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Losing Ground in Space with 'Europa Report'

The found footage film is less immersive than it is distinctly designed, continually reminding viewers of the ways movies are made, how they shape your experience.

Europa Report

Director: Sebastián Cordero
Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Wu, Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Karolina Wydra, Embeth Davidtz, Christian Carmago
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-08-02 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-05-14 (General release)

"I woke up one morning, I woke up at some point, and didn't recognize myself." Rosa (Anamaria Marinca), the pilot of a spaceship headed from Earth to Jupiter, speaks to a camera, recording her thoughts on the journey. It's early in Europa Report, but already late in the journey, a scramble of time that serves as both theme and plot device. Just now, Rosa is worried about what's already happened as well as what's ahead. "Objectively," she goes on, "I know it's the zero G and the isolation that changes you, but that doesn't make it any less strange. Doesn't stop you from slowly breaking."

Her face in this frame is at once strange and familiar, the sort of wide-angle image you've seen in other faux confessional videos, but also worrying, her complexion slightly flushed and strained. The change Rosa's feeling, the slow "breaking," is at once metaphorical and concrete for her, translated for you by the movie's found-footage affect. Europa Report makes smart but not surprising use of the method, most often used in horror movies, a means to situate viewers in the midst of terrible undertakings, via recovered recordings by filmmakers who don't (usually) survive. Here the generic handheld camera is eschewed for the fixed camera perspective of the space mission: tight shots show faces peering into monitors and limbs or torsos that happen into frame; longer shots show rolling ship parts and blinking lights, wide images of crewmembers in bunks or on exercise equipment.

Of course, such scenes recall other, non-fond-footage versions of the workaday space mission movie, from 2001 (referenced here repeatedly, beginning when the astronauts hear "The Blue Danube" as they leave earth's orbit) and Alien to Solaris and Moon. And much like these films, Europa Report offers up a trajectory of change, as astronauts begin with high hopes, or at least dreams of financial reward, and end up in the grip of something they can't anticipate but you often do -- a monster, a force, a corporation. Rosa here essays to describe that sense of embranglement before she feels it. If she does feel a change, or a explains away that feeling, she doesn't guess that the change has to do with a power beyond her reckoning.

Rosa's limits are only reinforced by the fellow crewmembers who have ventured with her into deepish space -- at least, the first time anyone's left near-earth's orbit since 1972. As the film cuts back in time to show the start of the mission, they seem bright and eager, identified at a press conference by CEO and Lead Mission Planner, Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz). She and Dr. Sokolov (Dan Fogler) appear before reporters, ready with animations and soundbites, extoling the Europa's exciting capacities and the goal, to discover life on Jupiter. "We all started with a shared dream of space and possibility," she says in an interview apparently edited into the found footage, her formal demeanor and framing aptly and jarringly dissimilar from the recovered images, as these show the team's growing panic and persistent hope.

That footage shows the various personalities of these players, from Rosa's quiet resolve to Andrei's (Michael Nyqvist) grim reserve, from Katya's (Karolina Wydra) sharp passion to James' (Sharlto Copley) regrets: "You know," he tells science officer Daniel (Christian Carmago), "My boy's going to be six when I see him again." You can almost see the dead-meat marker on his forehead at that point, and you aren't surprised that the movie -- for all its smartly composed and enthrallingly scritchy images that leave the scary stuff off screen -- slides into an obvious cautionary tale, the Icarus story where the tantalizing, ever mysterious objective is Jupiter's icy waters rather than the sun.

But even as the several individuals' familiar arcs (their fears and thrills, their sacrifices and dreads) come together into a similarly familiar whole, Europa Report does present a compelling question concerning the use of found footage -- its space and possibilities, as it were. Founded on the idea of limited perspective, locking viewers into what a subject (or an unmanned surveillance camera) can see, found footage also opens up the formal structure of beginnings and endings. It provokes questions about narrative rationales and subjective motives in ways that more conventional films do not; it is less immersive than it is distinctly designed, continually reminding viewers of the ways a film can be made, shot and edited and altered by soundtrack choices. It's not that other movies can't do this, but that found footage movies always do it. "What if I can't believe or trust my own eyes?" asks Andrei. That's exactly the question that drives Europa Report.


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