Settlers 2021 Movie Review
The drama on Mars, in recent months, has been like nothing on Earth. The afternoon of February 18th, especially, was a cliffhanger. We knew that Perseverance, the new Martian rover, either had or hadn’t made a successful landing, the catch being that we had to wait eleven itchy minutes or so for the result to be beamed across the void. Four days later came a video record of the descent—the umbilical slither of a cable and, at one end, the pop of the parachute, resplendent in red and white. Other delights: the shining heat shield that fell away like a dropped dime; the sky crane, resembling a Lego builder’s dream, from which the rover was lowered; and the russet dust below, roused from its immemorial nap. Top prize goes to Ingenuity, the feathery helicopter that has since been deployed from Perseverance, climbing the air that almost isn’t there. My only quibble is with the chopper’s name. It should have been called Astaire.
How can a feature film compete with kicks like that? Just as Mars is littered with the sad corpses of landers that crashed or failed to function (spare a thought for Schiaparelli, the Russian-European craft that slammed into the Martian surface with tremendous elegance, in 2016), so movies about the red planet are a junkyard unto themselves. I could swear that I saw “Mission to Mars” (2000), starring Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle, as well as “Last Days on Mars” (2013), with Liev Schreiber, but any memory of them has burned to a cinder; the exceptions have been the loner flicks, such as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964) or “The Martian” (2015). The latest contender in this perilous genre is “Settlers,” which is written and directed by Wyatt Rockefeller. Here is a tale of hardy pioneers, in a little house on a prairie far, far away.
It was Elton John, no stranger to the astronomical, who pointed out that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids”—a wise maxim, of which “Settlers” delivers ample proof. At the start, we meet Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), who live on a Martian farmstead with their young daughter, Remmy, and a piglet, who is, by some distance, the most upbeat figure onscreen. How long the family has lived there is unclear; what we do know is that Reza remembers Earth all too well, and that it was high time to get the hell out. He admits to Remmy that he never saw a whale, or an owl. “How about an elephant?” she says to him. “Nope.” “Did you see anything?” she asks. He replies, “Dogs.”
The whole conversation is a model of economy. Why blow half your budget on re-creating a terrestrial dystopia, rife with special effects, when a few words can sketch out the eco-disaster and set our imaginations racing? Much of “Settlers” relies on a blending of high tech and the humdrum. We meet a robot, but he’s a dented metal box with legs, and his name is Steve. Likewise, if the characters wear normal clothes, grow their own vegetables, and breathe without spacesuits or helmets, it’s because they inhabit a bio-dome; Remmy bumps against its transparent wall, like the fleeing hero at the end of “The Truman Show” (1998). Everything from the arch of the sky to the scree underfoot has a baked look, tinged with ashy pinks and umber, as if the dome were, in fact, one vast tandoori oven. “We’re very lucky to have this place,” Reza says, adding, “Someday, it’s going to be just like Earth.” Uh-oh.
Initially, we assume that the family’s hardscrabble existence is a solitary one. Then, one fine day, they are greeted by a message, “leave,” smeared across the kitchen window in what could be mud, or blood. Just what you need on Mars—trouble with the neighbors. Violence flares, death is meted out, and, before we know it, the head of the household is replaced. Reza makes way for Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who is pale-eyed and heavily armed. What’s truly disturbing is the manner in which Ilsa and Remmy, however sullenly, yield to the force of change, as if they knew it was bound to happen. We begin to realize that Martian civilization, if you can call it that, is governed by a basic Darwinian nastiness. Such is the moral of this movie: travel from one world to another, wielding your advanced technology, and you’ll wind up going backward.
