May 15, 2014
Europa Report (2013)
Europa Report is a 2013 sci-fi indie told from a “found footage” perspective of cameras onboard a spaceship called Europa One. Along with footage from all the many cameras mounted throughout the ship and inside the astronauts’ helmets, we also get interviews with various characters in present time as they chronicle the perilous mission that the crew endured. It’s a lot like a sci-fi Paranormal Activity. Make of that what you will.
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The events aren’t really told in chronological order (which is a bit confusing; if this is supposedly the “official documentary” of the Europa One mission using “real” footage, why would it be edited out of order?). In this way, the movie opens a good bit through the story, where a grim situation for the crew is already in progress. They’ve lost a member of their team named James (Sharlto Copley), and communications with Earth are down. The film then cuts to several months earlier, with members of the team being interviewed, and the people in charge explaining the reasons for the mission.
Said reasons boil down to the fact that water was found under the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Apparently, in a certain area called “Conamara Chaos”, heat signatures have also been detected, which could indicate the presence of life. A crew of suitable scientists and engineers are assembled, and Europa One is launched.
Footage of the crew a few days after launch shows them adjusting to life in space, dealing with the lack of gravity and confined living quarters. After another skip in time, footage of an excited crew is shown as they shoot past Jupiter and finally approach Europa.
Sometime later, the ship lands on Europa a slight distance off from where they were supposed to land, due to a mechanical failure. Clearly, a good omen for the crew. The surface of Europa seems to be quiet and empty, but one of the crew members reports seeing lights in the distance. Ignoring the mysterious lights that are obviously a huge red flag, they begin drilling into the ice and sending a camera probe down into the hole.
While under the ice, the probe encounters something that glows brightly and destroys the probe before any data can be collected. So a crew member named Katya (Karolina Wydra) volunteers to do a surface walk to collect samples, and the idea is hotly debated. Despite the dangerous levels of radiation, Katya ventures out towards the initial landing site, only a short distance away.
The next footage jumps backwards in time, to about six months into the journey. The cause for the failed communication equipment is revealed: a solar flare has hit the ship and damaged the components allowing them to transmit signals back to Earth. James goes outside the ship to repair the malfunctioning communications device, which also exposes him to a toxic chemical, and due to the non-linear editing, we already know what happens to him.
This time skip was particularly confusing, and one of the minor flaws in the way the film unfolds. Anything told out of order is inherently asking to be misunderstood, and so when several different time periods are shown right after one other, it gets a little hard to follow. Granted, there are timestamps throughout the movie to try to add some coherency, but it doesn’t help much if they’re extremely hard to read, especially on a smaller screen.
We then cut back to Europa as they finally decide to let Katya go out onto the surface. She makes it about 100 meters before she, too, sees a bright light. While investigating, she has a close encounter with what is apparently a lifeform, confirming once and for all that something is alive on the surface.
Thanks to the way the story is told, it’s not possible for me to give away too many spoilers, as the movie comes out and immediately tells you what happened. That said, the next paragraph will talk about the ending, so feel free to skip ahead. But then again, Europa Report is a bit like a Shakespearian tragedy: everybody dies, and everybody knows it. As you may have already guessed, this is another space disaster movie like Mission to Mars or Event Horizon or Sunshine or The Core (the last one is not a space movie, but close enough) where the crew members are methodically killed off one-by-one in typical horror movie style.
As the landing craft takes off from the surface of Europa, there’s a critical malfunction which causes it to crash back down onto the thin ice of the original landing zone. This spells disaster for the crew, but they manage to reconnect communications in time to ensure that what they found reaches everyone back on Earth. The last image sent by the ship reveals a giant octopus-like creature living under the ice. The crew’s brave sacrifice is noted, and they’re praised for giving their lives in order to further our understanding of the universe.
The movie is fairly concerned with scientific accuracy, which is always welcomed in a sci-fi movie. It has a certain 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe to it (or, more accurately, its sequel 2010 which shares the same main idea of primordial life existing on Europa), with a hint of Alien towards the end. And from a visual effects perspective, all the space footage looks fantastic, as does the scenery on the surface of Europa.
As far as atmosphere is concerned, well, there is none, because they’re in space! All jokes aside, the movie skillfully maintains a feeling of tension that would naturally come from being aboard a malfunctioning spacecraft millions of miles from Earth. The use of static cameras and the various interviews with people on Earth give the film a feel of authenticity that works well to enhance the filmmakers’ “hard science” approach. The movie was most likely inspired by the 2011 discovery that there may be lakes of liquid water within Europa’s icy shell that could support life, which allows the clever use of some footage of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about the discovery that furthers the film’s documentary feel.
Europa Report is done surprisingly well considering its budget, but unfortunately only ends up being average. While watching it, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’ve already seen this story in numerous other movies, and for the most part, those other movies did it better.
The film is by no means bad, but it’s not great, either. There are only so many shots of the dull gray interior of the ship and the dull gray uniforms of the crew one can look at it before it all starts to become a monotonous blur. And if you’re expecting the ending to contain some massive revelations about the nature of life on Europa, you’re bound to be disappointed. Fans of movies like 2001 may appreciate the film’s hard science approach, while some may find it boring for precisely the same reasons. But it’s a movie worth checking out, at least.