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Hannah Wagner, dressed in a space suit, looks out of a porthole in Rubikon Photo: Philip Brozsek/IFC Midnight

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The sci-fi morality play Rubikon gets stranded in orbit

This muddled space movie can’t get its evocative end-of-the-world premise to make sense

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The stakes don’t get much bigger or the canvas much smaller than in Rubikon, a sci-fi drama about the fate of the Earth, set aboard an orbiting space station. There, a handful of characters — just three, for most of the film’s length — stare out of their windows at a world that’s choking to death on toxic fog. They feel like they ought to go down to the surface and try to save humanity, but they’re not sure they can bring themselves to leave the safety of their orbiting cocoon.

In other words, this is a COVID movie. Rubikon’s tiny cast and minimal production probably have more to do with its budget and origin (it’s Austrian-made, though mostly in English) than when it was made. And Leni Lauritsch, the first-time director, wrote the film before the pandemic, with topics like global climate change and the European refugee crisis on her mind. But as she was shooting during the second wave of coronavirus, the parallels became inescapable for her and her actors, and they’re inescapable for viewers now.

On an emotional level, Rubikon is a film about how isolation breeds insular attitudes, and how easy it is for your horizons to shrink, even when you can see the curvature of the Earth from your bedroom window. We can all relate. On a moral level, however — and this is very much a morality play in the guise of a contained, pressure-cooker thriller — it’s about weighing your responsibility to yourself and your family against your responsibility to society. The trouble is, its metaphor is so starkly exaggerated, with the future of humanity on one side of the scale and three people in a tin can on the other, that it never fully makes sense.

Gavin Abbott, Hannah Wagner and Dimitri Krylow look concerned in space suits with red lighting in Rubikon Photo: Philipp Brozsek/IFC Midnight

The film is set in 2056, when air quality is so degraded that the upper echelons of society live in climate-controlled geodomes, and society has crumbled to the extent that nations have dissolved and been replaced by corporate entities. Hannah Wagner (Julia Franz Richter), a special-ops soldier for one of these companies, is posted to the Rubikon, a large, well-appointed space station with a small crew, where the scientist Dimitri Krylow (Mark Ivanir) has been developing a symbiotic system of algae cultures that can provide a limitless supply of breathable air. Accompanying Hannah is Gavin Abbott (George Blagden), a chemist and environmental activist whose rich parents arranged the gig on the Rubikon for him, seeing space as a safe haven.

At the very start of the film, something happens to the AI navigation system of Hannah and Gavin’s shuttlecraft, forcing them to dock with the station manually — for no apparent reason other than to demonstrate both Hannah’s military competence and sang-froid, and Lauritsch’s sure hand as a director with suspense set-pieces. Several times during the movie, she shows she can build and release tension with unflashy economy, using spare edits and letting the actors and the sound design do the heavy lifting. In these moments, Rubikon is at its fleeting best.

As a drama, the film is much less sure-footed. In its early phases, the script seems in a hurry to go nowhere. Lauritsch and her co-screenwriter Jessica Lind fail to take the time to properly set up the characters, the world, the plot, and the stakes. The international cast, who occasionally dip into subtitled German and Russian, are all at sea, and the audience is left confused about the particulars. Things settle a little when half the crew (including Dimitri’s son) departs the station and Lauritsch can focus on the three who remain: Hannah, Gavin, and Dimitri.

Hannah Wagner on the space station Rubikon Photo: Philipp Brozsek/IFC Midnight

The situation on Earth is particularly unclear. Obviously things are dire down there, but at some point, they get suddenly and catastrophically worse, as a boiling cloud of poison races around the planet, seemingly eliminating all human life. Exactly when and why this happens, and how it differs from the previous state of affairs, viewers have to piece together from silent, ineloquent reaction shots and snatches of vague, hand-waving exposition. As cataclysms go, it’s weirdly muted — although the visuals of the Earth turning from cloud-streaked blue to glowering brown have a distant power.

Lauritsch constructs a neat parallel to this, and another effective visual cue, as the bright-green algae panels that supply the Rubikon’s crew with their air start to curdle and darken. The reasons are unexpected, but this also sadly marks the point where Lauritsch loses her grip on the story’s credibility for the sake of her message.

The algae cultures are obviously of critical value to the survival of the human race on Earth, but Lauritsch’s scheme requires that the characters debate whether they should fly them down at all. Gavin, the environmentalist, believes they should; Dimitri, the scientist, is given contrived reasons for wanting to stay aboard the Rubikon. Hannah, the pragmatic operative, is caught in the middle.

All three actors are likable enough, and Richter brings a committed, wiry intensity to Hannah’s supposed dilemma. But at no point does it really seem like a real moral question, and as a result, few of Hannah’s choices ring true. Even though Lauritsch works hard to tip the scales — giving Hannah a strong personal incentive to stay, and invoking the specter of corporate greed and callousness on the surface — she can’t succeed in balancing them. On one side: a selfish, hollow, haunted existence as a vestigial threesome orbiting the graveyard of humanity. On the other: an attempt to save the future of humankind, no matter how risky or morally compromised. I’d like to think I wouldn’t hesitate the way they do.

To get herself out of this illusory moral maze, Lauritsch springs two separate deus ex machinas, neither of which feels earned. Rubikon’s plot crash-lands while its sincere intentions are left spinning fruitlessly in space, looking for a way back down.

Rubikon debuts in theaters and on demand on July 1.