Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dispatches from the Void

Europa Report

As I was saying a couple of days ago, the "found footage" film appears to be here to stay. Here's another example. Europa Report (2013, directed by Sebastián Cordero) is a hardcore science fiction film that uses the form to ratchet up the dread as a crew of intrepid astronauts investigate the possibilities of life on Jupiter's icebound moon, Europa. This is a film that demonstrates the fact that science fiction and horror were born as conjoined twins and were never quite separated into tidy, discreet individuals.

The film follows the journey of Europa One and its crew on a jaunt through the solar system bound for Jupiter and its moons. The crew is a diverse, from multiple countries. The mission is the first manned mission to travel beyond low earth orbit since the 1970s and expectations are high. Unfortunately, communication is lost between the spacecraft and Earth en route and the astronauts are on their own. They persevere and make it to their landing on Europa and find that there is indeed life there: first they find a kind of blue-green algae in the surface ice, then sinister bioluminescent shapes beneath it. Things continue to take turns for the worst, though. The landing has caused the capsule's propulsion systems to malfunction, and the light from their struggles to escape the moon are attracting the attention of the inhabitants of Europa's hidden ocean...

Europa Report

As I've mentioned, this film is hard science fiction. There's a level of verisimilitude in this film that lends it an aspect of documentary. This is not just down to the structure of the film, but also the result of its production design and laconic dramatic style. Given the fact that we know at the outset that the expedition becomes lost, there's a mounting tension. Structurally, this is a horror film, with its characters being picked off one by one--not by a nut with a knife or some demonic entity, but by the unmerciful nature of space travel. There's no room for error in space, and this crew makes too many mistakes. This is like a horror film in one other respect: it relies on its characters to do stupid, out of character things to keep the plot going, though in context, those things are understandable. In real life, no astronaut would persist in the activities shown in this film when given the order to abort by their commanders. But that's movies for you.

This movie adds one interesting wrinkle to its faux-documentary format: one of the characters, the mission's pilot, Rosa, has several scenes in which she's talking to the camera interview-style. The way this is shot suggests that she survived the mission and returned with the footage and it keeps the audience guessing once it becomes apparent that Rosa is the final girl. This has also learned some tricks when it comes to the form of the found footage film in so far as it breaks away from a singular camera and includes shots from multiple cameras placed all over its setting(s). This gives the filmmakers some freedom to compose the frame and direct the film rather than rely on POV shots. It also lets them indulge in multiple instances of split screens containing multiple aspects of its action.

Europa Report

This film has better actors than you might expect from a low budget sci fi thriller, including Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyquist, Embeth Davitz, and Isiah Washington. The actors are all vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough to impinge on the notion that we are watching real characters rather than performers. On a meta level, the star of the film is Anamaria Marinca, who alone of the crew speaks to the camera a little about her inner life. The casting of this film is impeccable. So is the production design, which calls to mind both the actual space programs of the world and the space films of the 1970s. The obvious touchstone for this film is 2001, a fact the film itself elides with a snippet of "The Blue Danube." It's a testament to the fact that film craft has become so good and so accessible that this looks like a film that has a gigantic budget even though it cost less than $10 million. There's a high degree of visual sophistication on display here, as well as an awareness of the best way to deploy its resources. In addition to the "found footage" structure of the film, this also has the structure of a classic monster movie, in which the film teases the audience with hints of what its monster looks like before its big reveal at the end of the film. If anything, Europa Report waits almost too long, but the environments it puts on film are interesting enough that you don't really notice a lack in this regard. The monster itself is credible and Lovecraftian at the same time, and at the end of the film, I mumbled to myself that Lovecraft was wrong: Yuggoth isn't Pluto, it's Europa. That's the geek in me, I suppose.

Anamaria Marinca in Europa Report

In any event, I liked this film a lot, warts and all. It tickles the same kind of appetite for hard SF that Moon stroked a couple of years ago. It's a "Golden Age of Sci Fi" kind of movie, untroubled by the terrors of shifting realities and problems of identity so common in contemporary, Phillip Dick-influenced sci fi. This is the kind of thing that A. E. Van Vogt used to write--"Black Destroyer," for instance--and it's fun seeing it come to life.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 13

First Time Viewings: 12

October Horror Movie Challenge Banner Thing version

Around the Web:

Fascination with Fear visits Wolf Creek and checks into a Hostel.

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number gazes into The Pit.

Horrifying Reviews takes on Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh before moving upscale to The Exorcist.

Behind the Couch dives into Dagon for their Lovecraft-a-thon.

Tim at The Other Side decides that Blood and Roses is beautiful.

The incredibly prolific Justin at The Bloody Pit of Horror looks at Devil Girl from Mars.

Finally, Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind previews the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, for which I envy him greatly.

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