Throughout the grand history of cinema there have been countless science-fiction stories about humanity seeking a new home in space. Some have been sprawling odysseys of discovery while others have been about settling and surviving in exotic and sometimes dangerous new worlds. The new Swiss-German sci-fi thriller “The Colony” does something a little different. It tackles the idea of going back to Earth after two generations away.
Tim Fehlbaum directs “The Colony” which does what most good sci-fi does – it focuses on humanity as much (if not more) than aliens, deep space or futuristic tech. There are several subtle themes woven into the film’s story. But at its core the movie explores the notion of losing our humanity in our efforts to save it. How far is too far? At what point do we cross the line and lose the very thing we’re so desperately trying to preserve?
To set up the story (co-written by Fehlbaum and Mariko Minoguchi), a deteriorating climate, global pandemics and endless wars rendered the Earth uninhabitable. As a result, the ruling elites used their means to leave the planet, eventually settling on a space colony they called Kepler 209. Two generations pass and the colonists discover that something on their new home has made them infertile. Shades of “Children of Men”?
Reasonably fearing that their inability to reproduce will lead to their extinction, scientists put together The Ulysses Project, an exploratory mission to find out whether a return to Earth is possible. The first crew to attempt a landing on the blue dot was assumed lost and never heard from. Not a good sign.
“The Colony” begins with Ulysses 2 bursting through Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a jolt of an opening that’s one of the film’s few “action” moments (if you can even call it that). The pod carrying the three-person crew malfunctions during its entry and crash-lands. One crew member is dead on arrival, the mission commander (Sope Dirisu) is seriously wounded and astronaut Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder) survives the crash unscathed.
One of the first things you’ll notice happens to be one of the movie’s biggest strengths, and that’s the harsh and barren world Fehlbaum imagines. Our once thriving planet is shown as nothing more than a dank and desolate wasteland of tidal waters and mud flats. It’s visualized through mostly practical effects that emphasize the unwelcoming bleakness and dystopian dread. To capture these early outdoor scenes, Fehlbaum took his cast and crew to the German Tidelands rather than use green screen. The shoots proved challenging, but the benefits on screen are obvious.
Arnezeder (who earlier this year shined in Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead”) makes for a compelling protagonist. As Blake, she’s essentially the lens through which we see this world unfold. After landing she immediately begins taking samples and readings. But just minutes into the movie she’s attacked and taken prison by a band of scavengers – human survivors who were left behind when the wealthy and powerful made their exodus. And there’s also this – they have children.
From there Fehlbaum tosses aside outer space and plants us in his apocalyptic hellscape where the survivors are already repeating mistakes from humanity’s past. Most notably, something akin to a class structure has taken form. The scavengers live in rickety huts able to float whenever the tide roles in. They’re frequently invaded by a more advanced and overtly oppressive colony who dwell in the belly of a massive grounded freighter fortified by walls of metal. The two factions create an interesting dynamic that has some startling parallels to our modern society.
Driven by Kepler 209’s cult-like mantra “for the many” (which Blake chants repeatedly, more to convince herself than out of some deep conviction), Blake is determined to complete her mission and get word back to her home colony. But soon she finds herself drawn into the conflict between the emerging haves and have nots. Soon she’s forced to question herself and her own motivations. It’s an intriguing angle especially with children involved. The scavengers have them; the other community wants them.
While Fehlbaum’s exploration gets points for its thoughtful human-centered interests, there’s a frustrating vagueness to both the story and the characters. With the exception of Blake, none of the people we meet are given much depth and some are little more than devices. Meanwhile the deeper we get into the story the more conventional it gets. There’s also an undercooked mystery surrounding Blake’s father (the leader of the first Ulysses mission) that could’ve used more attention.
Thankfully “The Colony” never completely derails in large part because of the stellar production design. The stark dismal environments brings thoughts of “Waterworld” and “Mad Max” but without the big studio shine. Instead Fehlbaum’s world is ugly, gritty and palpable. And while his story may lose a little of its focus, the underlying themes form a thought-provoking message that’s pretty timely for our current day. “The Colony” is now showing in select theaters and on VOD.