Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Movie Review: Europa Report

Europa Report
Directed by: Sebastián Cordero.
Written by: Philip Gelatt.
Starring: Christian Camargo (Dr. Daniel Luxembourg), Embeth Davidtz (Dr. Samantha Unger), Anamaria Marinca (Rosa Dasque), Michael Nyqvist (Andrei Blok), Daniel Wu (William Xu), Karolina Wydra (Dr. Katya Petrovna), Sharlto Copley (James Corrigan), Dan Fogler (Dr. Sokolov), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Dr. Tarik Pamuk).

Science fiction movies so often forget about the science part of things that when a movie comes along that doesn’t, I really want to love it. And Europa Report takes the science part of science fiction very seriously – it has already been praised by many in the field as one of the most realistic space movies they have ever seen. But realistic doesn’t always mean the best. Europa Report is a good movie that I wanted to like more than I ultimately did.

The film is about a manned mission to Europa – one of the moons of Jupiter – which was long thought to essentially be a giant ball of ice. But then they discovered that under the surface ice is water. And water may mean life. So a crew is assembled and sent to explore Europa – they’re only supposed to take samples – both of the surface ice and after drilling – the water as well. But since this is a space mission in a movie, of course, nothing goes as planned.

What is refreshing about Europa Report is that you can actually believe pretty much everything you see in the movie. This isn’t a movie with giant monsters and action sequences that strain credibility – or that starts out as intelligent science fiction and devolves into action movie clichés. Everything that happens in Europa Report is restrained – and while many things go wrong – they all go believably wrong. You do not have to suspend your disbelief to enjoy Europa Report.

The film is also quite well made – yes, it’s another “found footage” film but because most of the film is shot through the security cameras around and outside the ship, you won’t get motion sickness from watching this movie. Some people seem deadest against found footage films, but as with anything else, they can be good if shot correctly – which Europa Report mainly is. It uses a framing device of scientists back on earth talking about the footage that has been recovered from the mission, which helps place in the film in a wider context.

The central question of Europa Report is also interesting – whether the individual lives of the crew matter at all compared to the huge scientific discovery they may make on Europa. What is more important? Individual lives or knowledge? The characters in the movie certainly have their own theories about this – and the movie does seem ultimately to come down on the side of knowledge, even if that makes the film a rather cold viewing experience (really, only one character seems to disagree – and even he doesn’t completely disagree).

What would have made Europa Report a better film is having the characters be more fully realized. In the movie, they are basically defined by their jobs –I struggle to remember just exactly what a few of the crewmembers actually looked like, or what their jobs were. Really only three make a lasting impression (and that could be because they are played by three actors I already knew). Sharlto Copley, from District 9, is very good as an engineer – and really the only person in the film who at all talks about his life outside of the mission – and when he makes his fateful decision, it hangs over the rest of the movie. Michael Nyqvist (from the original Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies) is also quite good – he’s the one character who seems to value life over knowledge – not necessary his life. The best performance though is probably by Anamaria Marinca (from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), who plays the pilot, and has to make the final heart wrenching decision in the movie.

As I said, I wanted to like Europa Report more than I ultimately did. It is a good movie – well shot, intelligent and thought provoking – and on that level it deserves a lot of praise. This is certainly more intelligent than most mainstream sci-fi movies would even attempt to be. But what is missing is the human element. Had Europa Report made its characters more three dimensional – if it had made me care about them more than it did – it could well have been one of the best movies of the year. As it stands, it’s a good movie – a must for fans of intelligent sci-fi – but not quite the film it could have been.

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