– Summary –
Director : Sebastián Cordero
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Embeth Davidtz, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Daniel Wu, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Anamaria Marinca, Dan Fogler.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: The first manned expedition to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, goes a little wrong.
What we think : Pulsating, effective, inspirational science fiction film – of the “found footage” variety – that resets the bar higher than ever before in what can be achieved with the genre. The characters feel real, the scripting and attention to detail is astonishing, and the end result will slay just about all comers to this stylish film event. It’s the kind of film that reminds me why I never wanted to be an astronaut. You’d be silly to miss this one.
Damn that pesky distance in outer space.
The second of two “found footage” space films released recently (the other being the less intelligent Apollo 18, reviewed elsewhere on this site), Europa Report is alternately exhilarating and terrifying, much like the Space Odyssey films, or even Duncan Jones’ Moon from a couple of years back. As a film designed to be as realistic as possible (even though it’s set some time in our future), there’s little to criticize in this regard: every aspect of the film’s science reality seems flawless, as if this actually was a manned mission somebody went through. Personally, the idea of being stuck in a floating tin can, traveling through space at faster than sound speeds, the vast gulf of space enveloping me in its infinite loneliness, fills me with dread. It’s like being buried alive, only substituting a cold, airless vacuum for dirt. It’s as close to nightmarish as I’d care to get – which of course makes perfect fodder for a nightmarish film to needle my subconscious with its terrifying reality. Europa Report (in some territories, merely Europa) tries to accomplish what Apollo 18 couldn’t quite – make me believe what was happening on the screen might have actually happened (no small feat, considering my cynicism with found footage films of late) and for that, it begs your attention.
Six astronauts aboard a privately funded space exploration mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, encounter some… issues with their journey as they recount – through the recording devices on board the ship – their eventful journey. From take-off through to landing on Europa (yes, it’s no spoiler to reveal that they make it to the surface of the extraterrestrial moon), along with the activities undertaken in the meantime, are recorded throughout the journey. The mission is designed to try and determine if microbial, mono-cellular life exists on Europa, by landing at one of the thinnest areas of the moon’s icy crust. By drilling into the surface, the astronauts hope to break through the crust into an underwater layer, where they hope some form of life may exist. Radiation, erupting gas pockets, electrical disturbances and other strange events begin to occur on the surface, with the mission uncovering vastly more information than they thought possible – it’s when things take a turn for the worst, and they try to return to orbit, that things go horribly wrong.
In the last few years, I’ve seen plenty of found footage films, and almost to a one, they’ve led to disappointment and frustration; the sub-genre of found footage films seems to have quickly spawned a cluster of dreary, ill-conceived, generally shock-and-awe styled “event” movies, from the likes of the Paranormal Activity franchise to the more challenging REC and Quarantine, and even into horror (The Last Exorcism). Most of these films have tried to capitalize on the Blair Witch framework: build up your characters, have them pitted against some unseen, frightening menace from off camera, have them run about screaming, and in the last few frames (or scene), reveal said menace to shock the audience. Either that, or some tangential derivation thereof. Europa Report is based around this very plot conceit, although it does something largely different to just about all the other found footage films of the last few years – it tries to make itself as realistic, as believable, as possible.
Europa Report is set aboard a space vessel hurtling through the ocean of our solar system, to Jupiter, and as far as this viewer is concerned, the production seems to have got every aspect of what space travel and exploration is really like. The film’s narrative is built up over the first hour of documenting the humdrum life these people lead as they stretch the mission into its second year – not month, year – and all the associated boredom, frustration and complexity of interpersonal relationships that would inevitably bring. The mission is largely dealt with through flashbacks (of a kind), as the film time shifts from the “present”, where several talking heads recount events up to now, and “the past”, in which the events leading up to “now” are revisited via the on-board web of cameras to capture all the action. The procedures and movement of the personnel on board is exacting in its believability (apparently several space advisers were ever-present on the set of this film) and through this, you get to thinking that this might have actually happened. Were it not for Sharlto Copley’s apparent predilection for having his accent sound a lot like Porky Pig’s the entire time, you would be completely sucked in. In any case, it’s the 360-degree world built by director Cordero and his team that hook you into the terrifying journey these people undertake, as they travel to one of our distant planetary bodies for a bit of a look-see. That’s what makes this film better than the rest.
