June 27, 2013 (VOD)
August 2, 2o13
United States (English)
Directed by Sebastián Cordero
Written by Philip Gelatt
From the believable performances to the high fidelity of visual effects, Europa Report is an impressive sci-fi thriller worth your rapt attention.
A half-dozen international astronauts have just blasted off from our planet's surface. Their destination? Europa, the ice-covered moon of Jupiter. Predicting that life can be found under it's frozen surface, the privately funded mission has garnered a great amount of press. No, Weyland Interprises is not behind this endeavor, though the immediate comparison to Prometheus is warranted. Like that film, whose second and third acts frustrated me as much as they probably did you, Europa Report is an astounding technical achievement only mired by its script and pacing. This film will be completely overlooked come awards season, but it has already made my shortlist for the best visual effects in 2013. This praise is made all the more astronomical when you consider the mere 18-day shoot at Cine Magic Studios in Brooklyn that comprised the production of this film.
From the onset Europa Report appears to be a found-footage film. A myriad array of cameras in and out of the ship that would make the creators of The Truman Show proud are our windows into the landmark mission. Handheld digital cameras and helmet-cams are later introduced to add to the vantage points. Finally the long-running bewilderment of "Why in the hell would the characters still be running around with a rolling camera?!" that has bothered the found-footage movement (i.e. see my review of Chronicle) is a non-issue. It then becomes clear, with the inter-splicing of news reels and interviews before/after the mission, that this is a heavily assembled project. Overall, it's more faux-documentary than found-footage, a sub-genre that horror seems to have brought home to its own nest. One' s verisimilitude need not stretch far for the believability frequently established here.
A couple faces amongst the crew stuck out: Michael Nvyquist, Daniel Wu and Sharlto Copley (of District 9 fame). Even with this relative fame onboard, these six delivered refreshingly realistic performances that seldom brought me out of the experience. Copley especially gives what is one of my favorite supporting performances of the year. We'll see if he can bump himself off the list in his villainous turn in Elysium, another card at the sci-fi table due out next month.
After a technical mishap leads to a fatal accident for one of the crew their mission takes on an all-new gravity. Speaking of which, that nerve-wracking sequence evokes the teaser trailer for Alfonso Cuaron's upcoming film, Gravity, which in turn evokes an unforgettable sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, one fo the best films - let along sci-fi films - ever crafted. If I haven't made it clear by now Europa Report may have one of strongest airs of authenticity since Kubrick's masterpiece.
Europa Report completely nails several aspects of a space voyage, the take off and eventual landing for starters. After they are in the clear and out of the Earth's atmosphere there is a relieving jubilation aboard the ship and back home. Seat-belts are unfastened and Johan Strauss's "The Blue Danube" is queued (another welcome nod to 2001). Then there's the landing on Europa. How often have we seen landings on alien spheres in film? Everything from this year's Star Trek Into Darkness all the way back to Fred M. Wilcox's wondrous Forbidden Planet comes to mind. (That film by the way is a sci-fi classic pre-dating Star Trek, but feels like one of their galactic adventures nonetheless.) Europa Report may have the most impactful setting down on an extraterrestrial landscape since James Cameron's Aliens. Europa itself gets seen from afar (from outer space above) and then up close (upon and under it's surface), it's as convincing as anything NASA and the rest have shown us over the years. It's a foreign plane of mystere that has as strong an effect on the astronauts as it will on us.
At one point a camera is brought under the ice and my thoughts were drawn to Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, a documented travel to Antartica, which might as well be Europa. In Encounters we meet the people who have drifted to the Arctic, it's small selection of indigenous life, and explore both sides of its glaciated ground. When we go under Herzog pontificates with the following, "Under the ice the divers find themselves in a separate reality where space and time acquire a strange, new dimension. Those few who have experienced the world under the frozen sky often speak of it as going down into the cathedral."
A quotation from Daniel Wu's character, one of the spacecraft's pilots, is repeated during the events of the film, "Even if we find nothing, it is in fact a discovery." This being a sci-fi thriller you can bet they'll be something. The film manages to regain its tension after what I felt was an unnecessary peak at drama-to-come during the first five minutes, no doubt an attempt to hook contemporary generations who don't care for slow Bunsen-style burns. From the time they send out one of the ship's droids, the film's rising action only continues to escalate. Less is more (especially when it comes to showing us what could be out there) and it appears that Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero fully understands that for that most part. I just wish that mentality would have been unbending throughout.
At times Europa Report's pacing feels akin to a (500) Days of Space as we jump back and forth through the timeline of the report. A digital counter at the the bottom of the screen keeps track of months, weeks, days and hours since they've left Earth, but I'll admit to losing track of the chronological flow. A cut and dry account from beginning to end, yes, much like a found-footage film, may have been much more effective. That also would have spared us from the talking head of Embeth Davidtz, a mission commander of sorts who provides the film with a narration after the events of the film. Her's is the only performance in the film that feels like just that, a performance.
There's something about seeing a film set nearly entirely in space from the open darkness of a theater. We're seated in our large chairs, like the astronauts onscreen, ready for take off, sharing a sense of wonder of what we're about to experience amidst a common black expanse. It's enough to fill that void until Gravity releases later this year. Europa Report is currently available on video on demand, but for fans of sci-fi, especially accounts with a striking allegiance to scientific realism, you may want to seek this out in theaters come August. Unfortunately the film is only getting a limited release at the beginning of next month, but if it is playing in a city near you and you're digging what you're hearing, it will be worth the voyage.
"Even if we find nothing, it is in fact a discovery."
- William Xu
CONTENT: some frightening sequences, brief language