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No Utopia: On Wyatt Rockefeller’s Settlers (2021)

According to SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, the company’s proposal to colonize the planet Mars is “about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.”  The vision is of a self-sustaining Mars-based city home to one million inhabitants. The relative ease and cheapness of the SpaceX Starship and Falcon rockets mean a continuous back and forth journey between Earth and Mars would be possible and provide the population and materials needed to construct a Martian society.

Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Dr. Peter Schulze offers a different perspective in his TedX talk ‘We Aren’t Going to Mars’. His argument is a more persuasive case for taking care of the planet Earth we’ve been given. Schulze guides us through the various obstacles that human expeditions would face. The enormous financial costs for starters, the current lack of knowledge we have of self-sustaining life support systems that would be needed, and the intense cosmic radiation that will rain down. Schulze argues that our environmental record here on Earth shouldn’t be replicated elsewhere. We’ve devastated one planet, why should we have an opportunity to wreck another?

SpaceX’s utopian vision neglects humanity’s record of colonization and the havoc wreaked upon lands and peoples in the name of expansion and resource plundering.  Mars appears to be a desolate world with no life or resources to exploit. But a million human inhabitants competing for sparse resources would potentially create a hellhole of rival factions among the populace.

This appears to be the premise of director Wyatt Rockefeller’s feature-length debut Settlers (2021). In the distant future, Mars has been colonized by humans and appears terraformed to allow those who live there the ability to breathe without a suit. A young family occupies a Martian farmstead. Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) and their young daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) tend the land and appear happy enough with their austere circumstances. But a group of invaders begin a campaign of intimidation to scare them out of the settlement. When Reza is killed by Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a member of the invading mob, he informs Ilsa and Remmy that the farm they occupy was built by his parents and that he was raised there as a child. Jerry offers to take Reza’s place and become a husband and father figure to them while repairing and taking care of the farm to make it self-sustaining and secure from future invaders.

While the film is slow-paced and meditative in its narrative approach with moments of tension and action here and there, there are snippets of information that offer insight into the circumstances occurring on Earth. Jerry has returned to Mars after fighting in a resource war that is proving futile and his return to the farm is a means of survival for himself against what appears to be civilizational collapse on Earth.

Jerry gives Ilsa an ultimatum. If in thirty days he hasn’t proved himself a worthy replacement for Reza, then she can attempt to kill him. Overhearing this, Remmy keeps track of the thirty days and watches as Ilsa begins to warm to Jerry’s presence and protection. But, as the thirty days draw to a close, Ilsa pulls a gun on him and pulls the trigger. The attempt is unsuccessful and Jerry kills Ilsa. He commits to taking care of the farm and Remmy. At this point, there is a time leap within the narrative and we join Jerry and Remmy a few years later. The farm is still going strong, but the relationship between Jerry and Remmy is strained. Things are not made better by Jerry’s proposition to impregnate Remmy to maintain the human race. After a confrontation, Jerry attempts to rape Remmy. She is saved by “Steve”, a cute box-like maintenance robot that has become a pet-like companion. Jerry dies from a fatal neck wound. With Jerry gone, Remmy decides to leave the farmstead in Steve’s care and make her own way. She travels through a tunnel that leads out. We learn that the farm is surrounded by a giant biodome. Mars appears as barren and lifeless as it does today. No great colonization project has taken place. The planet’s atmosphere hasn’t been modified and its surface hasn’t been terraformed or cultivated into farmable land.

© 2021 Brittle-Star Pictures

Similar to The Martian (2015), Settlers offers a fairly realistic depiction of what hardships await those that attempt to settle on Mars. The utopian ideal of Mars colonization in which great cities rise up on the Martian soil and a new enriched society develops sours to one of dog-eat-dog survivalism, brutality, and slowly decaying infrastructures.

Though it doesn’t share the same supernatural story elements and sense of impending dread, there is much to compare Settlers with Robert Eggers’ horror film The Witch (2015). Both films offer a perspective of a family struggling to colonize and tame the land and the land eventually turning on them and ultimately destroying them. The family in The Witch believes it is their God-given right to intrude upon and cultivate the foreign soil, and that the soil will willingly submit. It doesn’t. That faith is badly placed and starvation, disease, and eventual madness is the outcome. SpaceX appears to have a similar misplaced faith that the cosmos will succumb to humanity’s whim and surrender itself.

At 1 hour 43 minutes, the film slightly overstays its welcome. However, director of photography Willie Nel creates a vivid and deep portrait of the landscape to give the audience a set of exquisite visuals to occupy the eye when the story drags. Prolific film composer and multi-instrumentalist Nitin Sawhney provides a compelling soundtrack that, combined with Nel’s photography, gives the film an immersive quality and intelligence that helps the film punch above its weight. You’ll believe the film is set on the Martian landscape. The performances from the cast, while not exceptional, do give the audience insight into the hardship and survivalist tendencies the characters are facing. Brooklynn Prince who plays the young Remmy gives the film its humanity that is seamlessly taken on by actress Nell Tiger Free as the teenage Remmy when the film’s narrative jumps ahead in time. Both actors give the character of Remmy a full and believable story arc.

The most compelling aspect of Settlers is that it clearly shows no utopia exists beyond our own world. That colonization of the solar system is futile. The real work of world building needs to happen right here. Under the direction of a handful of billionaire-owned private companies, we might venture to other worlds within our solar system in the near future, but it is a death sentence for those that attempt to stay. The first wave of space explorers might be regarded as brave and heroic pioneers. They may be elevated to the status of celebrity. But with more and more colonists sent out as replacement labor/human fodder for those that perish the situation becomes a never-ending farce and a faceless death spiral. All while the Earth burns.

By Stephen Lee Naish

Stephen Lee Naish is a writer, visual artist, and the author of six books of nonfiction, notably, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (AUP), Riffs and Meaning (HeadPress), and Screen Captures: Film in the Age of Emergency (Newstar Books). His work has appeared in Aquarium Drunkard, Film International, Sublation Magazine, The Quietus, Empty Mirror, Dirty Movies, Albumism, and Merion West. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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