Thursday, August 1, 2013

Europa Report - an intimate look at space exploration

Release Date: Aug 2, 2013
Director: Sebastián Cordero
Review by Emily Bettencourt

The exploration of new galaxies, trips to new planets, and the existence of alien life are all concepts that have a well-earned place on the shelf of science fiction classics. I was somewhat doubtful that Europa Report could deliver the space journey story in a new way.

The film, directed by Sebastián Cordero, is billed as a documentary-style science fiction thriller, which charts the journey of a privately funded spacecraft exploring the icy surface of Europa, Jupiter's moon. After a catastrophic technical failure and a loss of communication with Earth, the astronauts must complete their mission alone, and survive both the toll of deep-space travel and the discovery they make on Europa.

It's the documentary styling that makes Europa Report unique. It doesn't quite fit into the found-footage genre, but the film does rely heavily on a sense of realism provided by fixed onboard cameras—a rare move in a genre dominated largely by sweeping camera angles and grand storytelling. The onboard camera footage provides both a window into the daily lives of the crew members and a means for them to tell their own stories, in the form of recorded video logs.

This realism is also where much of the tension in the film has its origins. The cameras record every aspect of the crew's daily life, which gives viewers access to even the most tedious details of their routines—a trick which could be grating, if done poorly, but one which Europa Report handles remarkably well. The psychological and physical costs of deep-space travel are not so difficult to imagine when the viewer has such direct access to the astronauts' daily lives. 

Another of the film's strengths is its cast, comprised equally of familiar and unfamiliar faces, all of whom delivery a cohesive and powerful performance. Some more familiar names may include Michael Nyqvist (of Millennium Trilogy fame), Daniel Xu, and Christian Camargo, as well as Sharlto Copley, Karolina Wydra, and Anamaria Marinca. Although some characters have more screen time than others, the actors work well to deliver an impressively convincing portrayal of a group of people trapped in a tiny space, alternately cooperating and annoying each other.

The third area in which Europa Report excels is in the science and the attention to detail that went into it. The filmmakers worked with NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratories, SpaceX, and more in order to most accurately depict what a mission to Europa would look like—from the surface of the moon itself, to the spacecraft necessary to get there, to the life that they may or may not find on the surface. The structure of the spacecraft's design comes from NASA research and development archives, and the creature models were created with the help of leading astrobiologists. As a result, the world that Europa Report inhabits is full of rich detail, creating a plausible, mind-blowing experience.

However, I did have one major nitpick. The film's documentary style is framed by sets of interviews, with staff and scientists from the company that funded the Europa mission. However, the film itself seemed to be an attempt at an in-media-res telling, but with little logic and in no particular order. The sequences of events felt choppy and disjointed. Catastrophic events happened to characters that I had not yet become attached to. This may be a style that some viewers have no difficulty following, but I found myself confused in many places and, unfortunately, my confusion remained at film's end.

Europa Report certainly succeeds at being a unique approach to the space odyssey story, with its documentary-style film-making and the sparse, even bleak storytelling. Despite its (in my opinion) flawed chronology, it was still an interesting, at times heartbreaking, and often armrest-gripping flick that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys the space exploration genre.

1 comment:

Ann Wilkes said...

Emily, I agree. We just watched it on Netflix last night. The back and forth drove me crazy. It really didn't have to be that hard to follow. It plodded along at times with the split screens and bad transmission quality that didn't really do much for the story or plot.