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Europa Report (2013)

Over the Moon

Here's why I can't give mediocre distractions like Pacific Rim a pass: Europa Report, an independent sci-fi movie made for a fraction of Legendary Pictures' office-pens budget, is more daring, visually wondrous, and emotionally stirring than just about anything the multiplex has gurgled up this summer. Yeah, it's an arthouse found-footage film with few stars and fewer aliens--but it's also precisely what genre fans claim to want in their entertainment: honest-to-goodness, quality science fiction.

Director Sebastian Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt take us into very familiar territory in ways that either subvert or improve upon expectations. In the near future, a deep-space probe confirms the existence of water beneath Europa's surface--and with it, the possibility of alien life. A private corporation sends a team of seasoned explorers to investigate, but things go horribly wrong on their two-year mission. If you've just had flashbacks to Mission to Mars, Sunshine, or--God help you--Prometheus, shake them off: the filmmakers are confident enough in their story that they don't have to rely on jump scares, sun-burned psychos, or head-scratching character choices to keep the production afloat.

Strangely, I consider it a testament to Gelatt's screenplay that I don't remember a single one of his characters' names. Lesser films of this kind are rife with big personalities that barely rise above archetype. There's always a hot-shot, a hot-head, a doomed leader, a final girl, and some others peppered in for color and/or body count. In retrospect, one might apply such labels here, too, but Europa Report smartly sets those concerns aside and just lets its characters be scientists. They have egos, sure, but I never got the feeling that they were anything other than people I might actually see on a space mission: dedicated, reserved, but passionate in a way that manifests as child-like glee when rambling on about planetary surface conditions and their craft's varied gravity.

In much the same way 2001: A Space Odyssey used humans as a gateway to great ideas and breathtaking visuals, this film de-emphasizes personality as bludgeon against arrogance. The universe, it seems, is unimpressed with mankind's awe, much in the same way a boot doesn't care about the ant who's found a new kind of crumb. Indeed, the danger our crew find themselves in stems from allowing curiosity to get the better of their professional instincts. But instead of, say, stooping down to pet a hissing albino snake, these characters engage in behavior that doesn't seem too risky or far-fetched; they take chances that few would blame them for--and often get bitten for it.

The decision to go the found-footage route works in Europa Report's favor. The mission was filmed from every conceivable angle for its duration, but all communications cut out half-way through the journey. The movie is presented as a television special that chronicles the mysteries surrounding the trip, so its having been edited together for maximum dramatic and narrative effect makes perfect sense. This also allows the tone to evolve from curiosity to terror to hope, and leaves the audience wondering whether or not we're truly ready to step out of our round, blue comfort zone. 

Speaking of comfort zones, I'll confess to being nervous about watching a low-budget sci-fi movie. Thanks to "SyFy Original Movies", that term has become--fairly or not--synonymous with cheaply made, meant-to-be-laughed-at crap. I don't believe Europa Report's costs have been released, but it looks like a million (or several million) bucks. The production design and special effects are so convincing that I had a hard time determining what portions of the exterior shots were digital creations and what were practical models. This movie isn't loaded up with tent-pole CGI filler. It looks and feels like what it purports to be: a documentary about a space ship that was designed to be livable and functional--not just cool.

This straight-forward philosophy bleeds from design into narrative, and leads me to what I'll jokingly refer to as a disappointing conclusion. The movie-buff part of my brain that has seen way too many found-footage/deep-space/monster movies was, on some level, conditioned to expect a more traditional ending to this adventure. I didn't get one, but that's okay. The rational part of my brain said that Europa Report ends on just the right note, an honest and heartfelt closer that teases with ambiguity (but not the cynical kind with eyes on a sequel).

If, like me, you've mistakenly given Hollywood lots of hard-earned cash this summer in the hopes that a quarter-billion-dollar-budget might somehow equate to a worthwhile moviegoing experience, Europa Report may prove to be a breath of fresh air. Cordero and Gelatt have made a more perfect version of films we've seen before, embodying that old nugget of wisdom, "If you don't like something, make a better one". 

If you intend to check out Europa Report, please, please, pleeeease look for it at an independent theatre near you. Starting today, Chicagoans can check it out at The Music Box on Southport. I haven't had the chance to see it on the big screen, but throughout the film, I couldn't stop thinking, "Why am I not watching this on the big screen?!"

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