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Release Date(s)2013 (October 8, 2013)
Studio(s)Start Motion Pictures/Wayfare Entertainment Ventures (Magnet/Magnolia)
Any time a movie about human spaceflight makes at least an effort at a realistic depiction, count me in. Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report is just such a film, following in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more recent worthy efforts like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Duncan Jones’ Moon. Set in the near future, Europa Report tells the story of a privately-funded deep space mission sent to explore the possibility of life beneath the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Naturally, all does not go according to plan for the mission’s six-person crew.
There are a number of things I find impressive about Europa Report. First, screenwriter Philip Gelatt’s writing is smart. Real effort has been made to keep the story accurately grounded in genuine planetary science and to ensure that the astronaut characters sound and act like professional astronauts. In fact, I’d be very surprised if he didn’t consult with NASA or ESA experts in developing the story. Gelatt clearly knows his subject. Second, the cast here is excellent across the board, most notably including Sharlto Copley (District 9, The A-Team, Elysium) and Michael Nyqvist (he’s been in a ton of stuff, but you may know him best from his role as Mikael Blomkvist in the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films). I’m also impressed by the performance of Anamaria Marinca (she’s been in many international projects but is new to American audiences). Third, Eugenio Caballero’s production design is absolutely exquisite. Serious effort was made here to give the sets, space suits and other equipment real-world accuracy and authenticity, and that earns very high marks from me. Even the design of the Europa One spacecraft is functional, believable and realistic.
So that’s the good and there’s a great deal of it. Unfortunately, there are things that don’t work so well here too. Rather than shooting Europa Report traditionally, Cordero has chosen to present it as a kind of “documentary” record of events, as recorded by observation cameras mounted in and around the ship. While this certainly adds to the realism, it forgoes opportunities for more interesting cinematography that would have had greater visual and dramatic impact, and would really have helped to build the tension and suspense more effectively. Rather than placing the audience “in the moment” with the crew, this feels more like we’re watching events at a distance from Mission Control. It thus makes Europa Report just one more entry in the “found footage” genre, which has – for me at least – seriously overstayed its welcome. I also find the film’s editorial pace off-putting. The story begins well into the mission, after a tragedy has occurred, then jumps back many months to show you how it all plays out from the beginning. But mission events unfold so quickly, from launch to arrival at Jupiter, that you never really get to know the characters well, nor have time to invest yourself in them emotionally. So once again, the film fails to build tension in an organic way. There are also a few story points that smack of dramatic convenience. For example, why (during an EVA) would the astronauts be tethered to each other but not the ship? Why would you travel all the way to Europa but not bring robotic rovers you can send out on the surface to gather samples? You get the idea. These things fall into the category of stuff you just shouldn’t think too much about, but that’s puzzling given that so many other aspects of this film were clearly very well thought out.
In any case, Magnet’s Blu-ray release looks fine in 1080p high-definition, but the quality of the images you actually experience are impacted by the stylistic choice of showing everything as “recovered” video footage. So this isn’t reference quality, but it’s exactly what the filmmakers intend. The audio is presented in 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio and again it’s just fine. There are occasions where the rear channels make a difference – say in moments on Europa’s surface during ice quakes – but for the most part the audio is unspectacular. Character dialogue is clear (except when it’s intended to be distorted for effect) and ex-Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary’s musical score really shines when it’s given a chance to by the mix.
In terms of bonus features, the Blu-ray includes a pair of HD featurettes on the visual effects and the score – about 12 minutes worth of material in all. There’s also a theatrical trailer and a photo gallery. The gallery would have been a lot more interesting if more images (and maybe some production design artwork) had been included... and also if they actually filled the screen so you could better appreciate them.
In the end, Europa Report is a film where pedestrian choices in cinematography, direction and editing undermine a seriously impressive attempt at realism and authenticity. But though it’s far from perfect, Europa Report is still worth your time and attention, and I give it a moderate recommendation. Just once though, I’d love to see a film about manned spaceflight apply this kind of effort at scientific accuracy to a story that doesn’t involve disasters, space battles or slithery monsters in the dark. I’m still waiting.
- Bill Hunt