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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema, German Cinema

‘The Colony’ (2021): Tides of Boredom

Directed by: Tim Fehlbaum || Produced by: Thomas Wöbke, Philipp Trauer, Ruth Waldburger, Constanze Guttman

Screenplay by: Tim Fehlbaum, Mariko Minoguchi || Starring: Nora Arnezeder, Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Iain Glen, Joel Basman, Sebastian Roché, Bella Bading, Sope Dirisu, Cloé Albertine Heinrich

Music by: Lorenz Dangel || Cinematography: Markus Förderer || Edited by: Andreas Menn || Country: Germany, Switzerland || Language: English

Running Time: 104 minutes

Numerous times on this site have I referenced with derision feature-length movies that feel like short films (i.e. concepts worthy of 5-15 minute running times, maximum) stretched to 90 minutes or longer. These features are often based upon actual shorts their writer-directors made earlier as “proof of concept” projects to gather funding for their grander vision, and the core concepts of those original shorts may be fascinating in their own right, but the end results of these expanded cinematic stories don’t justify their longer runtimes. They still feel like shorts, only with an hour-plus of unnecessary filler. Most often I have identified this phenomenon in the horror genre (e.g. Velvet Buzzsaw [2019], It Comes at Night [2017], I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House [2016]), though I have also found examples in the science-fiction (e.g. The Stowaway [2021], Ex Machina [2015], Under the Skin [2013]) genre and in dramatic cinema (e.g. The Lobster [2015], The Rover [2014]), particularly those produced by independent studios.

Top: Nora Arnezeder spots enemies in her futuristic rifle in The Colony’s first act, an example of the film’s slick use of telephoto lenses. Bottom: Iain Glen, a favorite of mine from Game of Thrones (2011-2019), attempts to culturally appropriate other castmembers in Acts Two and Three.

This is why common descriptions of films, but genre films especially, as “slow-burn” or “deliberately paced but still intense” or “an engaging chess match” are red flags to me as often as they indicate films I may like. For every Alien (1979) or The Shining (1980), there are a handful of movies by Ti West or admirable but repetitive films like Moon [2009].

Yet another example of a short film masquerading as a feature-length release is Tim Fehlbaum’s sophomore production, Tides, also known as The Colony in North America. Under the tired, formulaic premise of a post-apocalyptic earth ravaged by one or more unspecified manmade or natural disasters, the film follows the interstellar expedition of several explorers back to earth from the eponymous colony of survivors in another solar system. This reconnaissance mission, led by protagonist Nora Arnezeder, crashlands in an unnamed tidal estuary and attempts to determine whether conditions allow human survival and reproduction, as their colony’s proximity to their local star has rendered their population sterile.

To be sure, there’s nothing inherently unforgivable about a formulaic premise in genre filmmaking, as I always argue that execution of any narrative concept, novel or otherwise, determines a given film’s artistic merit, not the other way around. Where The Colony falls into the traps of so many artificially inflated short films before it is how (a) there’s nothing memorable about its execution beyond some cool location-photography (e.g. the Wadden Sea tidelands in Hamburg, Germany), and (b) its greater story is predictable down to the individual plot beats after its opening act (about ~45 minutes into the film). Neither its heroic nor villainous characters are written beyond vague archetypes, and none of the cast elevate the material through noteworthy performances. There are no inventive plot twists or thematic revelations uncovered in the second or third acts (again, everything’s predictable all the way through if you’ve only seen a handful of science-fiction pictures in your lifetime), and the film contains no notable action or special FX set-pieces to liven the pacing or provide anything in the way of eye candy. To reiterate one final time, a good sci-fi movie doesn’t require all or even most of the aforementioned to warrant appreciation, but it needs something beyond a cool production location to maintain your attention.

Star Nora Arnezeder and primary antagonist Iain Glen are flatlines in their respective roles, for starters, with little personality beyond adequate delivery of their stock dialogue. The latter’s “reveal” as the villain in Act Three is so telegraphed I felt my interest in the movie deflate as soon as he described the movie’s premise in full to Arnezeder in a prolonged expository sequence at the beginning of Act Two. Long story short, it’s another quasi anti-colonialist yarn about how — surprise, surprise — subjugating another population to realize your particular goals of sociopolitical engineering is amoral. Who knew? Not helping matters is how the rest of the supporting doesn’t stand apart either, serving as little more than obligatory filler to help move the plot along. None of these characters are bad or irritating per se, but no one’s good or distinctive despite the futuristic premise and neat inciting incident (the initial crashlanding).

Outside the film’s milquetoast screenplay and main characters, The Colony fairs somewhat better in the cinematography and sound-design departments. The previously mentioned location photography is remarkable, both pleasurable to view and believable as a post-apocalyptic landscape for the greater diegesis. I appreciate how co-writer and director Fehlbaum didn’t resort to yet another desert landscape a la the Mad Max (1979, 1981, 1985) franchise and its many ripoffs, as the landscape of Tides both feels reminiscent of Waterworld (1995) while also standing apart. I’ll remember how it looks and sounds long after its narrative and characters vanish from my mind.

Enjoy The Colony’s gorgeous landscapes and admirable set-design when its writing disappoints.

Unfortunately for The Colony, narrative and characters often matter as much, if not more than a film’s broader cinematographic style in feature-length form. 10-minute mood-pieces can survive on abstract tone and brief audiovisual flourishes alone, but the situation changes when cinematic projects extend to 90 minutes or longer. Thematic ambiance and cool location-photography can only carry a feature so far, and while The Colony makes ample use of one of the more unique physical backgrounds for any genre of movie in recent memory, its lighting, camerawork, and real-world weather capture can’t save its lackluster story and vanilla characters. As much as cinema is a visual art form, most cinematic projects depend on a cause-and-effect storyline in some form, and The Colony’s just isn’t up to snuff, either on paper or on screen.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Easy on the eyes and creative in terms of general mood, but lazy in terms of screenwriting basics, Tides‘ neat cinematography is left to flounder once its script reveals it has neither new ideas nor inventive executions of established ones. Formulaic, traditional, and “slow-burn” qualities are fine, but lazy and aloof are not.

However… its visuals and sound-design are really, really cool and serve the movie in a logical, thematic way; they’re not just for show. The opening act could serve as a solid pilot for a long-running television show given its tension and sensible pacing; its 104-minute runtime is appreciated despite its bland filler.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED

? Is there ever an interstellar expedition that doesn’t end in a disastrous crash-landing? Maybe these missions should invest in transportation technology to “beam up” people a la Star Trek (1966-1969).

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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