More Netflix provided goodness today, as I tackle a film that can place itself in and about the same territory as the previously viewed Gravity, only made for a substantially lower budget and ultimately going off in a much different direction than its more illustrious peer.
“Found footage” is a genre that can, when played just right, produce some really good entertainment. While Cannibal Holocaust was the first real example, I know that The Blair Witch Project really set the bar rolling on the whole thing. But, in truth, I always found that a somewhat mediocre example of the craft, though that could be down to my antipathy towards horror movies in general. No, it is more in the likes of the brilliant Trollhunter or the more well recognised Cloverfield that I feel the genre finds its greatest strength, in bringing fantastical visions to life in a way that makes them seem a bit more real than if they were depicted in the normal Hollywood blockbuster way.
Moreover, the genre provides a cheap and easily filmable way for people to get their visions on the big screen, which is usually a good thing, though it has been responsible for just as much dross, like the Paranormal Activity movies, as it has decent cinematic fare. Europa Report chooses the sci-fi route for its found footage tale, following in the footsteps of the likes of Chronicle and more particularly Apollo 18.
In the not too distant future, a six-man team of astronauts is sent on a four year round trip to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, to investigate whether its icy surface or hidden lakes might hold any signs of life. But the crew is strained to the breaking point by tragedy even before they get to their destination, and when they do finally get there they are faced with a deadly mystery that could alter mankind’s perception of its place in the universe.
I wanted to like Europa Report. It was a movie that had substantial ambition despite its tiny budget, and it contained some great ideas and interesting sequences. But by the conclusion I had grown somewhat bored, and ultimately disdainful of much of what had been presented beforehand.
The framing device of the plot, like it is some kind of documentary, struck me as very hit and miss. If they wanted it to be a documentary, much of the drama and associated stuff – like the soundtrack – should have been cut out, and if they wanted it to be a sci-fi drama than there should never have been constant flashbacks.
Embeth Davidtz’ role as the Earthbound mission overseer, a talking head with less than two minutes screen time it seemed, is supposed to be a sort of anchor for the rest of the plot, but I found her portions, and the other characters associated with her, to be just a distraction to the main plot, a delay and tease for the stuff that was to follow, which added precious little to the overall experience.
Slightly better were the bits with the Rosa character, initially inferred to be some sort of after action report, something I was ready to criticise as too much of a spoiler, but wonderfully inverted in the end, as part of a decent enough set-up for the conclusion.
The story itself is one of constant flashbacks, with a linear structure only coming into being for the second half, and even then it isn’t all one straight line. I understand that timeline skipping can create intrigue and a sense of mystery, but here is just felt jarring and left me with a distinct sense of confusion and irritation. There is setting a scene with some in medias res type stuff, and then there is spending 45 minutes bouncing around mission times. A lack of coherence dasmamges Europa Report from being as enjoyable an experience as it could have been.
And all that is made worse because the flashbacks are rather pointless. An extended sequence featuring news reports of the mission launch for example, offered no advancement to the main plot, and no real characterisation for the men and women going on the mission, beyond exploration generalities, which is not what such sequences should have been used for. I suspect they simply didn’t want to have their entire film shot within the narrow confines of the spacecraft and so envisioned breaks to news conferences and faux stock footage, but I wish they had just trusted in their ability to create a compelling story within the spacecraft alone.
Then there is the crux that most of the opening two acts are based around, namely the death of the Corrigan character. I found this plot point to be clumsily executed, and created more just to kill time before the actually primary stuff on Europa. Corrigan is as nothing a character as the rest of them, and his narrative and death are cliché to the hilt. You only have to see five seconds of him making a video message to a son he misses and you know that he is a dead man walking, a trope that was overused roughly five seconds of it first being created. Then the creators go even further and give him a cliché death scene, sacrificing himself to save another crew member and becoming lost in space.
