Europa Report


One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

One of the many stunning visuals from Europa Report.

(2013) Sci-Fi Thriller (Magnet) Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca, Dan Fogler, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Neil deGrasse Tyson. Directed by Sebastian Cordero

The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t come without cost and sacrifice. Marie Curie, dying of radiation poisoning but her pioneering research led to such breakthroughs as x-rays and the understanding of isotopes. The crews of the Challenger and Columbia, part of our efforts to colonize and explore space. Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe although he didn’t quite get there – dying short of his goal (which his ship and crew completed). But is the knowledge worth the cost?

The Europa Project and the spacecraft Europa One are a privately-funded exploration project to send a manned expedition to Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, to discover if life exists there. Recent probes have discovered the possibility of liquid water below the ice-covered surface and of all the places in our solar system, may harbor the best potential for the existence of life.

The mission consists of six crew members – Pilot and Mission Commander William Xu (Wu), navigator Rosa Dasque (Marinca), Chief Science Officer Daniel Luxembourg (Camargo), Marine Biologist Katya Petrovna (Wydra), Junior Engineer James Corrigan (Copley) and Chief Engineer Andrei Blok (Nyqvist). A solar storm knocks out their communications equipment about a year into the mission.

While Dr. Unger (Davidtz), CEO of Europa Ventures – the parent company of the mission – frets back on Earth, the team determine to make an extravehicular walk to the exterior of the spacecraft to try and repair the communications array. The attempt is unsuccessful and leads to an unsettling catastrophe that puts the crew into a kind of funk.

They decide to carry on with the mission and eventually land on the surface of Europa, although an unexpected thermal vent knocks them slightly off-course so that they land several hundred yards away from their intended landing site. Their remote probes find nothing but strange occurrences lead them to doubt their sanity and hint at something miraculous on Europa.

This is ostensibly a found footage film, taken from the supposedly declassified documents and videos sent back by the mission, with Unger providing narration. There are a lot of reasons to be wary of found footage films but thankfully, not this one. It is one of the best to come out of the genre yet. The visuals can be absolutely stunning, and the set design is truly outstanding, and cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes it all look good.

Cordero, who previously helmed the fine mystery film Cronicas, outdoes himself here. He shot this entirely on a Brooklyn sound stage over a course of 18 days. The budget was pretty miniscule as sci-fi films go, but every nickel is onscreen.

The cast is fairly impressive and while none really distinguish themselves particularly, they are all capable actors acting capably here. Copley is probably the best-known of the group with appearances in District 9 and more recently, Elysium but Nyqvist, from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be more familiar to European audiences.

While there have been a fair amount of movies with similar themes over the years, not many have been as taut and well-constructed as this one. One quibble – they begin the film shortly after the failed attempt to repair the communications array and refer to events that haven’t happened yet, then tell much of the rest in flashbacks. Coupled with Unger’s narration from well past the mission’s completion, it can get somewhat confusing to the average viewer not paying close attention.

However, overall this is a very solid and enjoyable sci-fi thriller that makes use of the virtues of the found footage genre as well as any movie has of late. That in itself is reason to laud the heck out of the film.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific visuals. Realistic depictions of character and situation.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat confusing at the beginning. Acting is serviceable but not really outstanding.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of action and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hydrazine, the substance that gets on James’ spacesuit during the repair mission, has been used in reality for decades as thruster propellant and auxiliary power unit fuel in spacecraft.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

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2010


2010

Jupiter should have used SPF-50.

(MGM) Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain (voice), Madolyn Smith, Dana Elcar, James McEachin, Elya Baskin, Taliesin Jaffe, Mary Jo Deschanel, Natasha Shneider. Directed by Peter Hyams

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be one of the pre-eminent science fiction movies of all time – in fact, many see it as one of the best movies of all time period. In 1984, director Peter Hyams (Outland) took on the ambitious and daunting task of filming the sequel, which author Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1982. While Hyams added his own elements and changed many of Clarke’s, nonetheless the framework was unchanged and the message remained the same.

Dr. Heywood Floyd (Scheider), former head of the NCA, was the catalyst behind the ill-fated voyage of the U.S.S. Discovery to Jupiter following the discovery of a black featureless rectangular monolith buried in a lunar crater back in 2001. During that trip, the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Rain), the most advanced artificial intelligence ever designed, went psychotic causing the deaths of Astronaut Frank Poole and the scientific team in hibernation onboard. After Astronaut David Bowman (Dullea) disconnected the computer, he encountered a gigantic monolith – with the exact same features and dimensions of the lunar monolith – floating in space between Jupiter and its moon Io. After going out to investigate, Bowman disappeared but not before leaving behind a puzzling final transmission: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

This has haunted Floyd in the nine years since the Discovery incident. He has left the NCA for an academic position. One afternoon, he is visited by a Russian scientist (Elcar) who chats cryptically about the Discovery and informs Floyd that the Russians are planning a mission to the Discovery that will arrive a full year ahead of the American one. He proposes that the Americans tag along on the Russian vessel. Floyd is skeptical, but then the Russian points him in the direction of a shocking new development; the Discovery has changed its position and has moved towards Io and is in danger of crashing to its surface. There is no explanation as to why it had done that.

