The gimmick pays off perfectly in Sebastián Cordero's tense space exploration thriller 'Europa Report'
Europa Report Magnolia Pictures
Director: Sebastián Cordero
Screenplay: Philip Gelatt
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Karolina Wydra, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo and Embeth Davidtz
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
If nothing else, Europa Report should be required viewing for anyone who thinks it's not possible - or is at least unlikely - to make a good found-footage movie. I'm looking right at you, Chris Bellamy. This one gets it right, precisely by doing exactly the opposite of what we usually get in this format. Here, the stylistic concept is used with purpose and intelligence; it's not the superfluous gimmick we so often see, but something deeply rooted in the movie's very purpose. In any other format, Europa Report would be a very different film.
The footage, in this case, is a collection of recovered recordings from a research mission to one of Jupiter's moons. (It's kind of like 2011's Apollo 18, except not a piece of crap.) We know something went wrong on (or on the way to) Europa, and we know not everyone came back, but our knowledge is limited - and, crucially, remains limited - by what was captured by the cameras installed inside the ship and inside the crew members' spacesuits. That content has been pieced together along with "archive" footage of the mission's beginnings - interviews and press conferences with everyone involved, including all six crew members - as well as talking-head commentary from the CEO, Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), who funded it.
We get the distinct impression that this was planned and intended as a triumphant piece of posterity - the public ceremony, the pre-launch interviews - but ultimately morphed into a more subdued retrospective, an uneasy hybrid of giddy optimism and cryptic lamentation. The finished product plays like an entirely plausible depiction of what that would be like in the form of, say, a two-hour special on The History Channel.
That's one of the most impressive things about Europa Report - the way it completely embodies the form of a documentary (or an extended TV newsmagazine report). Director Sebastián Cordero shows a commitment to the form - using the "found" footage as an important part of that - and never wavers. He doesn't cut corners or try to force scenes that couldn't have logically been captured with the (limited) available recording devices on the ship.
Here's a key distinction: Most found-footage directors find a way to somehow present a broader (sometimes even omniscient) narrative than what actually seems fair. They tell us everything, show us everything and explain everything - which kind of defeats the entire purpose of the format to begin with. Not Cordero. For him, the inherent limitations are the opportunity, as he finds the mystery and generates tension in all the spaces between what we can see and what we don't. He shows us only glimpses of what went wrong on this voyage; everything else is suggestion. The film is made up of fragments, and it's up to us - and the interviewees - to put together the pieces as well as we can.
What that leaves us with is a mystery that - gasp! - remains a mystery. There are answers, but only partial ones; there's a climactic moment of discovery, but it brings up more new questions than it answers.
The result is a kind of constant, ambiguous tension, generated both by the ominous nature of what we do see (crew members getting ill and possibly hallucinating, the ship crash-landing, mysterious glowing lights hovering off in the horizon) and by the fact that the documentary format is telling us that something on this mission went terribly, terribly wrong.
I wouldn't say Europa Report is exceptionally well-written - aside from the basic concept, it's an adequate and functional script, nothing more - but that's mitigated by a strong cast, among them Anamaria Marinca (who was so memorably great in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days), Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Michael Nyqvist (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy). Marinca is particularly good, playing her role with equal parts dry professionalism and barely concealed scientific passion. The film as a whole has something of a similar effect, actually. Buried underneath the tension and the hints at a horrifying yet undetermined truth, there's an infectious sense of curiosity running throughout this mission - before, during and after - about all the possibilities that may result from it, even in the wake of its tragic outcome.
At this point, it's not common for a found-footage movie to work even on its most basic stylistic terms, let alone anything else. Europa Report is an anomaly - not only is the format used exceptionally well, it's completely essential to the entire telling of the story. Without the format, the filmmakers would have been free to tell a much more conventional - and likely much less interesting - story.