When it comes to cinematic science-fiction, I’m always rooting for the newcomer. There’s a special excitement when a speculative fiction film not only introduces characters and plots but also a new or altered world.
For every cool The Wandering Earth, though, there’s a thundering-dud Midnight Sky, with most sci-fi newcomers parked in between, offering elements of interest without being wholly satisfying. (Case in point? The recent Settlers.)
Now along comes The Colony (originally titled Tides). Climate change, a pandemic and war — so the intro titles tell us — have left Earth a mess. Seeing where things on the big blue marble were heading, the elite figured out how to bail and relocate to a far-away planet. But, oops, there was a problem: Our travelers became sterile after a while. Facing the prospect of letting the species die out, they sent a mission back to Earth to see if it was habitable. (All of this happens before the movie’s action begins.)
We enter the story with a second expedition making its atmospheric entry, this one including the daughter of an astronaut lost on the first trip. (I’ll let someone else write a book on all of the recent-ish science-fiction films that deal with daddy issues). The landing doesn’t go well, leading astronaut Louise (Nora Arnezeder) to do some exploring. Soon she’s captured by a tribe of survivors, who have become brutal in their efforts to deal with the constant tidal shifts and other challenges.
But there’s hope: There are children in the group. Louise just has to escape from the hostile locals and get word back that Earth, while difficult, is habitable.
A strong suit of the film is that it allows us to learn about these survivors — and another group that seems to have greater resources — through Louise’s eyes. We absorb information as she does, and there are interesting revelations along the way to justify her uncertainty about where her loyalties should lie.
When it comes to rolling out information and building a world, the script’s structure is sound, although it sometimes makes our hero’s actions rely on dumb-luck assumptions. Would a crew of kidnappers really be so distracted by a flare gun fired overhead that they’d all abandon the spot where their human bounty is being held? Louise also often stumbles upon, or is given, important information rather than having much agency herself.
Special effects are at a minimum, which actually works in the film’s favor. Harsh lighting, silhouetted figures and the constant awareness of shifts in water level make the challenges of these living conditions palpable and add to the tension. Credit to Julian R. Wagner’s production design.
Still, something is missing. The Colony dips its toe into a major moral dilemma but doesn’t commit to really exploring its implications. Without spoiling anything, more could be made of some supporting characters who prove important to the action. And as grim as the situation may be, memorable science-fiction films tend to have at least some infusion of wonder and/or joy. Think of the way music added flair to 2001: A Space Odyssey and what that “tears in the rain” speech did for Blade Runner.
The stakes are high here. The world is believable. The acting is solid and the story is never dull. But I wanted reasons to root harder for both Louise and the human race.