How do you effectively keep a classic genre new and fresh? One of the oldest and most beloved genres of the 20th century was the western. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood and John Ford to Sergio Leone, we were treated to decades of quality films filled with the rugged frontier and cowboys. Going into the 1990’s, this genre began to really disappear. Now we are in the 21st century and the western has had to evolve to keep itself around. We get more neo-westerns set in more modern times like No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. They have had to evolve narratively and thematically into greyer areas due to the expectations of audiences. Some westerns have even dived right into other genres to really expand their horizons. Queue…The Settlers.
How does a western set on Mars work? One of the most common ideas of westerns is the untamed frontier and what frontier can be more untamed than another planet? This desert-like setting on Mars is perfect for the story that Settlers is trying to tell. This space settlement is a ranch out in the middle of nowhere (quite like many on Earth are). We have a farm dog except this one just so happens to be a robot. The idea to drop such a story onto another planet is one of the more effective aspects of this tale. There is a freshness and mystery to this setting. This family of three is tested by the strangers who stalk their settlement. Who are they? This mystery drives much of the excitement of the film. Do we get resolution? You will have to check this one out to find out to what extent (to be honest…it is not much).
But with such a great concept and setting, does the rest of the film deliver? Tragically there is one terrible death blow to this sci-fi/western. It is boring. Writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller delivers on some aspects (the visuals and tension in some scenes) but a lot of this film leaves too much to be desired. The narrative is broken up into three parts but never justifies its modest runtime. The narrative thrust of the film is missing for most of that runtime. The pacing is lethargic and that becomes evident when there is a lack of action going on. From a writing standpoint, there is also not enough to the story to really keep your attention for the whole runtime.
But what are Rockefeller’s efforts that deliver? There are a few scenes that are highly tense and deliver exciting moments (even if they are far and few between). The actual camera work is top notch and Rockefeller brings a directorial flair that boasts enough tension and suspense to make for great scenes. But great scenes are not enough to add up to make a great film. Most of the characters (which there are only four) do not get a lot of depth to them. Our young protagonist Remmy is the most interesting and her journey for growth and freedom is admirable. Young actress Brooklynn Prince and Nell Tiger Free deliver strong work as Remmy, making for the most interesting part of the whole film.
Can you get past the glacial pace and lack of narrative meat to have an engaging time with Settlers? Strong performances and tension sequences are just not enough to justify sitting through this whole film…which is a shame. I wanted to love this film (it mixes my two favorite genres of film) but there just wasn’t enough to keep my attention. The final moments leave you with a poignant conclusion but only brings on frustration for the 75% of the film that was so much less interesting and affecting.