The cast perform their roles with exceptional clarity. Each one of the crew has a defined personality, a genuine arc through which we see them grow and change – sometimes for the worse – as the mission continues. Sharlto Copley seems to be the chosen Comic Relief of the film, with his character, James Corrigan (did the writers know the DC Comic’s character The Spectre was once linked to a human soul named Jim Corrigan – perhaps some subtle subliminals there?) being the most effusive in his praise and condemnation of events as they unfold. Michael Nyqvist has a tougher time as the vessel’s chief engineer, Andre Blok, being the “old hand” at space activity during his 18 months aboard the International Space Station. His character feels more inclined to be the weaker spirit of the bunch, but as the film progresses he proves otherwise. It’s canny casting, and even better writing. The ships captain, William Xu (Daniel Wu) feels like he’s too young to be leading the mission, but Wu’s performance (aided by the terrific writing) makes him a most approachable leader, rather than an overbearing or arrogant one. Christian Camargo plays Chief Science Officer Daniel Luxembourg, whose job it is is to liaise with the crew to study any data and information they find while on Europa. Camargo normally does creepy well, but here he’s solid in a generally straightforward role. The gorgeous Karolina Wydra plays science officer Katya Petrovna, who assists Luxembourg with his research, and who eventually becomes the first human to step onto another planetary body other than the Earth or the Moon, when she goes to get samples of ice while on Europa. Wydra has a ingenue quality about her, almost pixie-ish, and this innocent look only makes her arc all the more impactful. Anamaria Marinca plays the ships pilot, Rosa Dasque, who doubles as the one in charge of recording all the data aboard the vessel, including the camera feeds. Marinca has perhaps the most undulating emotional arc of any of those in the film, and she performs with admirable grace. I’m keen to see her in more movies, after watching her in this. She’s unconventional, yet displays an underlying soul that keeps the film hanging together when it could have fallen apart. Small roles to Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler as mission controllers (of a kind) allow the backstory of the film to unfurl as things progress. Seeing Fogler in this more serious role is refreshing.
The direction from Sebastián Cordero is first rate. Instead of going for typically overdone shock-and-awe in this film, he allows the narrative to build through a more naturalistic fashion, more akin to a documentary than a fictional feature film. The camerawork is more or less static – most of the cameras aboard the vessel are locked off, while several EVA suit cameras and one hand-held device do allow some more “shaky cam” moments, although these are blessedly few and far between, used sparingly but with great effect when required. Cordero wrings as much pathos from the characters as he can, using tidbits of dialogue to build our knowledge of them (Copley’s Corrigan is the most promulgated of all those aboard the ship), before pulling the rug out from under us in the cataclysmic final act. There’s not a moment in this film that isn’t somehow important to the story, with Cordero manipulating our appreciation and understanding of these people throughout the film, not just from the first scene. The characters and the mission aren’t as cut-and-dried as one might think, and this gradual onion-peeling Cordero achieves is masterful in its execution.
Visually, the film’s look and feel are sensational. From the visual effects of the ship and Europa, to the lighting and cinematography (by DP Enrique Chediak – he also lensed films such as 28 Weeks Later, Charlie St Cloud, and 127 Hours, among others) are engaging, effective, and highly stylized. Mixing raw real footage and the film footage, as well as providing a sharply sterile ship interior to counterpunch the alien Europa surface world, the film has layer upon layer of shadow, darkness, light and shade – exactly what you want for an effective thriller. IMDb lists four separate editors on this film – no doubt the multiple cameras on set provided many hours of footage to work through – but the film comes together as a seamless whole, rather than a quartet of competing styles and ideas. Kudos too to composer Bear McCreary, whose lovely sonic work on this film provided both terrific ambiance and effective startles throughout the runtime. His elegant piano motifs are sublime, and totally not what you’d expect for a science fiction thriller such as this. Or at least, not what I expected.
Europa Report isn’t totally without flaws, however. At times, the dialogue becomes terribly indistinct through post-processing the audio for the intra-ship communications, especially when the digital degradation begins to occur through the electronic interference. Audio jumps, picture cut-out and digital interference are rampant throughout the latter portion of the film, when things become tense, and I think I missed a lot of what was going on largely through being unable to understand what was being said – I could hear it, but I couldn’t always understand it. The final act doesn’t quite have the powerful impact I was hoping for; the opening act of the film has a very powerful harkening back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (they even through in a bit of The Blue Danube just to hammer home the point – it’s funny, but somewhat incongruous) that elevates this beyond a mere genre piece, yet although the meticulous scripting delivers several raw shocks and “oh my God’s” throughout, the finale seemed to come from nowhere and just end. And the end lacked bite – a lot like Apollo 18, where the results of the entire film hang on the final few frames, so too does Europa Report, and while I was initially enthralled, some reflection gave me time to think about it and come to the opinion that I wasn’t as impressed with the ending as I was with the opening.
Generally, though, there’s a lot to love about Europa Report. As a found footage film, it’s actually pretty decent – the characters aren’t all spiteful or annoying or cloyingly camera-hoggish, and the story is largely straightforward even if there are numerous flashbacks jumbling things up to keep it interesting. The reality of the film is such that it truly does draw you in, make you keen to see these people survive what must surely be a one-way ticket to oblivion (Europa is a f@cking long way from Earth, don’tcha know!) and keep you on tenterhooks through its gasping, resolutely un-saccharine final act. I loved it, I really did. I doubt it’ll be regarded with as much fervor by the general public as it will be (hopefully) by other film critics, but fans of quality cinema – especially quality science fiction – will lap this up. Top class stuff.