Europa Report (Blu-ray / DVD)
Directed by Sebastian Cordero
Distributed by Magnet
Found footage, much like 3D, should be an exception to a rule in cinema, not the norm. The problem is that once someone manages to employ a successful formula to make the device work, the resulting cash flow it generates blinds every other filmmaker to the downside of making it ubiquitous. Of the now countless number of films that have used it, and gotten it wrong, only a handful have done it right – titles like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). Where found footage differs from 3D is that you can’t actively avoid it. There’s almost always a 2D showing of some post-converted 3D flick available to see somewhere, but if you’d rather see the “real” version of a found footage film… well, it just isn’t going to happen. This is another reason why the genre is so frustrating, because often times viewers can see a better film would have been possible if the filmmakers had just done it proper. As a recent example, Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Bay (2012) had a great premise and some worthwhile FX work, but the found footage angle was so impossibly stupid the film suffered as a whole. Europa Report (2013) is the latest (well, probably not as of this writing since they pump these out so fast) feature to attempt using found footage, but in this case it’s done in a way that feels organic to the plot. Unfortunately, that’s just about the only marginally novel aspect of the film. The remainder plays out adhering closely to the intended sense of reality the filmmakers wanted to project, but in the process they forgot the number one rule of found footage films: make them interesting.
The CEO of Europa Enterprises, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), introduces the footage we are about to see, explaining that it originated from the cameras aboard the Europa One mission. Six astronauts were sent to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, to look for signs of life deep beneath the icy surface. Six months into the mission a solar flare caused a loss of communications with Earth, leaving the team “blind” with more than three and a half years left to complete their task. During an attempt to repair comms, one of the team is killed and another nearly dies. Fourteen months later, the ship lands on Europa, albeit far off from their target zone. The crew sends a probe down into the ice to analyze the water, but contact is lost when something strikes it. One astronaut is able to take a sample and conclusively state that there is single-celled life found on the moon, but before they can pack up their findings and return to Earth the ship crashes down into the ice, leaving the crew partially submerged and permanently stranded. Before the ship sinks into the abyss, two of the crew head out to make repairs to the communications, relaying all of their video data to mission control before losing all contact for good.
You’ve got to applaud the filmmakers for getting most of the film’s science correct. The painstaking attention to detail, getting all of the minutia right, certainly goes a long way in making this feel more like a documentary and less like a low-budget feature. In that regard, the film succeeds on the grounds that very few sci-fi pictures, especially those headed to the DTV market, bother to go the extra mile in maintaining some semblance of accuracy. The approach to presenting this as found footage also worked well within the confines of the narrative. Europa Enterprises had someone edit all of the footage received from the Europa One into a cohesive film that could be studied for evidence and answers. It’s essentially how Cannibal Holocaust works, except that footage looks technically better. At the least, it allows the film’s use of security and outside cameras not to feel so arbitrary.
Where the film fails is in building an appreciable level of tension, and also in maintaining viewer interest. I was (regrettably) reminded of Apollo 18 (2011) while watching this; that was another found footage sci-fi film that posited some of the same notions found here, and it was also dreadfully dull. Nothing of much substance happened until it was so late in the picture that it wouldn’t have mattered if a shimmering golden unicorn landed on the Moon and whisked the men away to safety. Europa Report does a decent job of building intrigue; getting viewers to wonder what exactly is going on under the ice on this moon. But genuine tension? It simply isn’t there. And as with a lot of found footage films, once something interesting does start to happen the film usually ends abruptly because our camera operator (read: the lead) is dead. There wasn’t a single moment during the film where I didn’t wish it had all been done practically, as a proper film, using the same budget. It’s not impossible.
Even though I knew better, I had bet that a good portion of my enjoyment from this film might come from Sharlto Copley’s performance. Sure, I can’t look at the guy without thinking “fookin’ prawns” every single time, but he’s got a certain energy and presence on screen that makes him a real joy to watch. He was the only good thing going for Elysium (2013). Here, he’s just a simple American astronaut, trying (and mostly succeeding) to hide his true accent. And like any big name in a small production, he isn’t given nearly enough to do before taking a page out of George Clooney’s book in Gravity (2013).
Ultimately, Europa Report succeeds only in presenting a story that feels authentic and plausible. The plot presents a legit scientific theory (there actually is liquid of some sort under the ice on Europa) and thrusts it into the realm of fiction, but not enough of it is seen through to elevate the film above average. It’s frustrating that someone finally makes a found footage movie that doesn’t feel quite so forced, yet as soon as the credits start rolling you’re still left with the same vacuous feeling most provide. Fans of hard sci-fi that focuses more on the technical side of things and less on creatures may still find this to be worth their time, but if you read the film’s description and were hoping to see oceanic alien creatures eating astronauts, well, you’re bound to be disappointed.
Europa Report comes home on blu-ray with an HD image that is faithful to a fault. This is “found” footage, after all, and with that comes the standard visual palette provided by security cameras, helmet cams, and other low-end consumer-grade equipment. This isn’t a bad thing, since it lends the picture a more textured, documentary style look it was going for; just don’t expect a shiny, crisp image. The best looking shots are the interviews that bookend the film, since they are intended to look professionally shot. The on-board shuttle footage is moderately grainy, with hazy black levels and a lack of fine detail. As a (unintentional?) bonus, the roughed up picture helps to conceal the CGI more effectively, giving it a seamless appearance. The soundtrack is where this release shines brightest, with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track featuring the compositions of currently-hot composer Bear McCreary. His score uses both orchestral, classical cues alongside deep, synth-heavy bass to drive the momentum. The rear speakers don’t come into play much, likely in an effort to keep the sound commensurate with most documentaries.
The disc is light on bonus features, but there are a couple supplements included that aren’t total fluff pieces. “Exploring the Visual Effects of Europa Report” spends a little over six minutes focusing on the film’s pre-visualization work, stage shooting with green screen, space FX, and mapping out the moon’s geography. “The Musical Journey of Europa Report” features an interview with composer Bear McCreary, as he discusses why he was drawn to this project and how he wanted to approach his scoring duties. Finally, there is a photo gallery with a couple dozen images, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
2 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5