Settlers takes place in a remote section of the Martian frontier. A family of three lives in a homestead, doing their part to colonize the planet. They are mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), father Reza (Johnny Lee Miller), and daughter Remmy (Brooklyn Prince). Their existence is an unusual one, given that they have no interactions with anyone else. One morning, they awaken to discover the word “LEAVE” scrawled on the window. Outside are people who want to take over their home. Reza kills most of them, leaving only Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) alive.

Treading lightly here so as not to reveal too much, Jerry ends up moving into the home, creating a confusing situation for Remmy in the process. Why is her mother responding the way she is to a guy who has not exactly been hospitable to them? Later, Settlers jumps ahead several years. Teenage Remmy is now played by Nell Tiger Free. At this point, the story morphs into something akin to an Adam & Eve tale, addressing issues of how Mars could possibly be colonized with so few people on it.

This is an exceedingly difficult film to review. I don't want to give away the manners in which the story evolves. At the same time, discussing why Settlers works without doing just that is virtually impossible. Let's take a roundabout approach here. To start, writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller shot the picture in Vioolsdift, an isolated desert area in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The location possesses a kind of beautiful eeriness that allows it to be convincing as a barely-inhabited planet. Having such an ambiance pulls you in, making you understand how far from traditional society the characters are.

With that established, Rockefeller goes on to look at the emotional complications of people who are removed from most human contact. Jerry and Ilsa, in particular, have no choice but to find some way of co-existing despite tensions between them. With few others to rely on, enemies become collaborators. Then the story flip-flops that notion, looking at how people who have come together, no matter how tenuously, can be put at odds by their fundamental needs. The back half of the film centers on Jerry and adolescent Remmy, specifically how her burgeoning adulthood changes the nature of their relationship. She can think for herself and make her own decisions. That doesn't always sit well with him.

Aside from a few brief moments, there's not a lot of overt action in Settlers. The film's interest is in setting a mood, putting the audience on edge as the story's events unfold. Dialogue is key, as is observation of the characters, whose faces often register the things they don't speak. Even if it drags in a few spots, the effect works. The fraught scenarios these people find themselves in keep you in a state of anxiety throughout.

Cordova is the standout in a uniformly good cast. He guarantees that we can never get a full read on Jerry. Is this guy, like Ilsa and Remmy, just trying to survive in a hostile environment? Or is he a more nefarious figure, trying to determine how to exploit them for his own gain? Those questions and others turn Settlers into a provocative work of speculative fiction.

out of four

Settlers is unrated, but contains adult language, bloody violence, and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.