The world’s collective attitude and passion towards deep space exploration has petered out in the last few decades, and nobody, it seems, is more peeved about this than the makers of Europa Report. With grandiose talk of profound discoveries and changing the context in which humanity perceives itself, the sci-fi found footage film clearly has a polemic in mind, but what it has to say, and how Europa Report says it, sometimes makes for a messy story.
The narrative itself centers around a group of six astronauts (Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley, and Michael Nyqvist) on board a mission to a moon in Jupiter’s orbit called Europa, hoping to find signs of life. Told through closed circuit cameras and personal camcorder footage found on the ship, which are interlaced with post-mission testimonials by members of mission control back on Earth (Embeth Davidtz), the story pieces together the events of what happened during the mission, and how and why it went wrong.
From the start, the story-framing structure of Europa Report becomes a tad problematic. Early images of the mission and its crew are spliced together with talking heads of people explaining why the mission was undertaken in the first place, making for a sloppy and elongated first act. Rather than jumping straight into the story, or allowing the audience to deduce meaning for themselves, the film chooses to spend 10-20 minutes explaining to the audience why it’s important to explore the universe, which feels didactic and heavy-handed. On top of that, the majority of Europa Report is told in a traditional found footage style (and for long periods of time), so when the film cuts back to these talking heads to explain what’s going on, it feels intrusive and a bit unnecessary.
The rest of the film plays like a cross between Prometheus and Paranormal Activity, with pregnant stretches of anticipation punctuated by frenetic events of misfortune. The scares are more from build-up than payoff, but the way in which the film goes about the build-up is quite impressive and often free from the logical inconsistencies and the ‘why-would-you-do-thats’ of Prometheus.
However, in the end, the story’s need to have a message takes precedence over the scares and chills. Most of the crew are devoid of much character and personality, functioning as living embodiments of the film’s message of altruism and sacrificing for the greater good (spoiler: look closely at the nature of how characters die). Their conversations are authentically scientific, which is nice, but it’s difficult at times to care for any of them. Europa Report is visually intriguing, even if it spends most of the time inside the spaceship, and the film’s ending is rather moving and slightly profound, even if, in typical form, it’s forcibly explained to the audience through yet another talking head.
– Justin Li
The Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs Oct 17-25.