For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:
Europa Report (2013) – dir. Sebastian Cordero
BEN: How far would you go to prove that we’re not alone in the universe? That’s the central question posed by Europa Report (2013), a hard science fiction film about six explorers and scientists who blast off on a rocket for a four year round trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa after it’s discovered that water exists on its surface. They hope that with that water is some evidence of life on another world. (Coincidentally, water was actually discovered on Europa the exact same day as this movie went into production). Europa Report is essentially a found footage movie a la Blair Witch Project, which helps this small budget movie immensely to give it a big budget feel. Every shot of the film, outside of those filmed on Earth, is taken by the crew, giving everything a documentary feel. You only see what they saw. The majority of the footage comes from just eight cameras stationed around their spacecraft, but the clever cinematography and editing make certain that the movie never feels boring.
The movie uses time jumps quite a bit to help craft the mystery of what exactly happened to the crew of Europa One, the advanced one-of-a-kind ship these travelers use to get to Jupiter. All we initially know is that contact with Europa One was lost on Earth about six months into their voyage. It’s insinuated that something bad happened to at least one of the crew, James (played by District 9 actor Sharlto Copley), but it takes a while before we’re finally let in on what that is. At a certain point, two years after they left Earth, communication is re-established with the ship and Earth receives all of the footage from that missing time frame. Europa Report is about filling in those gaps of missing time for us.
Amazingly the concept — only using found footage to craft the story; since they’re on a spaceship, almost none of the film takes place outside of the ship — somehow doesn’t make things feel claustrophobic. There’s a genuine sense of discovery you get from the characters, almost as if you’re watching a film about explorers trying to find the New World in the 1500s. Their mission is to try and find life outside of Earth, and everything they do and every decision they make is to try and achieve that goal. In spite of any of the complications that arise on their journey, they all feel that any sacrifice they have to make is worth it if it means Earth will get to find out what they discovered. And even though this is a sci-fi movie about finding life on another planet and (SPOILER ALERT) they do find that life, the movie never devolves into a generic sci-fi monster movie. This isn’t Alien. The movie is about discovery and exploration, and the conflict in the story comes from how far the six of them are willing to push themselves to achieve their mission goals. Instead of jump scares, we get radiation spikes and spilled chemicals, malfunctioning equipment, and limited oxygen supplies. It’s refreshing, especially now in the era of Space Force, to see a movie that takes science and scientists seriously.
(One of the things I do find a little weird about this movie is that the Europa One is an international crew, with Russians, Chinese and even a South African in the crew, but literally no one has an accent, even though I know that some of these actors actually do have accents in real life. Just a weird observation.)
So what do you say, Josh? Were you thrilled by fixed camera angles and SCIENCE! Or were you constantly checking your phone waiting for something to happen?
JOSH: A little of both, I’d say. I agree with a lot of what you said. I appreciated the hard sci-fi approach it takes. I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t involve a cartoonish monster, or a virus infecting a crew member, or space zombies, or whatever else. Just a straightforward space mission with decent people committed to their jobs, generally good at them, and simply overmatched in the end by the near impossible circumstances they’re thrust into. One of my beefs about found footage in general is how lazy the writing and filmmaking often is – too much improvised dialogue, too much sloppy handheld camerawork. Europa Report sidesteps both of those to a significant degree. The locked down camera is actually pretty well positioned, so you can tell that the director actually thought about framing and composition and stuff. And a lot of the dialogue is dense with scientific language, so you know that it wasn’t just improvised on set by a bunch of dummy actors (I kid… sort of).
That said, yes, I was mostly bored. As you might be able to guess from the above, I go into most found footage movies predisposed against liking them, so the fact that I thought Europa Report was, like, solid enough is a victory of sorts. I always like the idea of found footage, because it seems like such a good opportunity to realize ambitious ideas, whether conceptual or thematic, on a small budget. In practice, though, and this is a problem Europa Report doesn’t find a way around, it just means an awful lot of narrative wheel spinning. A lot of time devoted to nothing in the name of getting to the big thing that we’ll glimpse for half a second at the end, because that’s all they have the effects budget for. It’s a narrative approach that almost all of these movies take, and it’s always so God damn boring and predictable. The obligatory early banter between the crew members, the overwrought emoting as the mission starts to go wrong, the mystery that isn’t really a mystery because we know what kind of movie we’re watching, and then just a lot of yelling as the final reckoning approaches. So much yelling in these movies.
