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Europa Report

August 4, 2013
Europa Report

You might remember a couple years ago Timur Bekmambetov produced a found-footage horror film called Apollo 18, supposedly about a secret last manned mission to the moon gone terribly wrong. It was pretty run of the mill — more exciting, at least, than the Paranormal Activity snoozefests — but the strident, “no, really guys, this is all true!” marketing and posturing grated on me. Europa Report, on the other hand, doesn’t position it as at all real, but it manages to be incredibly realistic. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to call it a true “horror” film at all; it’s a work of hard science fiction with some scary elements. Because, hey, doing science at the edge of human exploration is dangerous and scary sometimes.

To astronomy and exobiology fans, Jupiter’s moon Europa has held a certain fascination for a very long time. Thirty years ago, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, the powers controlling the monoliths warn us to “attempt no landing there” as the Leonov tries to investigate. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has famously spitballed that he’d like to sink a probe beneath Europa’s thick, icy surface into the underlying ocean and “see what swims up and licks the camera”. And that’s just what the international crew of the Europa One mission set out intending to do.

But traveling further than any human ever has is dangerous. Six months into their 22-month outward trip, the ship loses communication with Earth. At the same time, they lose one of their engineers (Sharlto Copley), though we don’t learn exactly what happened for some time. The other engineer (Michael Nyqvist) is pretty broken up over it, though, which has the mission commander (Daniel Wu), the pilot (Anamaria Marinca), and the science team (Karolina Wydra and Christian Camargo) worried enough to bring him along to the moon’s surface, leaving the orbiter unmanned.

This does sort of feel like the setup for Nyqvist to snap, but again: it’s not really that sort of movie. Instead, it’s positioned as a history of the mission, edited together in retrospect with some commentary from the earthbound planner (Embeth Davidtz), explaining why we went and what we found when we got there. And, as an exploration of the human desire to learn and explore for the betterment of our entire species, it largely succeeds. But it does spend a lot of time trying to feel like a suspense or horror movie, and that doesn’t work nearly so well.

The most glaring problem is the frustratingly nonlinear structure. I’m hardly insistent on traditionalism in all cases, but jumping around as much as this film does is detrimental to the goal of telling this story. There is absolutely no need to put off the six-month incident until halfway through — indeed, until after the main narrative thread has already landed the crew on Europa — other than some misguided notion that tension must constantly rise across the course of the movie. Indeed, all the characters develop over the course of their journey from the excitement of the launch to the tension of the arrival at their destination, and shuffling that all together robs us of the ability to watch that development play out steadily. Worse, references to Copley’s loss — and to Nyqvist’s resulting mental state — start to behave as unnecessary convolutions rather than a serious treatment of human psychology under such extreme conditions.

Problems with the story structure aside, Ecuadorean director Sebastián Cordero shows some great technical chops in getting the look right inside the ship. One particularly impressive shot looks along the length of the rotating habitation modules, from one end with simulated gravity, through the zero-G central hub, and further out to see someone climbing “up” from the simulated gravity at the other end. And all this evidently shot in Brooklyn.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had some good hard science fiction in the movies instead of space opera or horror dressed up in a sciencey costume. It’s been so long, evidently, that even the filmmakers feel like they have to look more like horror or action films. But despite that tendency Europa Report achieves a mostly solid landing, hopefully paving the way for more and better stories like this to follow.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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