Gravity did something very similar, but I actually preferred the way they did it, if only because Gravity was a much more competently presented production – and I saw that as someone who was not overly fond of Gravity’s story. But George Clooney’s Kowalski was still a better character than Sharlto Copley’s Corrigan, of whom I cared nothing, and whose death meant little to me. It’s impact on other characters contained some mild interest, but not enough was done with it past the landing on Europa, as if the production team, having found a way to keep the first half of the story ticking along, had enough of it when it came to the thing in the actual title.
Those sections, most of the second half, are much better, but are still let down by some of the inherent problems. The claustrophobic feel of the spacecraft is magnified by the strange goings on outside, and director Sebastian Cordero subtly and easily raises the tension and mystery bit by bit, reaching a crescendo near the conclusion. This was proper chilling stuff without the resort to big budget CGI, just simple camera work and some distant bright lights. That sort of tension building, the really effective kind, is very hard to do, and Europa Report does it despite the tedious nature of its opening half.
I wouldn’t call Europa Report a horror movie though, like so many found footage films are, and like this film might appear to be from the outside. There are precious few “start” moments that found footage horror tends to fall back on. The fear comes from that gradual build-up of unease and nervousness, until that crescendo of sorts when we head into the final straight of the plot.
The culmination is a depressing conclusion, where all of the crew members are killed. Of all the narrative choices, I can actually appreciate this one the most, as it would be so tempted to have just one or two survivors to leave the audience on an up. Instead, Cordero chooses to show us something that we must admit is much closer to reality – a total mission loss, if not quite mission failure. I’ll take about it more under themes, but the finale of Europa Report deftly mixes maudlin acceptance of death with the glorification of space explorations actual point, making it both happy and sad.
But, like I said, it isn’t all good. Any sense of engagement with the crew members and their story is damaged by their limp characterisation, most of them being fairly one note. Corrigan had the family he missed, Blok is a veteran going a bit mad, Petrovna is the rookie who is taking too many risks. That’s all the characters are, one dimensional to a fault, and as such you just don’t care about them or their fate as much as you really should have. Better to have spent that opening 45 minutes making us care about these people instead of a jaunty journey across timelines, better to spend flashbacks focusing on all of them individually or in a group than with fake news reports.
And the kicker is the very end, which I disliked. Europa Report offers us a clear and unambiguous glimpse of the monster/alien, and it appears to be a bioluminescent octopus/jellyfish of some kind. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t particularly alien looking, I found the very reveal of the animal very disappointing. Better I would have thought to never reveal it at all, and let the audiences imagination do its best with the limited information that we received. That would have increased immersion in the story, as the audience would have been as lost and out of the loop as the crew members, knowing simply that something, big enough to destroy the ship, is out there. Maybe even just a tentacle or something would have been sufficient, but instead Cordero went the whole hog, perhaps out of a fear of disappointing people who struck with Europa Report all the way to the end just to get a glimpse at whatever was dragging the crew members under the ice. I could have done without it.
Attached to that is another element of the ending I disliked, namely the last shot, which is the crew of the ship in happier times. I found that kind of a baffling way to end Europa Report, since they were such flat and uninspired characters, and the lack of characterisation seemed to indicate that the movie was not really about them. Since the ending dialogue is given over to praising the advancing of scientific understanding, despite the costs, I would have thought it be more appropriate to show the denizens of Earth preparing a new mission to travel to Europa, to seek new knowledge on this new form of life. That isn’t what we got, and the ending is all the more unsatisfying for it.
On the acting front, Europa Report is unable to really offer much, a symptom of the small budget and nature of the story that was being told. Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa is probably the best, if only because she is put front and centre of the camera for longer than any of the others. Karolina Wydra as marine biologist Katya also had some very good moments when she went on her walk across Europa, but that was the extent of her acting offering.
The rest of the crew members are various shades of dull. Sharlto Copley plays the aforementioned family man, with all of the predictableness that such a role requires. Daniel Wu is the ever bland commander of the mission who dies in sudden, yet slightly exhilarating, circumstances. Christian Camargo is little better. Michael Nyqvist as the veteran has just a bit more to do, but his anguished howl after losing Copley’s characters is embarrassing in the forced nature of the thing.
