Magdalena Lauritsch writes and directs a future-set apocalyptic space drama
In Magdalena Lauritsch’s uneven, sometimes compelling feature-length debut, Rubikon, the world ends not with a nuclear apocalypse, killer cyborgs, or time-travel paradoxes, but with environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, and corporate-run authoritarianism. It’s certainly nothing we haven’t seen before, and with the recent reactionary rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, may be a more likely scenario than not. Under Lauritsch’s steady hand comes a necessary, even urgent cautionary tale wrapped inside a tense (and occasionally intense) chamber piece set on an orbiting space station, humanity’s last, desperate hope for survival. All signs in Rubikon, however, point in the opposite direction: We did this to ourselves, and we’re now reaping what we sowed.
When we first meet Hannah Wagner (Julia Franz Richter), an uber-competent soldier and officer for an unnamed corporate state, she’s calmly piloting a command module without the aid of an AI-supported navigation system as it attempts to dock on the space station. Even as her passenger, Gavin Abbott (George Blagden), an environmentalist, chemist, and the scion of one of Earth’s last remaining wealthy families, panics at the precariousness of their predicament, Wagner keeps her cool, a character trait that will serve her extremely well as she must rely on her intelligence, ingenuity, and integrity to survive the likely end of the world. She succeeds in docking the module with the space station, but the broken navigation system signals the first of several cascading problems, each one worst than the last.
Wagner and Abbott ostensibly have been sent to the space station to replace most of its five-person crew. They’re scheduled to return to Earth along with the all-important algae cultures that promise to solve the planet’s lack of breathable air. With the addition of Wagner and Abbott, the five-person crew briefly becomes seven, eventually settling into three when all but one member of the crew, Dimitri Krylow (Mark Ivanir), the chief scientist and researcher principally responsible for developing algae as a solution, remains behind. Even as the outgoing crew members prepare to leave, however, an ominous-looking blanket brown fog begins to envelop the Earth, spelling doom for the last remaining inhabitants living in filtered “air domes.” Those air domes, however, are apparently incapable of filtering out the new, far more toxic fog.
With the Earth on the precipice, Wagner, Abbott, and Krylow face an ethical and moral dilemma of potentially life-altering consequences: stay on the space station and survive for an indeterminate amount of time thanks to the oxygen-producing algae cultures, or attempt an incredibly risky return to one of the last functioning air domes. It’s a basic “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” dilemma, though neither Wagner, Abbott, nor Krylow put it quite that way. It’s that central conflict, with the three taking different, shifting sides of the problem, that figuratively drives Rubikon to its eventual, somewhat underwhelming conclusion.
The Austrian-born Lauritsch and her co-writers, Jessica Lind and Elisabeth Schmied, smartly complicate the central issue facing the trio by suggesting that what’s left of humanity—a socially, politically, and economically stratified society—might not be worth saving; even if it is worth saving, there’s no guarantee that once Wagner, Abbott, and Krylow return, they won’t be treated as expendable by the dome’s privileged leaders. There’s also the sense that Wagner, a lifelong soldier freed from the command structure that defined most of her adult life, is becoming increasingly independent, gaining agency and autonomy.
Rubikon falters, though, in its last stretch as the carefully delineated characters and their individual motivations grow increasingly muddled, in part due to English dialogue obviously written by non-native speakers. One character in particular makes a head-scratching decision that seems to be determined less by internal logic than by the exterior demands of the story. Still, there’s much to admire and respect here, from the near-perfect, spot-on production design that mixes technology from different eras, to the occasional seamless VFX shots of the Earth and the space station, to the all-too-brief scenes filled with escalating action and potential disaster.
Rubikon is available to rent or buy from the usual video-on-demand platforms.
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