Friday, September 27, 2013

Toronto After Dark Film Review: Europa Report


Beautifully terrifying


"Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, does your life actually matter?" That is the question posed in Europa Report, one that simultaneously conveys the cosmic insignificance of our existence while positing the deeper, philosophical question -- Is it worth sacrificing a human life for knowledge that can benefit the greater good? By combining space exploration with psychological terror and the found footage format, Europa Report seeks to answer this question -- with gripping results. 

In space, no one can hear you scream ...


The film centers on Europa One, the first manned spaceflight to the icy moon of Jupiter. Onboard is a six-person crew played by Sharlto Copley (Elysium), Michael Nyqvist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Daniel Wu (The Man with the Iron Fists), Christian Camargo (Dexter), Anamaria Marinca (Doctor Who) and Karolina Wydra (True Blood). Their mission: to determine whether life exists, or ever existed, on Europa. Part-way through the voyage, they lose communication with mission control. That's when they begin to feel the strain of the mission, and things begin to unravel.

Ever since Ridley Scott's Alien in 1979, spaceships and terror have often been inseparable. Suffice to say, our cinematic voyages into space rarely end under the best of circumstances for the intrepid crew. It's a formula we've seen time and time again, yet we continue to be intrigued by these films. It's not just the claustrophobic nature of space travel, which naturally plays on our fears, but the vastness of space itself. The universe is, and forever will be, the last great, unconquered frontier; and our fear of the unknown is one of the basest human conditions. After all, fear causes us to reveal our true nature; and for truth-seeking beings such as ourselves, that makes for some compelling moments on film.

The same statement can be made about found footage films. From 1999's The Blair Witch Project to the recent V/H/S and Paranormal Activity series, found footage has been a staple of the horror genre for a number of years as well. And for good reason: the fly-on-the-wall nature of these films enables the audience to be exposed to human nature in its most basic, raw form. Director Sebastián Cordero offers a plausible take on the genre, by structuring the film around crew video logs, in-helmet spacesuit footage, news reports and interviews. The various footage is intercut somewhat non-linearly, further amplifying the inherent sense of discovery and injecting additional tension and foreboding into the narrative structure.

Europa Report isn't a big-budget, sci-fi extravaganza, and it doesn't pretend to be. Like other "small" (read: intelligent) sci-fi films that came before it, such as Duncan Jones' Moon, it makes use of its limitations to draw the audience into its intimate world. Although the cast of characters is never really fleshed out in any great detail, due to the constraints of the narrative, they're portrayed with enough emotional weight so as to sustain the audience's interest in them. Flanked by a pulsing, yet haunting, score by The Walking Dead composer Bear McCreary -- one that is at times reminiscent of Underworld's score for Danny Boyle's Sunshine -- the film creates a moody atmosphere that convincingly blends suspense and dread with a feeling of wonderment and awe.

The Bottom Line

Europa Report is a haunting film, as beautiful as it is terrifying. At the outset, it appears to be just another in a long line of films about a space voyage gone horribly wrong. But as its storyline unfolds, it reveals itself to be about so much more. It's about sacrifice, the lengths we will go to and the risks we will take for our fellow man. Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, does your life actually matter? By the end of the film, you'll know the answer -- but you should see it for yourself.

Review Score: 4 out of 5 (Highly Recommended)


* Reviewer's Note: Europa Report was screened as part of the Toronto After Dark film festival's series of pre-festival screenings. The 2013 edition of Toronto After Dark runs from October 17th to October 25th.