Review: Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report (2013)

Directed By: Sebastián Cordero
Written By: Philip Gelatt
Starring: 
Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu
MPAA: PG-13

Review: 3.5/4

Splashy special effects and sci-fi go together like fried chicken and waffles—they naturally complement each other, but consequences arise should you consume too much of either one of them in a single sitting.  While the movie-going world needs a healthy dose of its AvatarsHunger Games, and [pick-your-favorite-superhero-here]’s, every meal can’t be a three-course affair, and space must be saved for smaller sci-fi films every once in a while.  Too much !SmashBangPow! and you’re bound to get desensitized.

The problem: “small-scale” usually means a low budget, which in turn suggests poor production values.  It’s not always the case though, and every once in a while the movie-making powers that be grant us a low-scale, high-concept gem like Moon, Donnie Darko, and—oh look at that, you guessed it!—Europa Report.  Europa Report is a “small” movie, but it’s also tense and ambitious, substituting computer generated spectacle with genuine thrills, and a naturally visceral sense of awe that proves once again that big ideas, solid characters and a great sense of imagination are not exclusive to multi-million dollar blockbusters.

Shot in a documentary-style format, Europa Report tells the story of six astronauts sent into space in search of extraterrestrial life.  We learn in the beginning that their mission was a failure, and that none of them made it back to Earth alive.  Giving away such a crucial detail so early on would have killed other exploration films–can you imagine how lame 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been if a voice over in the beginning detailed the fate of Dave Bowman?–but having this crew simply die isn’t the big mystery at play in Europa Report.  The journey leading up to their demise is what’s left uncertain, and believe you me, it’s a hook that will keep you floating along for 90 tight minutes.

There are numerous reason as to why people love science-fiction movies, but a big one has always been the element of the unknown.  All sci-fi films have this trait in one way or another–futuristic cityscapes!  Time travel!  Sociological anomalies!–but I’ll argue that the best ones, like Europa Report, leave “the unknown” left to be discovered by their characters.  It’s a narrative trick that works wonders for movies like this.  The audience learns things as the characters do, so we are surprised when they are surprised.  We feel fear when they feel fear.  We are relieved when they are relieved, so on and so forth.  It’s empathy on demand.

A big thing you’ll notice while watching Europa Report is that none of the suggested ideas really seem implausible.  It’s set sometime in the future, but the technology used here isn’t really all that different from what you would expect from present-day space travel.  It’s easy to rule such things out as a budget constraint (Europa Report was made for less than $10 Million), but I honestly think it speaks to the very nature of realistic space exploration.  A mission such as this  has never been attempted before; it would only make sense to keep things as simple as possible.  It’s a testament to the less-is-more philosophy, and it works.

And then there’s the science behind it all.  Look, I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t take a whole lot to convince me of the plausibility of science fiction ideas–a decent script and passable acting are enough to ignite my suspension of disbelief–but I finished Europa Report thinking along the lines of “when?” instead of the standard “what if?”  Here’s the gist of it: scientists have discovered running water beneath the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, and where there’s water, there might be life.  This fascinates humans, we must explore!  So we explore.

Naturally, things go wrong at first.  The crew misses their original landing mark by 500 or so meters, and they quickly discover that the ice is unstable.  Even the dangerous elements of this mission stay within the realms of plausibility.  None of the crew members go crazy, there are no outward “supernatural” elements causing them harm, and there isn’t an evil AI running amok.  The big problem is completely geological in nature, which again, makes complete sense.  Not having an obviously evil antagonist at play is a refreshing change of pace in this post-Skynet world we live in.

If I had to knock Europa Report for anything, it would have to be for an overall lack of originality.  Let’s face it: “finding things in space” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking premise.  What sets Europa Report apart from films of this ilk, though, is how effectively this film deals with these sci-fi exploration tropes.  Sure, we’ve seen this all before, and there have been times where we’ve seen them done better, but we’ve never seen it done quite like this.  The direction and acting are done so well in Europa Report that you’ll forget the fact that Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott already told this story.  That alone is the greatest compliment I could give a film that, at times, feels more like a fantastic cover song instead more than an all-out original.  Regardless of this, Europa Report is totally worth your time, especially if your sci-fi appetite needs a little less fat.   


Europa Report Theatrical Trailer

 

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