[2 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Star Trek called it “the final frontier”, an allusion to the unexplored plains of the 1800s which saw many a pioneer plot out their own piece of the still in development American Dream. Fast forward a century and a half and we’ve seemingly given up on space, the space race, the mission to Mars, and any other ideas of cosmic conquest. Some will suggest cost as the reason why. Others may argue that, with the Russians resorting to backwards Conservatism in light of their newfound democracy, there’s no enemy requiring we push technology to its limits. Most are just tuned out and uninterested, believing that anything beyond our galaxy, or better still, our orbit, no longer holds the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
Instead, we visit our vision of a space in a fictional, speculative setting, watching as marauding aliens invade our planet amidst dystopian futures and crumbling skylines which play like a penalty we must pay for being such a self-centered, self-important species. We line up to see cities vaporized, humans obliterated, and our great oceans rise up to swallow what’s left of our once grand civilizations, all in the name of fun. Sci-fi, to rub a bit more dirt in Harlan Ellison’s still-open definitional and aesthetic wounds, has been reduced to dogfights, laser blasts, and high tech doohickeys. We could care less if there is life on other worlds just as long as they don’t have us in their plasma pulse powered gun sights.
So it’s hard to imagine that a thinking man’s thriller like Europa Report will resonate beyond a certain D&D demo. It’s a geek game played for the highest stakes. Really nothing more than a mystery wrapped inside a less than viable cinematic approach (the found footage film), it’s light years better than a similar attempt at something both space and scary, Apollo 18. Indeed, with a realistic style that suggests an actual trip to the outer moons of Jupiter and some amazing CG work, this novel if nominal effort boasts a kind of authenticity which helps distract us from the narrative givens this sort of story supports. For the most part, we know where the plot is headed. Thanks to the technical craft involved, we don’t really mind the routine.
A group of astronauts travel to the title planet to explore the possibilities of life on same. They include mission chief William Xu (Daniel Wu), pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca), scientists Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra), and Daniel Luxembourg (Christian Camargo) as well as engineers James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley) and Andrei Blok (Michael Nyqvist). Back on Earth, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz) and Dr. Solokov (Dan Fogler) hope they will locate some signs of organic life beneath the icy surface of the unexplored world. Naturally, there are some glitches along the way and several members of the crew are lost. When communication is restored and the captured video reviewed, something truly terrifying is revealed.
It goes without saying that this particular mission ends up exposing something no one, not on board the ship or back on their home planet, could have ever anticipated. However, the audience will know where things are going the minute a mysterious blue “glow” is seen emanating from beneath Europa’s icy surface. It’s a call back to The Abyss, with elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mission to Mars, and dozens of other great to god-awful sci-fi efforts. Along the way, a certain predictability lingers, as standard story elements creep into the copious techno-speak and truly impressive computer generated landscapes. The movie was shot in Brooklyn on a soundstage, so almost all of the exterior elements are rendered and they look marvelous. Too bad the script doesn’t offer a similar level of truth.
For example, we know that a radiation flare will cause a communication drop, which in turn requires a space walk to repair. We know that the job, which takes many hours, will face a crisis with just a few minutes left. An accident will happen. Oxygen will be lost. Tethered lines will become loose and a character we care about (or at least, have been set-up to sympathize with) will suddenly find themselves auditioning for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Similarly, when another astronaut strays from the ship to go exploring, they will run into the “blue light” from before and make a half-heard attempt to explain it away before being cut-off. Video images will be available if blurry. There will also be unexplored romance, a desire to defy convention (look how ethnically diverse our cast is) and some terrific takes on the material.
But Europa Report lacks a hook, a real investment to keep us glued to the occasionally jumbled narrative. Because we start off with a brief bit onboard the ship, then back down to Earth to see the various science big wigs patting themselves on the back, it takes a while before we get that what we are witnessing is not happening in “real time”, but recovered when the ship regained communications in its last moments. Similarly, the insert sequences with Fogler and Davidtz dampen a bit of the suspense. We worry about our astronauts and what they are finding. Then Doctors Unger and Solokov step in and misdirect the tension. Sure, when some unseen “thing” appears to be stalking the ship, we’re anxious. When someone tries to explain it away, we’re not.
In the end, however, Europa Report succeeds because it doesn’t resort to action trope histrionics. It doesn’t require a superhuman heroism beyond the players’ pay grade. All the acting is excellent, the set design and overall look as spot-on as it gets (NASA even says so) and Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero does a great job behind the lens. If the script by Philip Gelatt is a bit too rote for the rest of the production, it’s to be expected. No movie has the guts to question our place in the universe like Kubrick did with his 1968 masterpiece. Instead, Europa Report understands audience expectations and tries to simultaneously circumvent as well as meet them, head on. The result is an often engaging, sometimes aggravating experience that reminds us how vast said final frontier really is… and why we will probably never get around to any serious scientific examination of same.