Saturday, June 29, 2013




Directed by Sebastian Cordero
Written by Philip Gelatt

With Anamaria Marinca (Rosa Dasque), Amnamaria Marinca’s adorable pixie cut (itself), Michael Nyqvist (Andrei Blok), Karolina Wydra (Dr. Katya Petrovna), Sharlto Copley (James Corrigan), Daniel Wu (Dun “William” Xu), Christian Camargo (Dr. Daniel Luxembourg), and Embeth Davidtz (Dr. Samantha Unger)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Europa Report: a science fiction movie where not every technological surface is a touchscreen. If that’s not refreshing enough, how about Europa Report: a found footage horror movie with almost no shaky cam? Or Europa Report: a movie about space that isn’t scientifically retarded?

Like the Discovery and the Andrei Leonov before it, but with fewer crazy AIs and secret mission parameters, the Europa One has been launched to the outer solar system.  Its mission: to find life, if there is life, on its most potentially-fecund moon, in the vast and mysterious tidally-heated ocean that exists beneath Europa’s ice. The cost is a pretty reasonable $3.7bn (my impression is that under four bills is a real bargain for sending humans to Jupiter). The astronauts, cosmonauts, and euronauts selected for this five-year mission form a Mark III Standard Crew, including a Wide-Eyed Explorer (Katya), a Crybaby Fatalist (Daniel), a Bleary-Eyed Russian (Andrei), an Ellen Ripley (Rosa), an Android (William [sorry, Mr. Wu]), and a Family Man (James).

Guess who is who, bearing in mind one of them is not pictured and everyone looks really sad.

Deep characterization isn’t the goal of Europa Report, so broad strokes are entirely sufficient here, and really, cheap cracks aside, the performances all range from solid to very good, particularly Marinca's Rosa, Wydra's Katya, and Nyqvist, being the one actor you’re likely to recognize, as Andrei.

Michael Nyqvist doesn't care about your splitscreen technique.  1/9th of the screen is more than sufficient to see into your soul.

Found footage probably hasn’t been done this well or this seamlessly since, well, ever—Blair Witch is a classic, for good or ill, but that movie, and so many in its subgenre fail to explain the camera's presence in every scene, and sometimes in all of their scenes.  I now sort of wish I’d watched Apollo 18 to compare its and Europe Report's respective effectiveness, as a spaceflight movie is one of the few instances where the in-universe presence of the camera is pretty much always justified.

Everything marked, everything ‘membered, to hear the tell of Captain Xu: Europa One boasts between fifty and a hundred cameras to chronicle its historic voyage. The great thing is that most of these cameras are stationary. In one of the few instances a hand-portable camera is used, it actually gets placed on a tripod! So it is that Europa Report is something of a minor miracle in this arena: a found footage movie with more static shots than most movies these days with a non-diagetic lens.

I offer you the highest five

That said, there are plenty of POV shots from the astronaut’s head cameras, but they’re smooth and elegant, really serving to put you in their spacesuits, in a way jumbly-cam rarely does. Additionally, there are many shots of the crew’s faces that invade the hell out of their personal space, usually in intimate moments of mortal terror.

"Just use your Ultra Combo, Katya."

Mortal terror is indeed a frequent mode for Europa One. It does not sit outside the ambit of the genre that gave birth to the found footage technique. Once it finds its pace, it is very much a hybrid between horror and science fiction, and much of its tone will almost certainly remind one of Alien, though the primary antagonist here is the inhospitability of space and Europa itself rather than any rape monster. It’s not genuinely scary often, arguably ever, but it’s atmospheric; Europa is repeatedly described as “creepy,” and it really is.  And though it's no Clint Mansell, the quasi-minimalist score complements the rarefied atmosphere on this Galilean moon.

The reason found footage horror movies likely developed the bad habit of shaking the camera in the first place is simply that obscured visuals are, all things being equal, spookier than clear ones; shaking is only one means to this end.  There are older and better ones: badly-shot and badly-edited 16mm Eastmancolor film, for example, can effectively disturb, even when the subject is innocuous (even when the subject is extremely goofy, if you take my reference).  Every frame of Europa Report looks like a last known photo, and that is exactly what you want.  But since the cameras are largely fixed here, and the digital video crisp, Cordero must find another way to obscure if he wants to work his way under our skin.  Luckily for him, nothing gets under the skin quite like radiation.

Brief science lesson: Jupiter is an enormous turning body with spinning metallic hydrogen in its core, and as a result has an enormous and enormously powerful magnetic field. It’s very fun to imagine people building cities on the big Jovian moons, and it's not totally impossible, but Callisto partly excepted, the idea has always been problematic for reasons besides the obvious ones, like lack of atmosphere, minimal insolation, and gross geological instability. The closest three Galileans pass through Jupiter’s magnetic field.  Thus, surface radiation levels are extremely, and fatally, high. And while I suspect that the effects depicted here might be somewhat fanciful, it’s true that radiation is not good for electronic equipment—like cameras—either.

