Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, November 26, 2013
So, I’ve been looking forward to watching EUROPA REPORT (2013) for a few months now. It first came to my attention on Amazon’s streaming service, where I could have rented it for the price of a movie ticket before it opened in theaters, but I waited. It played in limited release in the theaters, and during this time it was removed from streaming. So I waited. It finally has returned, free for Netflix subscribers or a standard rental charge on Amazon, et al.
Yes, I’m stalling. Because.. I don’t know. This is one of those cases where I liked a film, but kind of didn’t, and am trying to write this review and decide which one wins.
So, let’s work this out together, shall we? Was it worth the wait?
It’s not like my expectations were really high; EUROPA REPORT is an independently-produced science fiction film, conducted by a relatively new director with a screenplay by a relatively new writer and for the most part starring a cast of relative unknowns. Redundant Einstein references aside, the fact that this film chose to take a serious look at what would be involved in a long-term, manned trip to Jupiter’s fourth moon (that would be Europa for those who haven’t had their coffee yet), using science that was NASA- rather than Lucas-based, appealed to me. The previews also promised some action along the way. Let’s do this, I say. Let’s be educated and entertained.
Meh. I think the reason that word just popped out of my fingers is because the filmmakers tried to do both but never found the right balance. At times entertainment overshadowed clarity of story, at other times an assumption was made that we (myself included) are smarter at space-science than we really are. Thirdly, a common error was made, one common to realistic human-interaction films, in that they assumed everyone in the audience once worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru. More on that last point later in the review.
A quick synopsis: A private company funds a manned mission to Europa, Jupiter’s fourth moon (ahh, good coffee). Europa One launches sometime in the near future. The trip is expected to take about 2 years. The crew’s mission is to look for signs of microbial life under the ice-covered surface of Europa… and thus prove we are not alone in the universe (granted, if they only find microbial life, we may as well still consider ourselves alone in the universe for the time being). Six months into the trip, Earth loses communication with the mission and never gets it back. Months and months of silence pass. What happened to the crew?
At some point, the full set of videos from the mission becomes available. Now the truth can be known. How did this happen? EUROPA REPORT is, basically, a found-footage film (or they imply “found” early on but switch it soon after, sort of, just keep reading). To their credit, the footage is done so well that you actually start to forget what you’re seeing are videos from fixed points inside and outside the ship. Found footage concept aside, this movie is also done up like a documentary, occasionally narrated (more so early than later, which I think was a mistake) by the mission commander, played by Anamaria Marinca (UN NUAGE DANS UN VERRE D’EAU, 2012). Marinca was decent as Rosa, but an unfortunate choice in casting because she looks a lot like the main actress who plays the pilot, Samantha (Embeth Davidtz, THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN, 2012, SCHINDLER’S LIST, 1993). Maybe they wanted to imply the two women are related. Maybe. But it had no bearing on the plot so I’m going for the casting error. The pilot, Samantha, also appears as a commentator in the film. Really? But she was on the mission. Ah, so this is not so much a found footage film as a returned footage film? This development was a good twist, because we at least realize that they made it back, or at least she did. We think. At least this way we’re not sure what’s going to happen and are kept guessing throughout.
Davidtz was strong in her role as Samantha. She portrays the pilot with a calm sincerity—as does most of the cast (such as Daniel Wu, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, 2012; Karolina Wydra, TRUE BLOOD 2013-2014). This every-person quality of the actors, and the fact that most of their faces are not known to the general movie-going audience, allows you to feel these could be real people you’re watching.
Not long after the transmission cuts out, someone has died, though they do not say who or how. We assume this will be revealed. We jump ahead sixteen months and the crew is going stir crazy, especially a gruff Russian named Andrei. The mysterious death has affected him the most, though we don’t learn why until 80% of the way into the movie. Andrei is played by Michael Nyqvist, likely the most recognizable face in the cast, though you’d be hard-pressed to put your finger on where you’d seen him lately (answer: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 2009; MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, GHOST PROTOCOL, 2011). As the movie progresses, he becomes one of the more likeable characters, because Andrei has some actual flaws, unlike everyone else who come off as a bit toomentally-balanced for having been cooped up in a tube for 2 years.
