Review: Rubikon – Cineuropa
– Director Magdalena “Leni” Lauritsch asks deep questions about human morality in her debut feature, but can’t always deliver an engaging plot to go along with them
George Bladgen, Julia Franz Richter and Mark Ivanir in Rubicon
There is a certain bravery in shooting your first feature film and setting it in a demanding setting. austrian director Madeleine “Leni” Lauritsch took up this challenge and directed his first feature film, Rubicon, in the space. Shot on a shoestring budget and with an international cast on a Vienna soundstage, his sci-fi adventure tackles the question of moral responsibility versus self-preservation. The film had its European premiere in July at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, was released in Austrian cinemas on September 16, is now in competition on September 18e Zurich Film Festival and will be presented to Siges Film Festival in October.
“There’s no shame in taking care of yourself, Hannah.” Such is the advice of biologist Dimitri Krylow (Marc Ivanir) gives Private Hannah Wagner (Julia Franz Richter) for a moment of desperation. We are in 2056 and the world is no longer governed by governments, but by companies. Hannah and scientist Gavin Abbott (George Blagden) have just docked with the Rubikon space station. Dimitri, who is stationed aboard, has conducted a series of experiments with oxygen-producing algae, and the mission is to oversee the delivery of the mother plant to Earth, where clean air has become a rarity.
But shortly after the launch of the shuttle, with Dimitri’s son, Danilo (Konstantin Frolov) on board, a distress signal hits the station. Something is wrong. But Hannah, Gavin and Dimitri don’t need to be informed; they can see. A toxic cloud engulfs the entire Earth’s atmosphere, causing them to lose contact. Shock follows uncertainty, until contact can finally be made. The twist, however, is that they’re talking to a group of 300 fat cat CEOs, who have managed to save themselves at everyone’s expense – civilians and soldiers alike, like Hannah’s now-deceased sister Knopf (Hannah Rank).
The question of how the three survivors should act is where Lauritsch departs from the usual shtick of military propaganda films. She’s not interested in Hannah and her cronies rushing in and saving the day; she wants to explore the conflict of the mind, embellished with an environmental message. Should we help these people, at the risk of dying themselves? Or should they stay on the Rubikon, knowing it could provide them with a forever home? Gavin wants to help, while Dimitri wants to stay. Hannah is caught in the middle.
While as a viewer one is inclined to commend the characters for not throwing themselves into a whirlwind of reckless decisions for once, all in the name of creating contrived conflict, something is missing. The moral dilemma and the tendency to inaction push the film too far into a dramatic impasse. Too little happens over the two-hour runtime, and what happens isn’t complex or metaphorically charged enough to be gripping. In addition to criticizing capitalism in a world where CEOs and corporations rule, he makes the same mistake these institutions keep making: he neglects the human factor. Despite all their conflicts and losses, the characters remain largely underdeveloped.
Where Rubicon impresses with its low-budget special effects and production design by Johannes Mücke, who previously worked with Roland Emmerich. Here he creates a manned, yet stylish space station reminiscent of earlier blockbusters such as Extraterrestrial. Rubicon is a sometimes undercooked but perfectly plated first dip in a promising genre career for Leni Lauritsch. Not quite on point, it nevertheless displays a precisely calibrated signature and a deft eye for what’s technically possible.