Saturday, October 26, 2013

Movie Appraisal: Europa Report (2013)

Watching this film I am reminded of Apollo 18, only Apollo 18 with a bit more science, a bit more bite, and a lot more character. Again, as I've said a million times before, I like these space horror movies. Something about them strikes the right place in my scientific mind. Maybe it's something about the unknown and the unknowable. Or maybe it's simply that love of discovery and exploration. I don't think there will ever be a moment when movies like this won't appeal to me in even the smallest of ways.

I say it reminds me of Apollo 18, but this a movie that was made to be more than a simple schlocky horror movie. It was made, definitely made, to be a thinking person's film, one about sacrifice, science, and ultimately the unknown. While it's hard to exactly call a "horror" movie per se, I do believe it has those elements to it, relying on tension, claustrophobia, and mystery to tell its doomed story.

The plot is about a group of six astronauts going into the unknown reaches of space, to Europa (as seen in the title), which is one of the largest moons in the solar system and a moon of Jupiter. It also has scientific value, being one of the few places in our own solar system that could have liquid water on it and therefore may also have life. Thus, unlike our own cold dead moon, Europa might be a more viable option in terms of extraterrestrial life. Because of this, and a few other reasons I'll get into shortly, this movie seems like an answer to Apollo 18's questionable storytelling.

First of all, unlike that other movie, this one tells how the transmissions of what happened got back to Earth. It also gives more believable creatures for the environment. Finally, the emotions and characters are certainly there, putting this above and beyond most space horror movies. This one seems to be more in league with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon to name a few. It is a serious movie with serious science and serious acting backing it up. The musical score is excellent throughout as well, but... there are issues. And I'll get into those shortly.

The story is nonlinear, following two basic storylines. The first is the landing of the landing module of the Europa One (the spacecraft) onto the moon. The second is the loss of the first astronaut of the mission, which also was the point in the mission that the communications' devices went offline. The second story is the first in chronological order, although its climax doesn't occur until about halfway through the movie. So, throughout the first half of the movie, we know that an astronaut has been lost and the communications are not working, but we have no idea why or what happened. Then we are told, and such a tale it is.

There was an unexpected solar flare that started the bad business and bad luck of the mission. It took out a great deal of systems, but notably took the communications to Earth offline as well. The two engineers, Andrei and James, go out to fix what needs fixing. There is an unexpected accident in which Andrei rips the hand of his spacesuit and James becomes contaminated with hydrazine, which is a toxic chemical. James saves Andrei but sacrifices himself for the mission in an unbelievable and frankly upsetting way. It was an emotional scene meant to evoke an emotional response, and you know what? It got me.

It speaks to the performances of all the actors in the movie, but specifically of Sharlto Copley, who plays James, and Michael Nyqvist, who plays Andrei. They are both amazing in this movie, even though James' time on screen is limited. That's not to downplay the other actors, but those two did such a great job that they deserve a special mention. All the acting here is good though. Very solid performances throughout.

With James' death, the mission goes on but without the enthusiasm it had once had. They land on Europa, start their science, and discover that all is not right. There are mysterious lights in the distance, more radiation than expected, and something odd under the surface of the ice...

This leads to a tense conclusion that leaves you wanting so much more. And with that there's a twist that will leave you reeling, almost like you were punched in the gut. I'm going to spoil it because I want to talk about it. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to know what it is. When it is revealed that Rosa didn't escape, and therefore didn't survive the mission, it is like a blow in the face. Throughout the movie there were cuts to several interviews, one of which was the CEO of the private group that financed the mission, one was a scientist talking about the mission, and the final was Rosa. These interviews were all implied to be taking place after the fact. And it is a blatant misdirection. Rosa gave her "interview" towards the end of the mission, as a last ditch effort to talk to Earth and tell their doomed story. That hit me hard, especially because I truly believed that she had survived the mission as so many of these characters do. Like Apollo 18 though, there are no survivors, only a record. To me that's perfect and wonderful, upsetting and perfect storytelling.

I think that's my ultimate point (as I stop with spoilers), the storytelling here is fantastic even if the technical pieces of the movie are less than stellar at times. And that brings me to a few of my gripes. The first is that at times the found footage aspect of the film wears thin. I understand why it was used, and I appreciate it in terms of the narrative. That being said, I simply did not like how many cuts there were, how fast the cameras would cut at times, and the amount of shaking and video static that would appear on screen. Honestly, it gave me a bit of a headache, something I did not appreciate all that much. Not all found footage films have quite that much interference and movement of cameras, but this one had way too much for my liking.

I also did not like the creatures. While they do not show up as a true creature, full and in frame, until the very end of the movie, I did not like that aspect of it. It was the monster shot, pure and simple, and the payoff seemed sillier than I wanted out of this mostly serious movie. The CGI was not good in that moment and the Europa monster was not believable just like certain MOON MONSTERS from Apollo 18 were also silly and unbelievable. Maybe if the CGI was better I would have appreciated the monster more, but in the end it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I get the feeling my imagination would have been happier without a concrete answer to what the Europa creature was. Instead I see it as a glowing octopus monster, which takes away any thrills, fear, or mystery that it could have had.

Again, while these are legitimate gripes, it doesn't really take away from the brilliance that I see in this movie. It's very good, with some legitimately touching and terrifying moments that will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you like space horror movies or space thriller movies or space mystery movies or space movies, then you will probably like this one quite a bit. I know I've compared this movie quite a bit to Apollo 18, but the comparison stands up quite well. You could also compare it to Sunshine (without some of that movie's more slasher moments). But out of the found footage space horror genre, this is probably tops right now. Check it out if you can. I recommend it fully.

I'm also glad I could wash the bad taste of the terrible movie I watched yesterday out of my mouth. Blegh.

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