Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: Europa Report

My biggest fear about Europa Report (in which a monster is eventually discovered under the ice of the Jovian moon Europa, and don't think that's much of a spoiler, 'cuz it's not) was that it would prove to be fanciful and absurd a la Event Horizon. It's not that I don't enjoy Event Horizon, or sci-fi horror/thrillers of its ilk, but the market's a little saturated.

Moreover, I found Gravity compelling and realistic enough that other sci-fi thrillers will hereafter have a high standard of realism to live up to. This is why I'm reluctant to see Ghosts of Mars even though I know I should for several reasons.

But back to Europa Report. I'm pleased to…um…report that it's not ridiculous. It's got some structural problems, and many of its characters are ill-defined, but I found it engrossing and tense.

A found-footage deep-space adventure, Europa Report concerns a privately-funded manned mission to investigate signs of life on Europa. The movie appears to take place in some near-future timeframe (never spelled out precisely, despite all the onscreen data).

Unlike other "let's go to Jupiter" movies, Europa Report is never slow or plodding. Unfortunately, its structure is garbled for no clear reason besides stylistic flashiness. See, the framing device is that Mission Control loses contact with the crew long before the mission's inevitable crises, but back on Earth everybody continues hoping that the mission is still proceeding. Then, the audiovisual record of that mission's completion and aftermath (which is most of what we see) finally reaches Earth, and what we are watching is supposed to be the company's "now it can be told" presentation.

It's therefore bizarre that the narrative is jumbled a la Pulp Fiction—that, for example, Andrei's tenuous recovery from his trauma is presented long before the trauma is shown or explained. Maybe the idea was to amplify tension by hinting at Disasters in Space, then showing them much later in flashbacks. If so, I'd argue that it's too annoying a device to be worthwhile, and unnecessary at that—a manned deep-space mission carries plenty of tension on its own, even if you ignore the high probability that creepy monsters await under Europa's ice.

The messy timeline may be part of the reason none of the characters feel especially distinct. They're easily distinguished visually (which is already an achievement over, say, 12 to the Moon), but minimal time is spent getting to know them as individuals. In a way, that's good, since we know this movie's gonna have a high casualty rate; I am happy to dispense with most of the pleasantries in such cases. Yet Europa Report goes a little too far in the other direction: the only crew member whose background or personality really comes through is (surprise) the one with the Big Death Scene. Everybody else is just Pilot Girl, Biologist Girl, Steely Captain, Craggy Engineer, and Guy Who Looks Like Ioan Gruffudd.

Astronomy nerds will be able, to some extent, to overlook the awkward structure and vague characters, because the plot and science are pretty slick. Much of it is nakedly inaccurate—such as the suspiciously Earth-standard gravity on Europa's surface—but otherwise it feels real enough. And kudos to the script for not burdening these characters with movie-cannon-fodder traits that render them dangerously unqualified for their jobs—I kept trying to identify the movie's Hudson and it turns out there wasn't one.

Another way in which Europa Report feels realistic is in its performances. All the actors, right down to the neckbeard company man, seem in most cases to be reacting naturally rather than acting naturalistically. I doubt any found-footage movie could be ruled a success otherwise.

And yet…somehow the finale is unsatisfying. Maybe it's because we astronomy nerds are prone to continually asking questions, and ending with "MONSTER, g'night folks" is just asking us to Kickstart a sequel. (Europa Report: Appendix A) But the story really plays up the discovery angle, and makes a coherent argument in defense of manned space missions, so as far as I'm concerned, the monstrous but open-ended climax fits.

So, to put it another way, this is one of those things where you'll like it a lot if it's the sort of thing you like. But all you non-astronomy-nerds should probably adjust my score down by half a star—there's not much here that we haven't seen before, even though it's largely effective.

Star Score: 3.5 out of 5

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