reference the old Westerns, as does the casting of the Algerian-born Boutella, who has a fine-boned, strong-chinned face that looks as if she were Sioux. It’s a film without villains, only deluded or deceptive men, and it ends in a ferocious stalemate that counters the Biblical view of a man’s duty to settle and dominate a bleak land.

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