Ten years ago, German director Tim Fehlbaum’s decent little post-apocalyptic sci-fi debut “Hell,” made two category errors that impacted its reach and longevity, both of which are corrected in his decent, slightly larger post-apocalyptic sci-fi follow-up, “Tides.” First, somewhat forgivably, “Hell” was in German, and so although a perfectly serviceable survivalist riff on “Mad Max,” outside German-speaking territories it got sidelined, with English-speaking mainstream and genre audiences notoriously hard to covert to subtitles. Second, he set it in 2016, which duly came and went trailing various varieties of disaster, but none of which instantaneously turned continental Europe into a desiccated wasteland patrolled by roving bands of scavengers.
“Tides” is in English, and set at a time when a matchbook commemorating 100 years since the moon landing is a family heirloom passed down from a grandfather — in other words, far enough in the future that no one can impugn its powers of prophecy, at least not for a century or so. And given the opening titles, which inform us tersely yet vaguely that the reason for the Earth’s uninhabitability this time is “Climate Change. Pandemics. War.,” who among us would dare? One might even be pretty impressed that, according to this optimistic prognostication, we may even have a couple more decades as earthlings to look forward to.
Not so astronaut Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder). Born and raised on Kepler-209, the planet to which Earth’s “ruling elite” fled when the world flooded, as the film opens Blake looks to have mere seconds to live back on the Blue Planet. Hurtling toward the earth’s surface as part of a mission to see if it might be safe to return, something has gone wrong with the capsule. They crash into the sea. One of her crewmembers dies. The other, Tucker (Sope Dirisu) is injured. Blake, however survives mostly unscathed and so takes it on herself to go out alone on the first recon mission.
She has six hours till the tides come back in and four hours till they’re due to send word back to Kepler-209, but she’s only been gone a bit when a weird weather front starts rolling in and a, say it with me, roving band of scavengers takes both her and Tucker hostage. They come to in a dungeon/well that fills up quickly at high tide, with the luckless Tucker in dire need of medical attention. Tide tables, inclement weather, weeping wounds, windows of communication: this is perhaps a surfeit of deadlines, but you can never have too many loudly ticking clocks, right?
The scavengers are a tribe of survivors, and even more surprisingly, there are children among them. Since the humans back on Kepler have become sterile (add “biological” to the row of clocks above), the most crucial part of Blake’s mission is to see if Mama Earth will work her old magic and allow them to reproduce once again. But Blake’s own personal mission is to find her father — yes, “Tides” is also a “Space Dad” movie — an astronaut sent on the first mission to Earth, who was never heard from again despite the rash promises he makes to Louise in curiously unmoving flashbacks. Perhaps the leader of the more technologically advanced faction who lay waste to the scavenger village that day can help her with both missions … but can she trust his initial friendly overtures? Of course she can’t; he’s played by Iain Glen.
“Tides” has very little new to add to the well-populated genre about depopulated dystopias, but being a mash-up of “Dune” and “Waterworld” with a dash of “Children of Men” and a soupçon of “WALL-E” doesn’t have to be a problem. It certainly looks the part: DP Markus Förderer’s handsome, muted widescreen frames love the low sun’s pale light playing across the coastal tide plains. They worship the mists that dampen figures down to ghostly silhouettes and basically want to marry production designer Julian R. Wagner’s excellent gloomy, grimy interiors. Lorenz Dangel’s score is tastefully minimal, the actors all believe what they’re doing, all is solid, and while derivative, Fehlbaum and Mariko Minoguchi’s screenplay does nose tentatively into some interestingly conflicted areas, about biological determinism and just what us humans can morally justify to secure the survival of our own. Not to mention how we define “our own” and who we exclude from that definition.
But despite the seven different layers of drama piled one atop the other, the relationships of the piece never quite catch, which is particularly noticeable when instead of paying off with any of the emotional, psychological and even existential revelations that are right there for the taking, the film retreats into a timidly unsatisfying kill-the-bad-guy-and-everything-else-will-sort-itself-out finale. For all its classy craftsmanship, “Tides” just ebbs away.