None of the crew members are very good then, Marinca excepted, but the fault might lie as much with the material and the set space as it was with the actors. I must be hard to emote in such a cramped, static environment, and with the threadbare dialogue and story they were given. Of course, Sandra Bullock did a much better job in a very similar movie, so it can be done, but she was working with the camera on her constantly I suppose, something no cast member here can claim to have had an opportunity with.
Other than that, Embeth Davidtz is Dr Unger back on Earth. I remember her being quite good in the first season of In Treatment, and she’s probably the best actor in Europa Report, even if her involvement is severely limited by the nature of her role, little more than a slightly more engaged narrator.
Europa Report can’t be criticised too much for the deficiencies in displays in acting. One must understand and have sympathy for a film that was being made on such a shoestring, and perhaps the lack of characterisation evident in so much of the film was as a result of Cordero choosing simply to work the best with what he had to work with.
It is in Europa Report’s visuals that it finds its other key strength. The vast, vast majority of the film comes from fixed cameras, the interior recording devices of the spacecraft. This is actually fairly unique even within found footage, which tends to fall back on handheld cameras for its recordings.
The fixed camera thing eliminates much of the concerns and time consuming process of filming, and it gives a decent perspective into the spacecraft and life onboard, one that feels a bit more “real” than, even say, the likes of Gravity. But reality is not always best of course, and Europa Report isn’t a patch on the visual presentation of Gravity. It gets boring, and the static nature of the visuals means that Cordero struggles to really come with anything that interesting to give the viewer some delights for the eyes. He tries, with split screens, random flashes throughout the timeline and other things, but they’re all brief and tie into previously discussed flaws.
Visually, it seems as if he was caught between his desire to frame this film like it is a found footage documentary and frame it like it is an actual movie, with action and a score. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Of course, a budget 100 times smaller than Gravity can be a considerable obstacle to overcome and given the nature of the production, within this cramped space, the fixed cam is as good an option as any. The claustrophobic feel of being inside such a small spacecraft isn’t created as well as it should be – the latter sections especially, when the crew have a relatively wide space to wonder around in, don’t feel quite right for the impression the director is trying to make.
I mean, the set is fine, just basic. Parts of it don’t ring true, it seems too slapdash, not spacecrafty enough. The little details have been neglected in favour of a quick copy, probably with an eye for the likes of Defying Gravity over Gravity. The very fact that the crew are walking around for the most part hits the realism measure hard.
There are plenty of good visual choices though. The constant changes in the timeline are marked by repeated outside shots of the spacecraft getting nearer or further away from Jupiter or Earth, and the way that the large Jovian giant gets bigger and bigger in the frame as time passes was a neat image choice. Also decent was the approach method taken as the spacecraft lands on Europa, a simple shot above the vessel as it approached the surface, its shadow drawing inexorably closer as it hurtled towards the craggy mass of the Connemara Chaos.
Something else I liked was the decision to go in close on the helmets during the EVA sequences. Gravity did something very similar, but actually went as far as going inside the helmet with the person wearing it, which was unnecessary. Europa Report does a bit better by staying just inside, enough to see the wonder and/or panic on faces during various tribulations, raising tension, and doing the best camerawork possible to take advantage of what I can only assume was threadbare sets on “Europa”. Seeing a mysterious and terrifying light in the visor and eyes of a crew member as she sinks to her doom was a far better way, visually, of creating fear and terror in the audience, than actually showing the alien at the conclusion. And, in the end, it was an unusually and almost uniquely calm way of going about it. No one is torn to pieces and eaten by an alien monstrosity in Europa Report. No, they either just disappear, or accept their fate with a peace that you wouldn’t find in other movies with the same elements. Like space monsters.
And that alien is…OK I guess? It’s a Europan octopus, so there isn’t really much that I can say.
