Monday, March 17, 2014

Europa Report

Directed by Sebastian Cordero.
2013. Rated PG-13, 90 minutes. 
Karolina Wydra 
Daniel Wu 
Embeth Davidtz 
Christian Camargo 
Anamaria Marinca 
Isiah Whitlock Jr. 

The first thing we are shown is the last image transmitted before communications broke down with the man-made space vessel, the Europa One. It carried a crew of six on mankind's first foray into deep space. The name was taken from their destination, one of Jupiter's moons. Their mission was to see if they could find further evidence that we are not alone in the universe. Europa was chosen because apparently scientists learned water is present there. Of course, the theory is where there is water, there is life. So, what happened?

We find out what went wrong through found footage of the fateful flight. This footage is interspersed with "interviews" of some talking heads who were involved with the mission from here on Earth, televised news clips, and some reality TV style confessionals from the astronauts themselves. Combined with the dead serious tone of much of the movie, this gives us the feel of watching a documentary rather than a dramatization. The technique works pretty well. Europa One's crew is natural during the footage of them working and living together and in an explanatory mood during the one-on-one time with the camera. Our Earth-bound higher-ups are sufficiently reflective and stuffy.

The footage itself nicely blends sci-fi with elements of horror. There is plenty of NASA style jargon spoken, but it's all explained. We don't get lost in a see of run-on sentences filled with multi-syllabic words. However, we still feel like these are people far more qualified than ourselves to be embarking on such a journey. On the horror end of things, it borrows heavily from Alien. This isn't a bad thing as it adds a sense of dread to the proceedings. That dread is juxtaposed with their relative calmness, at first, then their excitement over the possibilities. They don't become fearful until late into the movie. Even then, they're not afraid of what we think they should be.

In general, there are two main problems with found footage films. First, someone always has to have a camera and what we should realistically be able to see is limited. If someone isn't already holding the camera, they always have to remember to grab it before running away from whatever is giving them problems. The nature of the mission our heroes are on helps The Europa Report skirt the issue. It's man's first trip beyond our own moon. Communication must be kept with mission control here on Earth. Aside from that, everything that happens is an historic event and worthy of recording. Therefore, there are cameras all over the ship and on just about every piece of mobile equipment the crew has. For the most part, we see whatever any one of them can see without breaking the rules. The other issue is one the movie can't really avoid. The conclusion feels pre-ordained, even to the least astute viewers. The footage is found because the people in it were not. This is not a spoiler, it's a genre fact. Start with The Blair Witch Project, work your way forward and you'll see what I mean. Having this knowledge can rob a film of its impact. And so it does, just a bit. To its credit, the movie manages to retain some power with a well chosen stopping point.

All told, The Europa Report is a solid entry into the found footage canon. Its plot and setting helps it remain unencumbered by many of the genre's normal contrivances. Therefore, the movie is free to concentrate on building tension and suspense the same way as more traditionally narrative films. It does a pretty good job. This isn't quite a horror flick, but it does make solid use of many of that genre's tropes which keeps us engaged.

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