The Colony (2013)

The Colony first published by

Released the same year as Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, The Colony similarly imagines a future ice age that has wiped out most of life on earth, leaving several frosty outcrops of survival to fight among themselves over dwindling scraps and encroaching disease. The vehicle of Jeff Renfroe’s allegory, however, is not a speeding train, but fixed underground bunkers. These are the Colonies – last hold-outs against the cold, with seed banks as an archive of the crops that once grew above. The small numbers who made it to these bases are being shrunk further by deadly flu, and their desperation is giving rise to a battle for humanity – embodied by the power struggle between Colony 7’s decent leader Briggs (Laurence Fishburne) and his more autocratic fellow ex-soldier Mason (Bill Paxton). The filmographies of these two actors – the former from the world-building rebellion of The Matrix trilogy, the latter from the paranoid monster action of Aliens (1986) – tell of a different conflict running through the film, as human and less than human instincts come into violent collision.

Answering a distress call, Briggs, his protégé – and the film’s protagonist – Sam (Kevin Zegers) and young Graydon (Atticus Mitchell) make the dangerous two-day trek to Colony 5, where they discover a new threat, albeit one that really just crystallises all the old ones: a large band of shrieking, growling savages who travel from one outpost to the next butchering anyone inside. These ferocious creatures are marked as having abandoned humanity not just through their unsustainable anthropophagous diet, but also through their loss of speech. “If people are desperate,” Briggs tells Sam, “they’ll do horrible things to survive.” Born of the same hunger and hopelessness that beleaguers everyone left in this world, the cannibals represent not just an immediate danger to Colony 7’s community, but also a possible, perhaps even an inevitable, model for its future, as supplies run low and Mason’s brand of cruelty starts to take over. Really everyone here seems just one step away either from embracing their inner beast – or from falling prey to the others who do. 

The feral humans have reverted to a set of basic predatory drives, and to a pre-verbal state – but their towering leader (Dru Viergever) does utter a single word in the climax of The Colony. Without giving away what it is, this word summarises the same rapacious impulses that might lead people not only to murder and eat their fellow humans, but also to exhaust the world’s resources and wilfully usher in the sort of climate disaster that this film imagines. That is why, as well as being a vicious post-apocalyptic dog-eat-dog action thriller, The Colony also serves as a parable of the all-too-human greed that is currently sending our species down its path of self-destruction. Rather shrewdly, the film suggests that the (fictive) ‘weather modification tech’ which accidentally brought about the great global freeze also represents humanity’s last hope. This ambivalent view of technology – as both our ruin and our salvation – is never resolved, as the film leaves its surviving characters out in the cold, with their bridges literally burnt, pursuing what might just be a pipe dream, or indeed another dead end on the hard road to survival that every character here, good or bad, is traveling.

  The locations shoots for The Colony were carried out in former NORAD facilities at the Canadian Forces Base North Bay and Toronto’s Hearn Generating Station. These are impressively lived-in sets, all creepy corridors and cement-rendered chambers, while the snow-covered cities and ruined infrastructure beyond are spectacular CG-enhanced ice-scapes where any remaining evidence of civilisation has mostly been buried beneath the permafrost. The film’s plotting is at times on the derivative side, the dialogue is somewhat perfunctory, and few would claim this rather generic film to have the same boldness – let alone ‘outsider’ idiosyncrasy – of Renfroe’s feature debut One Point 0 (2004). Yet it effectively builds a large-scale dystopia, and uses that as the staging ground for bleak reflections upon humanity’s current trajectory. In other words, here the familiarity of genre is deployed to expose colder realities beyond its confines. Even if it cannibalises many others that have come before it – not least Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) – The Colony manages to conjure its climatic catastrophe on a much lower budget. Once its conflicts kick in – conflicts of ideology, and of human nature – they are ferociously realised, with the tally written on the snow in blood and gore.

Summary: The post-apocalyptic, perma-frosted world of Jeff Renfroe’s The Colony outlines an endpoint for today’s human rapacity 

© Anton Bitel