Don’t Overlook EUROPA REPORT This Summer

Though I was born after the “golden age” of space travel, I grew up in the era of the space shuttle, a time when the space program was still part of the public consciousness. I remember the excitement and tragedy of Challenger, nursed a secret, never-realized desire to attend Space Camp, and recorded every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation on VHS. Of course, the recent Mars mission has breathed a little life back into the idea of space exploration, but it’s not something that’s really part of the American consciousness any more. So the best compliment I can give Europa Report is to say that for the first time in a while, it really made me excited about space travel, and feel like it’s actually legitimately feasible in mankind’s future. That, and after I watched it I immediately wanted to watch it again.

Europa Report, the first full-English feature from director Sebastián Cordero (2013), is a documentary/found-footage-style chronicle of the first manned deep space mission, on the private venture Europa 1 spacecraft. The mission is launched after scientists find evidence of water and heat signatures on Jupiter’s moon Europa, indicating the possibility of life. All proceeds fairly smoothly until a solar storm 9–10 months into the trip causes a communications loss between Earth and the Europa 1; the movie chronicles the buildup to that point, as well as what happens to the crew afterward.

The action takes place in a pretty definite three-section arc, with the first third the most documentary-like. I appreciated some of the subtle devices available as part of this format, such as the use of “news footage” to aid in setting up backstory with a scrolling feed explaining the timeline, construction, and similar details. The editing is very bouncy/choppy in the first third — though this helps reinforce the documentary feel, you almost wish it would slow down just a little bit to give you more insight into characters, and a better idea what’s going on. You have to really pay attention to learn about and get a get feel for characters. The second and especially third sections of the film do even out a little more and allow for more exposition, while never fully leaving the documentary format.

Though some of my jaeger-loving compatriots will beg to differ, but I personally found this to be one of the most visually satisfying sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long time. Call me whatever adjective you will, but I find so much of modern CGI disappointingly fake-looking. I can certainly appreciate the technology, and how far it’s come, and even acknowledge it’s beauty in many cases — but that doesn’t mean it looks real. Though I won’t claim the effects were perfect in Europa Report, they were damn good. 95% of the time, I could make myself believe I was looking at real found footage of the spaceship and the solar system. The footage wasn’t slick when it didn’t need to be; but when it did need to be, it was subtly beautiful and realistic.

I also appreciated the story itself. You may think you know exactly what’s going on and how it will end, but you don’t quite…the story is overarchingly predictable, but still manages to be surprising on more subtle levels. Though it ventures to some degree into The Abyss territory with hints of themes about the fine line between sanity and madness and isolation breaking you slowly, it never gets too over-the-top or cheesy about it.

Europa Report is probably going to be overlooked by large portion of the moviegoing audience, which is really a shame. There are no wildly famous names, giant explosions, and damned little marketing as far as I can tell. But don’t pass up this gem — it’s not flashy, but it has a subtle beauty, and another quality performance by Sharlto Copley as one of the crew members. Of course, Copley first came to my attention with an excellent turn in District 9, and he was pretty much the only redeeming feature of Elysium. As far as I’ve seen (disclaimer: I didn’t see The A-Team), he’s one of those actors who can handle just about anything you throw at him, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

If you can’t find Europa Report at a theater near you, it’s available on video on demand. At a short 89-minute run time, being too busy to see it isn’t an excuse. Watch it, and then watch it again to pick up all the little nuances you didn’t get before you knew the ending.

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