A representative sample of about 20% of the movie.  Er, not all at one time.

The tale of the Europa One is told in fauxcumentary, and initially fragmentary, form, with many cuts away to Europa Ventures CEO Dr. Unger and her employees, expositing or commenting upon events we have seen or will see. This, perhaps surprisingly, engages rather than distracts; just as the found footage of the movie proper adds authenticity, the documentary conceit helps sell that this totally, really happened, in the future. These interview segments put the found footage in its context: following a massive solar flare, the communications systems aboard the Europa One were damaged, contact with Earth was lost for over a year, and only now do we know what happened afterward.

The story opens following this storm, but we also get footage from before it. Though it’s not as cut-up as a Pulp Fiction, it’s also nonetheless not as coherent. Extensive “flashbacks” (and “flash forwards”) intersperse the narrative, particularly glaring when we jump back before Jupiter, and way before anything beyond the infinite, to finally chronicle the bad outcome of the astronaut revealed to be dead two minutes into the movie.

Relax. My Science Mullet will protect me.”

This structure engenders some problems, and multiple watches of Europa Report might be rewarding, but for the wrong reasons. The fact that almost all of the story takes place within the confines of a spaceship makes the jumps in time a bit confusing; chronological chicanery of this sort is much easier to pull off when you have distinct settings to move between. But, there is one very compelling reason for this technique, which I cannot detail without spoiling, but I can say it plays a pretty good trick.

Time sickness notwithstanding, the big “flashback” that is the worst offender here is, in itself, highly effective. Nothing gets me quite like a dying astronaut, but, as is so often the case, it’s the little things that turn enjoyment to love. Here, James has, during his EVA, contaminated himself with a facefull of toxic hydrazine propellant.  He can't bring it into the highly sensitive environment of the Europa One, or everyone will die.

My Science Mullet didn’t protect me!”

Andrei, even more bleary-eyed than usual because of a punctured spacesuit sustained in the same accident, tries to save him. Almost unbelievably, Europa Report actually gets it right: since decontamination is impossible in the airlock (though this seems like a negligent design), Andrei suggests he take the suit off in the vacuum. “Less than two minutes. It’s survivable.”

Arthur C. Clarke arises from his grave and applauds: of course it is. Human skin is completely capable of surviving a variation of one atmosphere of pressure, which is why we don’t implode when we go into the deep end of a swimming pool. Andrei neglects to tell James that he should exhale first to avoid barotrauma, and fatal hypoxia is definitely possible, but obviously James knows this because he’s a Goddamned astronaut. Not that any of this works out, and James gets Frank Pooled to death at solar escape velocity, but it’s nice to see highly-trained people trying, and screenwriters not bending to popular misconception.

I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned that I had a family.”

It’s after this point, with forty minutes to go, that the movie finds its temporal footing, and from here onward it is basically without flaw. Things go devastatingly wrong, and James is not the only casualty this mission is going to sustain.

Not long after landing upon Europa, weird things begin to be observed, and it's to the movie's neverending credit that, while the possibility of fatigue/craziness is never dismissed, the allegations brought to the group are taken seriously, because these are serious people.

This makes 'em go nuts.

But evidence does mount, and it becomes increasingly apparent that space is more inhospitable than we thought and Europa in particular does not like guests.

Found footage movies can get kind of sloppy when it comes to how the footage gets found in the first place. Europa Report uses this as its most important plot point, and how the footage does get back to Earth is what sets it apart from just recycling horror tropes in space, like Alien did. This is a science fiction/horror hybrid that really earns its genre wings in both. Europa Report never, ever forgets that its characters are scientists, not space truckers who don’t give a shit. It’s one of the few sci-fi films that really has that old sensawunder, and gets that it is not dissimilar to fear.

I wouldn't suggest it to a horror fan based on that element alone.  But for those desirous of hard sci-fi involving astronauts in trouble, well, I suppose you could wait for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in October if you wanted, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Europa Report is available on VOD presently, including iTunes and Amazon. I watched it thru Amazon’s Instant Video service, and cost was a factor—I didn’t comparison shop, but there it’s $10 for a rental (a 48 hour rental if that makes any difference—and it may, as I am tempted to watch it again while I have the right to).

There is something a little annoying about paying a theater ticket’s price to watch a movie in my house, but ultimately this is an extra-niche product targeted squarely at my most sensitive niche.  Therefore, for me, it was completely worth the price. I’ve got a hard bias, if not a hard on, for movies like this, but the only thing more useless than a reviewer without a bias is a reviewer who isn’t aware of them. If, like me, you are partial to space, pleasant surprises, and a winning combo of bleakness and reaffirmation of the power of the human spirit, pay your money and take my word for it that you’ll be rewarded.

Score: 9/10

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