The script is remarkably basic. Little of the majority of the film contains any lines or dialogue that really stand out, being mostly vague exposition and the simple stuff that keeps the plot ticking along. Not even family man’s goodbyes could rectify that as he drifted into space.
Better was the lines given to the characters in the ship and back on Earth towards the conclusion, as the point of their mission came to be blurred. “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known… what does your life actually matter?” asks Rosa in a narration over her imminent destruction ,one undertaken voluntarily in order to further the cause of science. A little worse is Unger’s closing question as to “what greater measure of success they could have achieved?”
I don’t know, coming back alive and intact in the process? Occasionally, the script falls back into this overly-simple look at the glory of scientific discovery, which can be a little preachy and irritating.
I loved the soundtrack of this film, even if it was one basic theme being altered or changed just a little bit throughout the running time. It was a sometimes soft, sometimes hard, evocative, thrilling, chilling and subtle piece of orchestral magic, and it came as no surprise to see Bear McCreary’s name pop up on the credits. He did wonders for Battlestar Galactica, and he does the same here. So good is his music, I would say that it is the single most effective and enjoyable part of Europa Report. Just listen.
Not so great is some regrettable aping of 2001: A Space Odyssey when it comes to musical cues, but you can’t have everything.
There isn’t a gigantic amount of themes within Europa Report is discuss. The largest is a look at the price of exploration and scientific advancement, next to its cost. Characters and dialogue routinely come back to this point, as the crew wonder about how much they are willing to give up in order to just find out if Europa has the ability to sustain the most basic kind of life. They’re willing to give up several years of their lives to do it. Some of them are willing to give up their lives to do it, even after the horror of having one of their comrades drift away.
That urge to explore, to satisfy the very human itch of curiosity, is evident throughout. When the marine biologist wants to go for a walk, several of the crew try to stop her, but the chance to find out the truth about the moon is too strong a pull: even though it ends in failure, we are not left in any doubt as to whether the unfortunate victim considered it a risk worth taking.
That’s all preamble of course, because the ending showcases the price of exploration – the death of the entire crew – with its worth, as the last few left alive do everything they can, not to save the doomed ship, but to simply get communications with Earth back online, an honourable goal that Europa Report thinks is worth doing. The crew die expanding the knowledge base of the human race, and those who survive them back on Earth are clear in their opinion that such a sacrifice is not only worthwhile, but something that humanity should strove towards. Europa Report then, is a film that is bizarrely optimistic about the human race, space travel and the future of exploration, despite its depiction of a mission that ends in six casualties. Such an outlook is rare to see in movies nowadays, with stuff like Pacific Rim coming to mind.
Most of the other themes are, much like large parts of Europa Report, small and one-note. The movie briefly looks at the nature of fear and how it can affect people in such an extreme environment, especially when combined with grief and loss. Fear can be a motivator, but it can also throw you off and make you weak, leading to characters in Europa Report second guessing themselves and leading eventually to horrific conclusions. Influenced too much by the grief for a dead comrade, some members of the crew are pushed to go too far, and end up joining him in oblivion.
In conclusion, I cannot say that was overly fond of Europa Report, almost to my regret. I generally have a great deal of sympathy and time for movies of this nature, made from a vision, on a small budget and with many redeeming elements. Europa Report has a plot that stands up in its second half, is great at creating and maintaining tension, comes up with some neat visual choices and features one of the best, if overly-short, soundtracks and scores of the year.
But it is suffers from a schizophrenic and jumpy first half, features no performances of any real note and can offer dialogue that is, for the most part, as limp as possible. A movie that fails to draw you in when it should, improves marginally and then blows it at the conclusion, Europa Report is, alas, a film I could only really recommend to an astronomy/astrophysics crowd. If you want to see this concept done better, do yourself a favour and check out Moon or Defying Gravity, a crowd of movies that Europa Report desperately wants to be seen as part of, but just falls, regrettably, short.
(All images are copyright of Magnet Releasing and Magnolia Pictures).