“Settlers” has its problems, most of which are structural. Tense and firm at either end, it sags in the middle like a mattress. Also, the grownups are pretty dull and flat, their mood set to maximum glower; luckily, we have Remmy—played first by Brooklynn Prince and later, as a teen-ager, by Nell Tiger Free—to steer us through the doldrums and to energize the plot. Prince, in particular, who made such an impact in “The Florida Project” (2017), is equally resolute and uningratiating here, and the severity of Remmy’s gaze, as she despairs of the adults and stalks off into the wilderness, carries real weight. The fast fade of her innocence shows what an unusual chunk of science fiction Rockefeller has built; stripped down, provocative, and wary of hope, it should be required viewing for Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, who has lofty plans for the colonization of Mars. In his words, “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great.” Thanks to “Settlers,” we have a sharper vision of that future. I can see it now: the elderly Musk, all passion spent, pottering around his scrubby Martian yard, feeding his swine, chiding the chickens, and wondering where his billions went.
There was a film about the red planet, in 2000, that bore the enterprising title “Red Planet.” Its leading man was Val Kilmer, who seemed less than thrilled to be clad as an astronaut. In one scene, his character collapsed to the Martian ground, fighting for breath as his oxygen tank ran dry. Poor Kilmer. Five years earlier, he’d had to squeeze into ribbed black rubber as the star of “Batman Forever”—no picnic, as he reveals in “Val,” a new documentary about his life and work. “You can barely move,” Kilmer says of the costume. “You also can’t hear anything, and after a while people stop talking to you.” Movie after movie, cramping his style: it was enough to send a guy batshit.
These days, the cramping is real and very distressing. Kilmer has endured throat cancer, and although, happily, he is recovering, the treatment took a toll on his voice, which is a strangulated husk of what it used to be. In “Val,” he can address us only after pressing a button on his windpipe. Gone, too, is the comical beauty of the young Kilmer; how wistful it is to watch him as Iceman, in “Top Gun” (1986), opposite Tom Cruise, and to reflect on their subsequent paths. In the documentary, directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, we see Kilmer signing “Top Gun” posters at Comic-Con before throwing up in a trash can and being hurried away, in a wheelchair, with a towel over his head. Cruise, by contrast, will be returning later this year, scarcely altered, in the “Top Gun” sequel. We know that time both sullies and preserves, but does Hollywood have to make the discrepancy quite so cruel?
On the other hand, as Kilmer reassures us, “I obviously am sounding much worse than I feel.” He remains buoyed by an irrepressible candor, and by the fact that, after picking up a video camera at an early age, he has “thousands of hours” of footage at his disposal—manna to the film’s directors. We catch glimpses of a childhood in the San Fernando Valley; Kilmer was one of three brothers, who staged home movies of a rare inventiveness. We see clips of his time at Juilliard; two lines of a Hamlet soliloquy, again and again; and a dressing room in a New York theatre, where a couple of pallid striplings turn out to be Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. We hear of Kilmer’s marriage to the British actress Joanne Whalley, and we learn that he was served with divorce papers while filming, or attempting to film, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1996) with Marlon Brando. Discretion, I’m glad to report, is not the better part of Val. Watching this documentary is like having Dorian Gray give you a guided tour of his attic.
How, then, to account for the melancholy that veils the whole endeavor? It’s not just that Kilmer lost his way but that the way, even at the crest of his fame, was never as sure as it might have been. Whether he was unlucky, ill-advised, or as hard to handle as rumor suggested is a quandary left unsolved by “Val,” which is so engulfed by his presence that the comments of others—friends or foes—are seldom aired. Whatever the case, the roster of his films is oddly glum. If his finest hour was in “Heat” (1995), that’s because Michael Mann was running the show, and one wishes that Kilmer had enjoyed more frequent tutelage under first-rate directors. I guess he thinks so, too; that’s why “Val” includes a snatch of an audition tape that he presented, in person and in vain, to Stanley Kubrick. One final mystery: aside from an ambiguous cameo in “True Romance” (1993), Kilmer was never cast as Elvis. And yet, with that fallen cherub’s mouth, and that all-knowing grin, was he not born to play the King?