Jul 10 2013 1:00pm

Going To Space, Economically: Europa Report

Europa Report

With this being the time of summer that blockbuster fatigue begins to set in (if it hasn’t already) for those prone to the condition, the decision by Magnet Releasing to debut their new micro-budget film Europa Report on VOD is a smart one. It’s a character-based SF movie that aims to derive its suspense from filmmaking and performances rather than attempting to dazzle (or bludgeon) the audience with special effects. And it hits the target: Europa Report ranks with the better SF movies in recent memory, regardless of scale.

Its basic premise suggests Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two without the monolith: an international team of astronauts sets out to investigate Jupiter’s moon Europa firsthand, under the hypothesis that there might be life in the liquid water beneath its frozen exterior. They lose contact with Earth, but continue on with the mission, in the face of the astounding danger and isolation.

The familiarity of premise, and the traditions derived from all the works it shares, ends up being a tool writer Philip Gelatt and director Sebastián Cordero use to their advantage. Freed from the pressure to innovate, Gelatt simply and effectively creates a crew of scientists far more plausible than Hollywood’s usual doctoral students in thermonuclear bicep flexing, brought to life by a solid international cast (including District 9’s breakout star Sharlto Copley, the increasingly ubiquitous Michael Nyquist, and Anamaria Marinca, whom you could call the Anna Karina of the Romanian New Wave if you were so inclined).

What really makes Europa Report special, though, is what Cordero builds on the foundation built by the cast and script, which is a subtle and steady rise in tension over the course of the entire movie. Cordero builds suspense through elements as simple as where he puts the camera, or where the actors are in the frame. The conceit of the cinematography is that it’s all documentary footage, but for once it’s in a scenario where it’s not only natural but necessary to have cameras everywhere, alleviating the usual suspension of disbelief problem with the “found footage” genre.

Put in more emotional terms, a movie set in space should feel like it’s set in space, and Europa Report captures both the enormity of space and the claustrophobia six people in a too-small spaceship feel when spending years crossing millions of miles of it. The absence of artificial drama means that the discomfort and fear the highly-trained scientists evince is tightly controlled, and all the more affecting for it; when someone who never shows fear is visibly afraid, it’s even scarier.

There’s a point where the most suspenseful aspect of the movie is the apparent inevitability of the conclusion, which is impossible by the movie’s internal logic (and it’s a good enough movie that faith in its internal logic is possible). I won’t spoil it, except to say the ending is both something you’ll have seen coming and yet still surprising, in an exhilarating way. Thus closes the circle of Europa Report: the things that make it fresh are the things that are familiar, and vice versa.

It’s always nice to see a good (and good-looking) SF picture that doesn’t cost a zillion dollars. This isn’t to say that it’s not also awesome to see giant robots punching giant monsters, but a pleased nod of approval that there’s a bit of variety for SF fans at the movies these days. It’s even better when the movie’s as good as this one is. The motivation for sending the astronauts into space—basically, because going to space is cool—is the litmus test for Europa Report: if you find yourself nodding in agreement, you’re in for a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half. If not, well, my condolences.

Europa Report sees wider release on august 2nd but you can watch it now through video on demand. Go here for more information.

Danny Bowes is a New York City-based film critic and blogger.

Eric Saveau
1. Eric Saveau
I watched this over the weekend, and it was awesome beyond words. The thing I really loved about it is that you never doubt that these people are all believably competent scientists, and that whether working a problem or dealing with something darkly emotional they do it like real people rather than with Hollywood histrionics. It truly looks and feels like the video record of an actual manned deep space mission. I've never seen anything else like it.
Christopher Bennett
2. ChristopherLBennett
@1: Some years back I saw a BBC program called Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets that was sort of halfway between fiction and nonfiction, teaching about the planets of the Solar System through a "mockumentary" format about a fictional space mission, with all the footage of the astronauts captured by the onboard cameras, and with the whole thing played naturalistically rather than melodramatically when things went wrong. I thought it was an interesting format and a fresh take on drama, and something that I would've liked to see used for a full-on work of fiction. The BBC special did inspire the ABC series Defying Gravity, but that took a much more conventional approach to the drama and pretty much tossed good science out the window, as well as being pretty stupid, so that was disappointing.

