Developed with assistance from NASA and featuring a brooding score by Bear McCreary, Europa Report is a hard sci-fi take on the rigours and trials of sending humans into deep space. Hitting theaters on August 2nd, you can view it pre-release in the comfort of your own home via On Demand. A found-footage film, Europa Report portrays a privately-funded mission to the Jovian moon Europa through a documentary put together after the mission. Using interviews with mission planners and crew members, we slowly discover what happened to the multi-national crew and ship after a solar flare knocked out contact with them. The film looks hopefully to the future through the present, showing us what our space programs could do right now if they had the funding. What could go wrong...right?
Unfortunately, quite a lot. The opening of the film sets you up for the remainder: it is a hard-to-follow, disjointed mess. The first act deals more with the lead up to the mission, rather than the actual trip to Europa. This is something of a disappointment, as the external shots of space and the ship itself are beautifully rendered. The score, likewise, is one of the big highlights of the movie. Bear McCreary uses his previous experience to great effect, mixing electronica with strings, piano, and winds. McCreary seemingly uses an entire orchestra to build tension while simultaneously giving that longing to continue on - a perfect analogy for the appeal of space travel itself. The spacecraft is carefully modeled and realistically detailed, and is only viewed through its external cameras, making it feel authentic and substantive. Unfortunately, the internal sets do not meet this same standard.
Like the pacing, the sets feel rushed. The corridors and living spaces look cheap and sometimes obviously digital, like they were made for a web series instead of a theatrical release. A lot of this is probably due to the choices in lighting and cinematography. To be blunt: there are none. We only view the action through the reality-TV cameras placed throughout the ship. While this is supposed to help suspend our disbelief, I think it was a poor choice as it only serves to cheapen the interiors and highlight the poor framing in most scenes.
In addition, we spend far too much time inside the ship without really learning about the characters. The movie can never decide what it wants to be: a slow, paced-out film like 2001: A Space Odyssey or a low-budget thriller in the vein of Apollo 18. Nowhere is this more evident than in the trip to the Jupiter: the ship arrives there before the first act is even finished, about twenty minutes in. The rest of the film jumps back and forth in time, rather than presenting things in a linear fashion. This not only confuses the narrative, but never allows any of the characters to develop properly.
Speaking of the characters, I never found myself attached to any of them. Since their timelines are so jumbled, even though we spend almost the entire film in their close company, we can never really understand what is going on with them. Critical moments from what should be the first part of the film are juxtaposed with later ones. Meanwhile, smash cuts from climatic scenes are constantly interspersed - artificial jumper moments designed to wake the audience up, I assume. These editing decisions are really the death of the film. Many of its failings could easily have been forgiven if the story had been presented in a coherent fashion. As is, the characters seem more like the teeny-boppers in a cheap slasher flick than experienced scientists on a multinational space mission. Why doesn’t the Russian shave any more? What is he recovering from? By the time I found out, I no longer cared. Seeing the disjointed moments of their lives out of context doesn’t build tension, it just makes those moments less real. These deficiencies were made even clearer when I viewed the film a second time. Once I could follow what was happening and piece together the incoherent plot, the film was almost interesting.
All of this is a huge let-down; I really wanted to enjoy this film. Call me old fashioned, but if it had been presented in a more linear, paced-out fashion, I think it would have fared much better. As is, the film is a mess. This is a huge shame, as a lot of effort and thought clearly went into the making of the movie. But by trying to turn it into a space-based Paranormal Activity, the impact and weight of what happens during the film is lost. Comparing this to space exploration classics like 2001 or Moon in the promos seems a little like hubris to me.
You can view it right now, On Demand, for about $12 USD, or wait to see it in theaters next month. If that’s what you want, I would suggest doing it opening week, if you catch my meaning. My recommendation would be to wait for the Blu-ray; it should only be a dollar or so from your local video rental store once it releases in a couple months. If we are lucky, we will get a recut “Director’s” version that fixes the pacing and confused plot.