A joint Soviet-American mission is a lot more of a difficult sell than you can imagine. Tensions between the two countries are at an all-time high due to an unspecified ongoing crisis in the Honduras. The leaders seem ill-disposed towards acting sensibly and nuclear war is a very real possibility. Most of the people on the planet are in fear for their lives. Still, after Floyd goes to the new head of the NCA (McEachin) with the information, he manages to convince his replacement to go to bat with the president for the idea – with Floyd one of the astronauts to be sent to Jupiter to discover just what went wrong aboard the Discovery.

Accompanying Floyd will be Dr. Chandra (Balaban), the brilliant designer of HAL 9000 and its successor SAL 9000, and engineer Walter Curnow (Lithgow) who designed many of the systems aboard the Discovery. Commanding the Leonov is Commander Kirbuk (Mirren), a hard-as-nails by-the-book military commander (notice that Kirbuk is Kubrick spelled backwards – sorta) who butts heads with Floyd from the beginning. Suspicious of the Americans, she and her crew are not the most co-operative of sorts. However, they do grudgingly confirm that they have discovered the presence of chlorophyll on the surface of Europa – an icy moon of Jupiter where no signs of life previously existed. The Leonov sends a probe to investigate but this ends in the destruction of the probe before any meaningful data can be discovered.

At last, the Leonov reaches the Discovery and at last the mystery of the monoliths and the madness of the computer might be explained. However, you know what they say about curiosity – and finding the answers to these mysteries may cost the crew of the Leonov their lives.

The tendency is to compare 2010 with its predecessor and in many ways that’s quite unfair. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, as I mentioned, one of the most honored films of all time. It’s a lot like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone with the Wind; the former is a solid film on its own merits but doesn’t really compare to the classic latter. Hyams is a competent filmmaker in his own right, but he is no Stanley Kubrick, as Hyams I’m sure would be the first to confess. His storytelling technique is more straightforward, which makes 2010 a more accessible movie in a lot of ways.

By our standards, the special effects are primitive, although they were cutting edge for 1984 when the film came out. Still, taking that into account, it’s still a very watchable film, even if the computers look clunky when compared to, for example, iPhones. One has to look past that and try to concentrate on the story and the performances.

While the Soviet-American tensions seem hopelessly dated (the Berlin Wall would fall a mere seven years after the movie came out but while it was being made, the ideological conflict was in full bloom), some of the other aspects of the movie are prescient; for example, widespread use of portable computers and voice activated controls. We are finding out more about Europa and its potential for harboring life.

Scheider was one of Hollywood’s most dependable leads, having done such films as Jaws and Hyams’ own Blue Thunder. He is in his element here as the irreverent and maverick scientist Floyd. He plays nicely off of Mirren, who hadn’t yet reached the stature as an actress that she has today. Her character is essentially one-dimensional, but Mirren gives her at least as much depth as the script will allow. Fluent in Russian (Mirren’s father was Russian-born – her birth name is Mironov – and Russian and English were both spoken in her home), Mirren lends authenticity to her character and while she is something of a cliché (the Americans are always right, the Russians are always mulish), she remains someone you want to root for even if the writers didn’t always allow you to.

Its eerie seeing Keir Dullea as Bowman, the role he originated 2001. De-aged by make-up artist Michael Westmore, he looks uncannily ageless. When I first saw the film in theaters, I actually got shivers up my spine.

I will admit to being somewhat overly lenient towards science fiction films, so do take that into account when reading this. There’s something to be said for watching two enormous spacecraft orbiting near Jupiter. While some of the movie seems dated (which seems odd for science fiction which is intended to be forward-looking), certainly it remains a very watchable, mostly enjoyable science fiction movie. Some of the intelligence of Clarke’s original work remains, but this is meant to be more entertaining than illuminating. For what it is meant to be, it succeeds. Just don’t expect to see psychedelic visuals at the first strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances by most of the cast. The de-aging of Dullea as Astronaut David Bowman is astonishing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the special effects, while cutting-edge for their time, are laughably primitive. Those who measure this by Kubrick’s movie are going to find this sorely lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: By 2010 standards, there’s nothing in this movie that a good parent would object to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the SAL 9000 computer during the University of Chicago Computer Lab scene is voiced by Candice Bergen, operating under a pseudonym. She is credited, somewhat cheekily, as Olga Mallsnerd, combining the names of her then-husband (director Louis Malle) and one of her father, Edgar Bergen’s, most beloved characters Mortimer Snerd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Did You Hear About the Morgans?