One of my favorite films of all time is John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s a movie about intense fear and isolation where the characters are in an environment without trust. Everyone is suspicious of one another, always ready to doubt and attack each other at a moment’s notice. Above all else, the environment exemplified this isolation by being frigid, cold, and completely uninviting. Settlers is not a movie like The Thing, but you can tell that it certainly took some elements from that seminal thriller-horror classic.
Instead of being in an arctic base, the characters are on an isolated farm on Mars. Instead of having to contend with shape-shifting monsters, the terror comes from just one man. But that foreboding sense of dread and tension, that sense that you don’t know what any character is thinking and whether or not we can/should support them is palpable. Settlers achieves that tension and slowly wraps its hands around your neck the more you watch it, refusing to let go.
Director: Wyatt Rockefeller
Release: June 18, 2021 (Tribeca Film Festival), July 23, 2021 (Theatrical)
Featuring a very small cast, Settlers puts us in the shoes of Remmy (Brooklyn Prince/Nell Tiger Free), a young girl growing up on Mars with her family. They live on an isolated farm and Remmy is naive to the world around her. She’s happy just learning about the stars from her mom and dad and taking care of the farm’s pig. And then Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova) comes along, claiming that her parents stole the farm from his family and that positive and perfect family facade shatters immediately. Then things get violent. Then Remmy has to grow up and grow up fast to contend with the world she now lives in.
The movie is basically a long-drawn-out series of unfortunate events for Remmy. We watch her innocence fall apart before our very eyes. It’s absolutely tragic as the elements that used to give her joy, like a tiny robot companion named Steve who kept her company in the early days of Jerry’s stay, is seen less as a friend and more of an annoyance to her as she grows up. It’s even more tragic for the pigs that she tends to since by the time she reaches adulthood, they are literally livestock to her. It’s masterful but also just rips your heart out because you really do empathize with Remmy the longer the film goes on.
The characters all feel complex and like The Thing, we’re never quite certain of their motivations or thoughts. Remmy’s mom (Sofia Boutella) holds nothing but rage and contempt for Jerry and what he did, yet it’s never as simple as we may think. That emotional life, for lack of a better word, feels alive. The dynamic is constantly shifting and something as simple as a song on a guitar can be loaded with so much meaning, meaning that changes the more the movie goes on.
There are also the mysteries that the movie presents us but never draws too much attention to, for better and for worse. There’s plenty of mysteries about the farm, how Remmy’s family got a hold of it, and what exactly life is like outside of the isolated farm, but they never seem as important as they should be. At first, that’s all that’s present and the bombardment of dangling plot threads can make things hard to focus on, but Settlers eventually drops those mysteries in favor of just an isolated thriller, not dissimilar from The Thing or 10 Cloverfield Lane. Remmy is in a bad position with a bad man, one who gives off several creepy vibes, and the audience is left to wonder how will she manage this situation. Will she fight, run away, or give in to her captor/caretaker?
Sci-fi isn’t typically my genre of choice since I find it to be a bit too broad at times and super easy to mishandle, but Settlers smartly decides to give this story a sci-fi setting while not intrinsically linking it to its genre. This is a story that would work in any location and at any time period. The genre is almost irrelevant here because the story is just strong. There’s no two ways about it, this is a great story with some fantastic acting all around where the sci-fi elements just add a bit of flavor instead of dominating the show.
Speaking of, both actresses portraying Remmy steal the show: Prince plays a younger version, while Free plays an older, more hardened Remmy. Prince’s optimism and charm perfectly showcases that she’s able to try and make the best out of any situation. However, when things get too dark and bleak, Free’s depiction feels like she’s been beaten by the world. Free’s Remmy is silent, refusing to talk when she’s on-screen. She goes for 15 minutes without saying a word and that alone says more about her state of mind than any piece of dialogue ever could.
As a movie to end this year’s coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, Settlers was an excellent choice to end on. The film is an intense and claustrophobic thriller about a young girl’s lost innocence that left me both excited and afraid to see what will happen next in her life. We watch her grow up and hate the fact that she has to grow up and endure such hardships. But man, suffering does make such sweet art here.