If there’s life on Mars, there must also be death on Mars: That’s the plainest takeaway from “Settlers,” a stark, scorched, occasionally jolting sci-fi slow burn in which relocating to the red planet can’t save humanity from its basest instincts. Tracing the tumultuous household dynamics of four ex-earthlings over the course of a decade, as they attempt to forge a new life on a hostile surface, Wyatt Rockefeller’s polished, confident debut feature succeeds most vividly as a feat of minimalist world-building — constructing an overwhelmingly desolate Martian farmstead in South Africa’s Namaqualand desert, in which avenues of exploration feel infinite, and escape impossible. Rockefeller’s story world might indeed be more richly imagined than his story, which tends to idle after a tensely wound opening. Still, a fine, surprising ensemble lends human heft to this Tribeca premiere, which could springboard its writer-director to more lavish visions.
With IFC Midnight set to release “Settlers” on July 23 in cinemas and on demand, this muted genre piece seems likeliest to cultivate an audience on smaller screens, though not for any lack of panoramic sweep on its part. There’s more than a hint of the frontier western to Rockefeller’s brooding outer-space drama, beginning with the way cinematographer Willie Nel’s camera languidly surveys the parched, clay-baked vacancy of Mars’ surface, with its plains and mesas and rolling horizons — for which the arid sandstone expanses of Vioolsdrif, a village near the South African-Namibian border, serve as an evocative substitute.
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It doesn’t seem like a place you’d settle as anything but a last resort: For intrepid survivalists Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), it’s where they hope to cultivate some facsimile of life on their uninhabitable former planet. “Earth isn’t what it once was,” Reza tells their nine-year-old daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince), who knows the blue planet only as a distant speck from nights of stargazing. When he continues to muse that someday their present home will be “just like Earth,” that doesn’t seem a wholly optimistic prophecy. For humanity — or however much of it has made the journey — hasn’t merely brought crops and livestock to Mars, but violence and weaponry too. Though Remmy has never encountered a soul besides her parents on their placid settlement, it soon becomes clear that others are watching them, and resent their presence.
Rockefeller piles up the hints that they’re not alone with a steadily tightening sense of dread, breaking into all-action mode with an impressively orchestrated cat-and-mouse shootout that nonetheless proves a bit of a red herring. We might expect “Settlers” to expand from here into a wider tale of Martian warfare, but what ensues has the economy and intimacy of a chamber piece, as the family is ultimately disrupted by a single invader: stoic soldier Jerry (a superb Ismael Cruz Córdova), who claims the homestead is in fact his own familial inheritance, and calmly asserts his claim to it, whether the settlers choose to leave or not.
A compromise is reached, though not without bloody conflict and sexual negotiation: The question of what, or who, they leave for the future in this barren wilderness hangs uncomfortably in the balance. If Jerry’s arrival on the scene dramatically shifts the axis of the narrative, it takes some time for Rockefeller’s script to regain its itchy momentum. The same tensions are plucked repeatedly between the principals in the second of the film’s three headed chapters.
The adults’ wary stalking of each other plays out largely through the anxious but not fully comprehending gaze of Remmy, whom Prince plays with a cautious, porous reticence quite different from the freewheeling juvenile entitlement of her breakout turn in “The Florida Project,” and duly taken up by “Game of Thrones” star Nell Tiger Free as the character ages into unliberated teendom. Boutella and Miller persuasively imbue her parents with mother-bear grit and wounded hippie idealism, respectively, but it’s Cruz Córdova (fresh from TV’s “The Undoing”) who is the film’s most exciting presence. Volatile even in his stillness, and turning on a dime from tenderness to patriarchal toxicity, the unpredictability of his characterization fuels “Settlers” through its most rote passages.
Even at their most dynamic, however, the film’s human figures are necessarily dwarfed by their vast, punishing environment, which has been vividly realized in all departments on a modest budget. Of particular note is Noam Piper’s rustic-industrial production design, which plays off the forms and tones of the landscape in a way that feels convincingly hand-built. The same goes for the film’s appropriately low-key practical effects work, with a significant assist from veteran puppeteer William Todd-Jones. In the ranks of cinematic journeys to Mars, “Settlers” ranks among the less fancifully and lavishly invented, yet it’s all the more effective for its earthly restraint: You can change the planet, Rockefeller suggests, but humanity stays pretty much the same.