Styx is a procedural shipwreck drama. By that I mean it is a no-frills nuts-and-bolts disaster movie focussed on every last agonising step of trying to rescue people trapped at sea. As comparisons, you could say it’s in the vein of Gravity or, more accurately since it lacks Gravity‘s spectacle, All is Lost, the J. C. Chandor movie of similar set-up. We’re off the coast of Gibraltar and emergency doctor Reike (Susanne Wolff) has taken the weekend off to go sailing on her small yacht for a little-known island near South Africa when a storm hits. Reike and the boat survive well enough but in the aftermath she spots a ship that wasn’t so lucky and, what’s worse, it’s a refugee ship filled with children who are desperate and dying. Reike contacts the Coastguard who tell her to stay back whilst they plan a rescue, although the hours start ticking away and rescue seems to be in no hurry to get there.
You can probably already tell where this is going. Writer-director Wolfgang Fischer utilises this constrained step-by-step set-up and structure, shorn of Gravity‘s catharsis and (thankfully) pop psychology – no dead relatives on Reike’s mind, the children dying in front of her eyes along with her properly-aligned moral compass are already motivation enough – to make a blindingly unsubtle point about the current refugee crisis. How governments, authority figures, and corporations turn a blind eye to refugees’ plight and how those in a position to witness the trouble first-hand are caught between a rock and a hard place. How those in charge’s negligence and deliberate disinterest in the lives of refugees negates the efforts of people like Reike, leaving the trauma and risk on her shoulders. Fischer makes sure the refugee boat is in shot at basically all times in order to prevent the viewer from ignoring its existence like the authorities do; a technically impressive feat given that the at-sea portions (which make up almost all of the film) were done for-real at-sea, as Fischer was proud to point out before and after the screening.
The tactile, physical, in-the-moment sensation does provide its intended power. Taking in even one desperate child trying in a blind panic to reach Reike’s ship is a gruelling challenge, his scars and injuries drawing audible gasps from my fellow audience members. Susanne Wolff also gives a very physical, turbulent performance that had better open more doors for her going forward cos she can absolutely carry a film on her shoulders. But, fatally, there’s very little to Styx. Fischer lays out his entire deck of cards within about 25 minutes of this 80-odd film and plays them all by just over the halfway mark. Once Reike rescues one of the children, the film gets stuck in a drawn-out rut and can’t go anywhere meaningful until the last few minutes. This is intentional, because the whole thematic point of the movie is how Reike is incapable of doing anything (too many people get on her small boat and they’ll all die) and the authorities won’t do anything so you’re supposed to get frustrated, but it weirdly doesn’t translate to a dramatically satisfying or interesting film. Fischer doesn’t find enough variations to spin the material off in, so once the kid enters the picture, Styx becomes caught looping between the same two conversations over and over and over and over again.
That’s not even counting the filler padding this thing out. We open with a long completely irrelevant sequence of two monkeys chasing each other around Gibraltar, which Fischer claims is symbolic but wouldn’t expand further on that point, whilst the pre-storm sailing is quite honestly dull. Again, intentionally so, but good filmmaking it does not make. Styx also makes the baffling decision to import over the dialogue problems of Gravity, using the vast majority of its conversations spell out events and themes anybody actually paying attention to the movie will already have gotten and the result is tin-eared and mildly insulting. (The ending, especially, suffers majorly from this.) Styx is well-intentioned, technically impressive and infrequently powerful, but it feels more like a great short mercilessly stretched out well beyond its limits, ultimately ending up as a chore to watch for all the wrong reasons.