“Red Earth” plays at the Atlanta Film Festival on April 28 at The Plaza Theatre.

What makes us human? 

This is one of many questions “Red Earth,” from director Georg Koszulinski and playing at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, seeks to answer. Or maybe not answer, per se, but to posit and allow us to come to our own conclusions. What makes us human, and is it possible for us to alter whatever that inherent quality may be? When we leave home behind and travel to strange lands, can we evolve to match our new reality? Or do we desperately try to make that new land assimilate to us?

The film presents these questions to us, but does not answer them in any easily digestible manner – but maybe that’s an answer in itself. Humanity is a messy, complicated animal, and one that has no problem molding whatever answers it wants to find to justify its decisions. “Red Earth” tackles humanity’s resilience and folly using a tried and true method of science fiction storytelling that poses these questions through the lens of planetary annihilation, leaving us to pick up the pieces and decide for ourselves what the answers are. 

“Red Earth” tells its story through a series of first person accounts, spanning three generations as they deal with the inception and fallout of Earth’s demise. Far into the future, large swaths of the planet have become increasingly inhospitable to life. Colonists are sent to Mars to see if it’s possible for life to continue on the red planet. Years later, following the complete decimation of Earth (a result of intergalactic war), a team is sent back to the planet to see if any signs of life remain. 

The film will be competing in the cinematography competition at the festival, and the film’s look is the work of both Koszulinski and co-cinematographer Kate Hinshaw. So much of what we see is faux archival footage, grainy, static, scientific in its presentation. But the shots of Earth and Mars will feel familiar to any fan of the Syfy channel. Specifically, I felt a real kinship between “Red Earth” and the 2004 update of “Battlestar Galactica.” As the lone survivor (Matt Devine) of the expedition back to Earth makes his way across the desolate planet, we’re treated to a brittle, overexposed landscape. There’s an unrelenting harshness to the light that sweeps over the landscapes, one that feels especially eerie when combined with the lack of color on a normally vibrant planet. Nighttime, on the other hand, is tinged with an otherworldly slate color. The shots we see of Mars feel similarly alien, but there’s something uncanny about how unfamiliar “Red Earth’s” Earth feels. That specificity helps us center ourselves in the context of this world. 

The idea of colonization and where we call home runs rampant throughout “Red Earth.” “We have not earned the right to exist,” says a man left behind on Earth (Mark Evans), completely resigned to the idea of destruction having spent a lifetime watching humanity’s sins unravel. But the ones who get to decide Earth’s fate are humans – the first humans sent to Mars, arguably just as complicit in those sins as the ones left behind. “Red Earth” never explicitly tells us how to feel about this paradox, but through a combination of an almost spectral score, that archival footage, and first-person recollections gives us all the pieces so we can see the whole picture – the whole picture that each individual presence on screen cannot. 

Throughout the film, excerpts from the records of a member from that first expedition appear on the screen, first apprehensive at the looming specter of a new planet, then determined to mold the planet into their new home no matter the cost. When the attack on Earth is launched, the perpetrators no longer consider themselves human, but Martian, intent on leaving the destructive ideologies of humans behind, revolting against those who would use the planet simply as a resource mine for Earth. But how is that so much different than what the rebels are doing? The excerpts from that first expedition talk of the red planet jointly as something to be conquered and as something to assimilate to. But even as they discuss the question of becoming Martian, they talk as though Mars can be curbed to their will – they talk of creating clouds, creating rain, and recreating their home as it was. 

Underneath that current of colonization runs the idea of sacrificing to create a better life for the next generation – as good a justification as any for unspeakably violence. But the daughter of the woman writing the first expedition excerpts (Christina Leidel), who was sent to the planet at the age of 13, struggles with the morality of her mother’s sacrifice. She deals with the destruction of the planet she once called home in more ambiguities than her mother did in her diary. Her mother, staunch that total annihilation is the right choice, swears this plan of action came out of a desire to destroy human cruelty, to leave behind destruction that humans are capable of. But her daughter – who theoretically, is who all this was for – can only see the human tendencies that led to that moment. “We are destroyers of worlds,” she says. Martian or human, “Red Earth” does not let us off the hook so easily.

“Red Earth” plays at the Plaza Theatre for the Atlanta Film Festival on April 28. Tickets can be purchased online.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.