Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Aug 19, 2013 3:37 pm 
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A mission that succeeds, while failing

Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastián Cordero's space exploration adventure Europa Report (his fifth feature and English-language debut) is the most scientifically authentic and intelligent science fiction movie of the summer. That may not exactly be thrilling news. Some may well prefer the teeming stack of zombies pouring over an Israeli wall and the charismatic presence of Brad Pitt in World War Z. Or the heavy-handed but ultra-sincere politics and relentless intensity of Elysium -- fueled by a muscular and shaven-headed Matt Damon as a prole on a trashed Earth struggling to survive radiation sickness -- may understandably be your thing. Europa Report doesn't provide the kind of fun either of those movies offers. But apart from its cunning use of the found footage device, Cordero's movie has something really interesting and hopeful to say about space, and it says it's using expertise relayed to the filmmakers direct from NASA.

The world inside the space ship of Europa is a big space, but not that big, since this ain't 2001, and therefore it's also claustrophobic, full of panels and dials, with side rooms or compartments for team members to eat and sleep. Something has already gone wrong with the mission; we know that from the start. On the other hand, since this footage has become available to control back on earth, it provides ostensibly extraordinary data. The mission was to fly to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter where there is a frozen surface that may contain water. The goal once there was to determine if there are indeed the conditions favorable to life there, or life itself in some form. We don't know exactly how all this data has come to us but we're watching flickering films from eight fixed cameras on board the ship, which we see take off from earth's surface. We also see a tearful chief spokesperson of the earth support team (Embeth Davidtz) and others on a panel giving a presentation about the mission. These are intercut with daily details from the artfully flickering and sputtering cameras, sometimes one at a time, sometimes in multiple split-screen images. The digital pop of the flicker and the jostling split-screens provide a new look.

When the crew gets to Europa, it's not what they expected. And once they begin collecting data, things start to go wrong, with a hint of creepiness making the trajectory reminiscent of that found footage pioneer, Blair Witch Project. Narratively life in outer space hints of "aliens" and that in turn more or less equals "scary things out to get us." However the movie keeps all that suitably mysterious. The excitement that's generated comes partly from hints of life, partly simply from the gradual meltdown of the mission and that old sci-fi theme of the loneliness of outer space. That is a theme more focused upon in Moon, the recent Sam Rockwell vehicle and directorial debut of David Bowie's son Duncan Jonens -- and still a movie that in human terms remains much more interesting. One flaw of Europa Report is that none of its crew members or the unknown actors who play them generates much interest. I was hoping there might be a Sigourney Weaver on board, but of course, there's only one Sigourney Weaver. These folks all have good backgrounds. They are Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), Embeth Davidtz (Schindler's List), Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium), Christian Camargo (The Hurt Locker), Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), and Daniel Wu, of many Chinese films, but despite one older guy who goes a bit rogue (Nyqvist) and a young dad (Copley) who's seriously pining to see his five-year-old son, the script doesn't give them much color or individuality, and that's not good for the audience. We need Ripley.

The lack of a big budget cuts both ways. It's just as well (as in Moon, for that matter) not to have a superabundance of CGI and famous actors and elaborate sets. This puts more focus on what the movie is about and less on superfluous eye candy. On the other hand, let's face it, space travel is an enormously expensive enterprise, and when a space ship has been created for the camera on a small budget it's not going to look quite right (though some may find the production inadequacies nostalgic). With all these limitations, the Europa mission ship soon begins to feel damned claustrophobic, and sometimes, downright boring . Nevertheless all the events recounted toward the latter part of the film seem valid and thought-provoking.

I learn from a review by Ben Sachs in The Chicago Reader that Cordero (whose other films I haven't seen) likes claustrophobia and anti-climax. Certainly he achieves the former and maybe the latter. It's a first to find yourself feeling maybe these crew members, for all their childlike excitement in some cases at the awesome stuff they're witnessing, might also be realizing what a lot of drudgery there is in this job, as well as loneliness. There's plenty to chew on here. But it's just all so drab. And the music is too loud: space is supposed to be a quiet place.

Europa Report , 90 mins., debuted at the LA Film Festival in June 2013, with an Internet release 27 June and limited US theatrical release beginning 2 August.

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