I thought the nonlinear structure of this thing, trying to tease out additional mysteries where they didn’t need to exist, was a mistake. It irritated me. There was no real reason except that the filmmakers clearly didn’t think there would be anything to hold an audience’s interest otherwise. They were right, but their fix didn’t actually work.
And while I appreciate that some attention was paid to the look of the film, I still thought it was pretty unengaging on a visual level. Just for fun, about halfway through the movie I closed my eyes and listened to it as if I was listening to a radio play. I did that for about five minutes, and it was actually a pretty solid experience. I didn’t feel like I was missing a single thing by seeing zero visual information. This is not what I want from my movies. Again, I realize some of this is budget driven, but that’s a loop these movies have never figured out how to close. Europa Report is a movie that wants you to feel a certain wonder, a certain awe, at the scale of what these scientists are confronting. Tight close-ups of half of an actor’s face from inside a helmet don’t accomplish that. Watching not-great actors react to something doesn’t accomplish that. Seeing the human face react to something is part of the basic equation of cinema, but it’s not the whole thing.
Anyway, that said, there were parts of Europa Report that I liked a lot. The early footage of the launch of the ship into space – that was cool. Good sense of scale and scope there, plus rocket launches are inherently cool and cinematic.
I think the single best sequence in the film is the EVA. After the ship’s communications with Earth are knocked out, two of the crew members, Corrigan and Blok, venture outside of the ship to try to make a repair. There’s an accident, Blok’s suit is torn and he’s knocked off the ship (though secured to it by a line). Corrigan reels him in and they’re about to enter the safety of the airlock when Blok notices that the accident has left Corrigan’s suit coated with hydrazine, and if they reenter the ship the hydrazine will poison the rest of the crew. So now there are two emergencies – Blok is within seconds of running out of air, and there’s likely no way they can clean Corrigan’s suit. Blok suggests that Corrigan take off his suit and risk the brief exposure to space, but immediately after he loses consciousness. Corrigan can try to take his suit off, but it will likely mean Blok’s death. So Corrigan makes the decision to push Blok into the airlock and close it, even though he’s also closing the door on any chance of his survival. Blok survives, and Corrigan pushes off from the ship, drifting further and further away as his air runs out.
I think this is what I’d like to see more of from found footage. Not a big story told on the cheap, but a small story told with immediacy and intimacy. This sequence doesn’t feel like a cheat, even though it’s incredibly simple – a ship exterior, a green screen (or, if you wanted to be real low tech about it, a black scrim with sparkles on it), and two actors on wires. But it’s a full human drama compressed into ten minutes or so, and grabbed me more than any other single moment, or collection of moments, in the film.
Oh, and I will give this movie props because Sharlto Copley is usually an actor I find nails on a chalkboard intolerable, but he’s actually pretty good as Corrigan.
Anyway, you liked this a lot more than I did, so what were some of your favorite moments?
BEN: I get what you’re saying about the narrative structure of the film. It almost doesn’t work for me, in that I think you’re right that it does result in some vague narrative wheel-spinning early on. Ultimately it did work for me though. I got sucked into the mystery of what happened to the crew, and I think that got me more invested in the outcome of the movie, knowing something bad happened and waiting anxiously to see when that shoe might drop. It kind of reminded me of the structure of Cannibal Holocaust (1980), where we learn early on that a film crew didn’t make it out of the Amazon, but it’s only after the producers in NYC watch the found footage that we discover what actually happened to them, in horrifying nail-biting fashion.
What I ended up really liking about this movie was its realism. You could compare it to another very similar recent movie, Life (2017), which is also about a group of astronauts who are the first to discover life outside of Earth. Life fell into the traps of the genre, quickly becoming an Alien (1979) knockoff with nothing really new to say outside of some fancy special effects sequences that looked expensive but didn’t really grab me emotionally. Europa Report, on the other hand, felt very grounded in reality, which felt surprisingly fresh. Science fiction films by their very nature tend to attract big budgets, which leads to filmmakers always trying to outdo what the last guy did in the hope of grabbing the audience’s attention, and more importantly their wallets, to try and make that budget back. As things get bigger they also tend to get more outlandish, and you start to miss out on some of the more subtle suspense moments that you find in films like Alien. Because Europa Report is working on a much smaller budget it can afford to play things smaller and more intimate, which felt like a nice change of pace from what I’m used to seeing.
