Lazarus Jones tackles the sci-fi thriller Europa Report. See if you agree with her review below.
Directed By: Sebastián Cordero
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Quiet science fiction is difficult to come by these days. For every Moon that comes out there are a few dozen After Earth style big budget events. Then there is the current trend of found footage style film making that is often tied to jump scare horror and a feeling of claustrophobic budget constrictions. Europa Report has both of these giving an air of an Apollo 18 rehash. Instead it aims for loftier meaning. Instead of space horror, Europa Report is a love song to the triumphs and tragedies of human exploration. It’s not terror that drives the tense scenes of the film, but the peril of man navigating an unknown universe.
Europa Report is directed by Sebastián Cordero, a filmmaker from Ecuador, with an international cast, including District 9’s Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist from the original Dragon Tattoo Trilogy and Chinese-American Daniel Wu. They are three of the six person team of astronauts that are sent on the first private manned flight to Europa to find signs of alien life after water is found under its icy surface. The premise of the film is that there are cameras set up around the ship, recording and sending a live feed back to mission control. Around the six month point of the trip a radiation spike causes the feed to be cut and the crew looses contact with mission control. What we are watching is data that has been received by mission control at a later date, with occasional commentary from some of the mission runners that were still on the ground. What we see are the struggles of the crew to continue on the mission, the dangers they face, and eventually what they find on the planet.
The first thing to notice is that the filmmakers carefully researched the science space travel. They consulted both NASA and SpaceX about the plausibility and design of the ship and how it would travel. The film stays incredibly grounded in this realism. It’s to their advantage; there have been so many large scale space films that there is a danger of the realistic threats seeming mundane. The realism helps bring home the simple dangers, like the difficulty of getting a radioactive liquid on a space suite and having no way to clean it off to allow reentry to the ship. The camera placements are also well done. They are stationary, save for the occasional helmet cam that allows for intimate moments. This prevents the usual handheld camera sickness. Its also allows the scene to playout with multiple camera angles.
Accuracy and technical prowess don’t mean a lot though if there isn’t any story. The obvious comparison is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Europa has earmarks of it, but without the heavy metaphysical implications. It’s coming from the generation of Neil deGrasse Tyson more than Asimov. Nothing is pulling humanity out from its comfortable planet except humanity’s own curiosity. The film’s main message is said more than once. Paraphrased, it is “What is one human life compared to all the knowledge we have yet to find?” This sounds sinister, with potential for HAL level problems to occur, but the film is giddy about it instead and wants to encourage the same in the audience. Its main focus is on the nobility of sacrifice for knowledge. Their obstacles are not rogue computers or malevolent aliens. The sense of exploration in Europa is a frontier mentality, where it is a vast and indifferent nature that they are accidentally caught up in it. The description of it having peril is probably the most accurate an MPAA rating has ever been. Peril is the cost of knowledge.
Its weaknesses may lay in its adherence to realism. The cameras are placed carefully, but the style doesn’t allow for as much emotional manipulation. Its is minimal, but noticeable. Characters are well written, but subdued. Also, the movie can run a bit dry on occasion. Technical jargon can eek its way into scenes and noise distortion means missed dialogue. Then again, its tendency to not play up melodrama or exaggerate the discoveries made on Europa are what keeps it from falling into Mission To Mars territory. Deaths that occur during the film have weight and purpose. They don’t feel forced for the sake of drama. And while doing all of this in the service of Knowledge feels a little excessive, its resistance to answer all of the big philosophic questions make it more accessible. This is helped even more by the caveat that we are watching this because the people who funded the project want to share it with the world, as opposed to the usual government cover up story or secret tape.
In the end, the movie wants to have tension and peril, but it doesn’t want to scare you out of the water. Instead it paints a modern explorers story, where death and pain are very real threats, but for the sake of something bigger. What it wants more than anything is for you to be inspired to go forth and explore. It’s a beautiful watch if you are a science junky, and if that isn’t your forte, there is adventure and adversity to engage you, though it could feel a little dry for some. I would recommend giving this movie a look, in a theater for the full effect as the sound and visuals are spectacular on a large scale.
Europa Report opens in theaters August 2nd. It is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and peril. Available now on VOD on iTunes and Amazon.com.
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