Europa Report, on the other hand, sounds like exactly what I wanted. I'm looking forward to seeing it.
Eric Saveau
3. Eric Saveau
@2: CLB, I will confess to rather quite liking Defying Gravity. I certainly saw its flaws, but I got that a lot of that was due to how it had to be pitched for network television. I really liked the production design and thought that most of the actors did a good job regardless of the material they were given. Despite the requisite TV melodrama I thought the creators' ambitions were clear and admirable, and that it was a shame it didn't get either a better start, or a chance to rise above its first and only season.
alastair chadwin
4. a-j
Second your recommendation of Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. On top of the qualities you mention, there was also the politics and occasional intense pressure between the spaceship crew and the ground crew. An unfussy and very effective little SF tale.
Eric Saveau
5. Conorh
Budget movie it may be but the scenes of descent to Europa are unforgettably beautiful and real. It evokes memories of Carl Sagans Cosmos and animated depictions of the voyager missions. Anyone who remembers the side Story from Arthur c. Clarkes 2010 about the fate of the Chinese mission to Europa will know what's coming next - an experience that has haunted me since I read it - an experience of loneliness, isolation and bravery. This movie is a performance that develops that tale in a dignified homily. Well done to the story teller, the movie makers, the set and special effects teams, and the cast. Space nerds, dreamers, and anyone who dreamed of being an astronaut.... This is your movie
Eric Saveau
6. mjd
I thought the ending was stupid, a slimy sea monster kills a crew of supposedly intelligent astronauts...and they appear OK with it! So, IT (some kind of octopus thing) was smarter than a space faring species who mastered the technology to venture half way across our solar system. Also, on a mission to investigate a freaking planetary ocean, they brought NO weapons! right. NO, the monster should have been killed..and tissue samples sent back to earth (-:
Christopher Bennett
7. ChristopherLBennett
@6: Wow, did you ever miss the point of the movie. There are no "monsters" in nature, just new forms of life. The discovery of life on another world would be a profound, transformative scientific breakthrough, one that would redefine our entire view of the cosmos. Anyone willing to go through the hardship of a manned spaceflight to Europa would willingly give their lives to achieve that breakthrough.

That's what I loved about this film. Superficially it followed the same story beats as any horror film, but it subverted the formula because the characters really wanted to be there, needed to find out what was in the dark, and the ending was presented as a triumph because they succeeded in their mission, even if it meant paying a cost they were willing to pay.

And why the hell would they have brought weapons to explore a world that they believed might at most have microbial life?

I do have a few quibbles with the film. Why didn't the spacesuits have maneuvering jets? Why did Katya go out on the surface alone, instead of with a partner? And I didn't care for the actors moving around as if in full Earth gravity on the surface of a world whose gravity is slightly smaller than that of Earth's Moon. I understand it's hard to simulate low gravity and they didn't have the budget for it, but it was the one glaring break from reality in what was otherwise a solidly plausible film.
Eric Saveau
8. mjd
"And why the hell would they have brought weapons to explore a world that they believed might at most have microbial life?" It's called "Planning!" (A.) Despite the assumption of microbial life, it was just that, an assumption. However, they knew for fact that it was a OCEAN, and our experience here is that oceans frequently have creepy predatory things swimming around; thus a weapon, even a small one would not have been a bad idea. And re "monsters," well, that depends on ones point of view I suppose. I just don't like the idea of an intelligent highly technological species being defeated by a slithering..thing, ah, "life form." That ruined the movie for me (-;
Eric Saveau
9. Rancho Unicorno
I happened on this article while reading the Her review. Saw it (but missed the first 30 min or so) in November and came away impressed. Had a SyFy movie of the week production feel to it, but the story really caught my attention.

I had some of the same issues as CLB (along with, why wouldn't you tether any time you enter an unstable environment?), but found the suspense good enough that I could also suspend my disbelief. If only the folks weren't all so incredibly good looking, I might have liked it even more. I can buy a couple or few naturally very attractive members of the crew, but they all looked good, even millions of miles from the nearest makeup store place.

As for mjd, I'm hoping that the winking emoticon was intended to be a trolling indicator.
Christopher Bennett
10. ChristopherLBennett
@9: Funny, my impression was that they were rather de-glamorized in appearance. The only one who stood out to me as unusually attractive was Karolina Wydra, although she wasn't as made-up here as she was as Dominika on House.
Eric Saveau
11. Frances Alba
It was a great movie. I believe it gives hope to the outter world,in space. Its an eye opener to all thoughts and science. I can say it was great. Imagine all this and mankind discovered it,wouldnt it be nice.

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