One of the things I really liked about the found footage angle is that it kept us in the character’s headspace. In outer space astronauts’ perspective is often limited by the objects that keep them alive. You can’t just pop your head out the window to see what’s going on because you’d be instantly killed by the vacuum of space, so you’re limited by the field of view that the small portholes on the spaceship afford you. Even the spacesuits are big and bulky, offering a limited perspective. By keeping the cameras on fixed positions we the audience have the same frustratingly limited field of view as our protagonists. The camera never got up and showed us a God’s eye view of things the crew couldn’t see and that helped build tension by keeping us in the moment with the crew.
I also liked the attention to detail and realism that made the film feel like it could actually have been real found footage. These are skilled and trained astronauts whose focus remains on completing the task at hand. They aren’t panicking and making poor decisions like so many victims in horror films. There’s no moment where one of the crew develops space madness and turns on the rest of the crew, no moment where things turn into every man for himself. These are professionals who are doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Take for example the spacewalk scene you mentioned above, where we finally find out what happened to James. In any other movie he would have tried taking off his contaminated spacesuit, risking his own life, nearly dying from the extremes of space; or maybe he would have taken off his tether and risked a space jump from one side of the spaceship to another with a dock he could have used without contaminating the rest of the ship; or maybe he would have tried to climb in the ship with his contaminated suit to try and save his own hide, nearly killing everyone else. All of those examples would have been stupid and dangerous, and thankfully the movie takes the path of realism. There’s nothing they can do for him in the time he has remaining, so he sacrifices himself for the greater good. His final moments have a tragic poignancy that lingers with you long after he disappears off screen. It also sets the stage for the final act, where the rest of the crew has to decide if they’re going to sacrifice themselves for the mission, to make sure that no matter what, Earth discovers what they discovered on Europa.
That realism manufactures tension in the smallest of details. Due to a small error, their landing craft ends up landing a mere few hundred yards from their original drop zone on Europa. Anywhere else this would be no big deal. Just get out and walk the short distance needed to get the readings they were there to collect and go home. But this is a hostile, alien world. A few yards might as well be miles here. There’s extreme temperatures, large amounts of radiation, unstable ground and of course the whole lack of breathable air thing. They’ve just traveled halfway across the solar system and now their whole mission might be a bust because they landed just a couple hundred yards from where they needed to be. That one small mistake creates a chain reaction of problems that are constantly threatening to derail the mission. Will they have to leave and go back home without collecting the samples they needed to prove that there is life here? After they discover alien life, will they be able to escape with their own lives? If they can’t escape Europa, will anyone else ever know what they discovered here?
I really enjoyed the way the characters (relatively) kept their cool and stuck to the mission. It felt a bit like a recruitment film for NASA in that way. It also reminded me a lot of true stories about explorers of the past, like the first sailors who tried to sail around the world before anyone even knew such a thing was possible, or the first astronauts to leave Earth’s atmosphere, not knowing what might happen to them outside the safety of Earth. Obviously, they want the mission to be a success and have everyone get home safely, but they also must obviously know that such an experiment has never been tried before and there’s a very high probability of mission failure. This could very well be a one way trip for them, and I’m always attracted to noble acts of sacrifice like these.
So it’s time to wrap things up, Josh. Was there anything else you liked about the movie, or on the flip side, anything else that drove you crazy about it? Ranting is always more fun.
JOSH: Ranting is fun, but not really warranted in this case. I think I vented all the negatives I have about the movie before. So instead, let me talk about the very ending, which speaks to the noble sacrifice you just mentioned. At the very end of the film, all is basically lost. The crew has attempted to get off of Europa, it hasn’t worked, the ship is sinking through the ice. Nobody is making it out alive. And what we find out in the final moments of the movie, is that the last thing the last remaining crew members did was make sure that the ship was transmitting data, so when the alien life form that has been threatening to make an appearance since they landed finally forces its way into the ship, an image of that alien will make it back to Earth. Undisputable proof of alien life.
So often these kinds of dire sci-fi are strictly about survival. In most other movies, I’d imagine the focus of the last act of the film would have been the crew figuring out a way to kill that alien and preserve at least the possibility of survival. That’s not how it plays out here, and it’s not ever really an option. I liked that. And I liked that in the final moments, knowing that they were all dunzo, they kept their focus on making sure that something scientifically useful would come of it. Making sure that the people receiving this information would understand what happened to them, and could, after a bit of processing, move on to focusing on the data collected, rather than just spinning endlessly on the events that led to the gathering of the data.
That’s pretty cool, and aside from being bored with a lot of the narrative huffing and puffing, so is Europa Report.
So that’s Europa Report! Next time we’re watching something completely different. Instead of watching a movie about humans invading an alien world, this time the aliens are invading our world in Invaders From Mars (1986) – dir. Tobe Hooper. See, totally different!