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Review: Mars drama ‘Settlers’ asks: Whose land is it, anyway?

A mother holds her young daughter in the movie “Settlers”
Sofia Boutella, left, and Brooklynn Prince as mother and daughter in the movie “Settlers.”
(IFC Midnight)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Science-fiction movies and westerns both tend to favor restless heroes exploring dangerous frontiers. Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller’s spare debut feature “Settlers” takes the connection between these genres even further, telling a story about what is essentially a range war on Mars.

“Settlers” begins by introducing a family of three: Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), his wife, Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and their daughter, Remmy (Brooklynn Prince), living on a climate-controlled Martian farmstead. After establishing that Reza and Ilsa immigrated from a troubled Earth — and have been struggling to thrive on their lonely stake — Rockefeller introduces Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a hostile intruder who insists he has a claim to Reza’s land.

That’s the film’s first third. The rest of “Settlers” covers years in these characters’ lives — and not everybody we meet in the first half-hour survives until the end. Rockefeller doesn’t fill in all the blanks of where Jerry came from, but he does get across the general idea that Reza and Ilsa weren’t the first people to live in this modest Mars hovel, the only home Remmy has ever known.

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In an effort to maintain some ambiguity — and allow “Settlers” to work as a loose parallel to countless colonizer/native scenarios — Rockefeller reduces his characters to abstractions, lacking richly defined personalities. That can be a problem because it’s hard to get too invested in the threat to this family (or in the threat they pose to Jerry) when these people share little about who they are.

Still, terrific performances up and down the cast fill in some gaps. Prince (best known as the precocious little girl from “The Florida Project”) is especially strong, playing a kid who had no reason to doubt the version of reality her parents established for her until Jerry showed up. Nell Tiger Free is also great as the teenage Remmy, who anchors the movie’s climactic section — in which the character is still unsure if she’s the hero or the villain of this narrative.

But the key to the movie is Córdova’s turn as Jerry, who does terrible things over the course of the story — but who also demonstrates genuine tenderness and a connection to this farm that seems to run deeper than Reza’s ever did. The core question “Settlers” asks is who “deserves” to occupy this inhospitable planet. To Rockefeller’s credit, he doesn’t offer any pat answers.

'Settlers'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: Starts July 23, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Glendale; and in limited release; also on VOD


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