Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Europa Report (2013) ****

“Europa Report” may be the best film from 2013 that no one has heard of.  It almost slipped right by me.  I was looking for something to watch while working out, and Netflix offered it up on a list of action movies, where it didn’t even really belong.  I’m glad they listed it, though, because otherwise I likely never would have seen this awesome, low-budget, slow-burner of a sci-fi horror story.
Filmed in found-footage style, “Europa Report” tells the story of a group of astronauts on an extended mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.  By extended mission, I mean the trip there takes two years, so this is serious dedication.  Their motivation is the possibility of a liquid ocean underneath the ice of Europa’s surface, and the speculative possibility of life forms in that water.
The story is told through footage from cameras on the spacecraft and in the spacesuits, with fill-in narration by members of the Earth-based control team.  The story is told partly out of sequence, so a sense of menace is established early on by the revelation that 1) Communications are lost a few months into the journey, and 2) Something happens to one of the crew on the way.  Then there’s a long period where not a lot happens other than some character establishment and cool science background stuff.  Ultimately, they make it to Europa and find more than they bargained for.
This film has generally met with good reviews, but I have read accusations that it is nothing more than a horror film.  These accusations are completely unfair.  The film does create a sense of dread, using the found-footage format quite effectively to make the viewer strain to see what is just off camera.  The scary things that happen, however, are in service to the greater story about the crew’s heroic dedication to getting their data back to earth.  At times they do things that we know are going to end badly, but it makes sense that these astronauts would take these risks in the pursuit of knowledge.
That is the great strength of “Europa Report:” it tends to make sense.  The film shows a lot of respect for the science behind its story.  The cast is also excellent.  There are no big stars, but you may recognize Michael Nyqvist from the original, Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Sharlto Copley from “District 9.”  (Both outstanding films in their own right, by the way.)  The footage is mostly claustrophobic, but the occasional shot of the icy surface of Europa and of Jupiter as viewed from Europa are stunning, reminding us of the sense of wonder that drives this fictional mission.  It’s unfortunate that this film failed to find an audience.  It was only shown in about a dozen theaters, and according to internet sites has raked in less than a million dollars.  I suppose the pace is too slow for many viewers.  Hopefully the film will find a second life as a cult classic for those who have the patience for a gripping story that doesn’t insult your intelligence.

4 stars out of 5

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