They do get to Europa and the movie shines when this happens. The visuals are very intriguing… many are real pictures (or derived from real pictures) taken of the planet and its moon from the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft (the NASA version, not the Enterprise’s). Though the surface landscape, once they land, is more Alan Clark than Carl Sagan, it’s no less awesome.* As I said, the movie shines best in the latter part of this film, where the actors are able to project stunned awe, as if they’ve actually landed there. Another high point is a spacewalk (as doomed as it will be for one of the characters) because it has a realistic, 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY (1968) feel to it (minus that classic film’s twenty minutes of helmet-breathing for which it’s so known and loved).
In between the opening and Europa is where the Meh came from. In the opening, we get a quick run-forward to six months into the mission, when communication cuts out. I like how they did this, but once the video of the remainder of the mission begins to play out, time jumps back and forth. Not for the crew, but for us:
Perhaps because a 22-month trip to Europa might be boring to the viewer, rather than just skip the zero-gee bathroom and endless staring out the porthole scenes, the director (or editor) went mad with the splicer in the cutting room. Instead of letting us share their trip in chronological order, they brought us 6 months into the trip then 16 months further, then back to the launch and 19 months later, back to 2 months in, 20 months out, 6 months again when communication cut out and the accident takes the life of a crewmember. Finally, things settle down in the final twenty-five minutes.
It was too much. The only indication where we were in time was a clock in one specific camera shot. It took me a couple of attempts before I figured out what I was reading (this might have been an issue with screen size, I think there was a “Mo.s” label too small to read on a normal-sized TV). These time jumps weren’t needed. People are watching this film to have a glimmer into what it would be like to travel a manned flight into deep space. Stay chronological and just cut out the slow parts. Jumping around only causes unnecessary confusion for the viewer and at times to the action itself. The death during the spacewalk wasn’t big enough to warrant all this cat-and-mouse, hide-the-big-scenes-until-the-end games. We weren’t vested enough in that particular character, anyway.
This isn’t to say the spacewalk scene wasn’t cool when it finally happened. The physics of it seemed pretty close to real, and the reason for the death of the astronaut was something that I hadn’t realized could happen. The uniqueness of it was very eerie, especially with the near-casualness of how it had to be handled. That’s not a complaint. Just the opposite, in fact.
I’m not going to talk about the ending—no spoilers—but I will touch on a couple of points in the final scenes in order to bring us back around to my earlier McDonald’s comment.
Most of us know that when you have a tiny microphone running alongside someone’s face in a round space helmet filled with sweaty padding and heavy breathing, the voices sound muffled. We’ve seen the moon landing vids, or listened to the space shuttle crew banter about. Everything they say sounds like it’s coming through a McDonald’s drive-thru speaker. That’s fine. For those of us who managed to avoid that particular job requirement (i.e., understanding drive-thru-speaker-ese), we have newscasters who can explain what they are saying, or subtitles. But in a number of climactic scenes of EUROPA REPORT, we had no such translations because we’re watching the events through the ship’s log tapes. (It just occurred to me I could have turned on subtitles, like I usually do for British TV shows since the entire country mumbles.) If this was an actual mission, we would just shrug and raise our hands, stick out our lower lip and vex, “Vat can you do? Nothing, that’s vat.”
But it’s a movie. If cleaning up the dialogue allows us to actually follow what’s happening, do it. There was an announcer who at one point explained what had happened in a prior scene, but the action had already occurred and our moment as a spectator had passed.
So, to my original question: did I like the film? Yes. There were good parts andMeh parts. There were no real sucky parts. I think the film might have done better as more of a documentary-style movie, with more commentary from others interspersed with actual footage of the mission and its subsequent discovery. It might have worked better then, and not worried so much about keeping stuff from the viewer until the last quarter of the movie.
EUROPA REPORT is a good movie, a little frustrating at times, but it mostly keeps your interest. It’s not a great movie. Going in, I didn’t think it would make my Best Of 2013 list next year, and it won’t. There were more good parts thanMeh, and the scenes on Europa were pretty cool. Well worth a view. Especially if you have Netflix.
I give it 2.5 Jovian Microbes out of 5.