To boldly go where everyone has gone before: Mediocre sci-fi film delivers nothing new
In his new film Europa Report, Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero tries his hand at cinema verité science fiction, and, unfortunately, the results are disappointing. Working from a screenplay by Philip Gelatt, Cordero can’t overcome the flatness of the material, and the story, which has a sort of Blair Witch Project meets The Right Stuff feel to it, never fully gels. Despite featuring a few skilled performances from his international cast, Cordero’s film ultimately fails to satisfy as either intriguing science fiction or as compelling docudrama.
The pretense of Europa Report is that viewers are watching found footage taken from the video log of the spacecraft Europa One, a craft funded and staffed by the private firm Europa Ventures. At a press conference, the CEO of the firm, Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), presents the footage a few years after the voyage began, and the film alternates between her narrative explanation of the mission and the actual footage from the voyage, shot, obviously, in the kind of shaky, grainy, hand-held style that will no doubt be familiar to viewers of faux-documentary shows like The Office and Parks and Rec.
The ship’s initial mission, Dr. Unger explains, was to explore Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, for signs of life. Six astronauts are on board the craft, two women and four men. The six are somewhat stock types, and all have superficial defining characteristics: James (Sharlto Copley) is a young husband and father missing his family; Andrei (Michael Nyqvist, Mikael from the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and probably the film’s most recognizable name) is the gruff and stoic Russian engineer, and Rosa (Anamaria Marinca) is brash and dedicated to completing the mission above all else. Of particular local interest, though, is Daniel Wu, a former Orinda resident and a graduate of Oakland’s Head Royce High School, as the even-tempered, logical mission Commander William Xu, a consummate team player and unruffled problem solver.
As would be expected, mishaps both technical and human happen, and the crewmembers have to make split second decisions while weighing the importance of continuing the mission against issues of grave safety and risk. Such conflict marks the central theme of the film, and the actors do deftly capture the angst and strain of having to navigate such difficult quandaries. The film also does a nice job of portraying the downtime on the craft; anyone who has ever wondered what astronauts do during their personal time off in space will enjoy the attention to detail Cordrero displays here.
That said, though, ultimately Europa Report breaks no new ground, and offers no uniquely inspired story line. Instead, it borrows liberally from such science fiction film staples as Alien, its recent precursor Prometheus, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the music of which is played at the film’s beginning, and which, far from being a playful in-joke, only serves to remind us that we are watching an inferior movie. The film does wrestle with some interesting philosophical questions and does offer an intricate look at what space travel is really like (NASA reportedly consulted on the film), but with its lack of sharply drawn characters, the film, in the end, feels lightweight and forgettable. It’s hard for viewers to root for or care about characters in whom they aren’t invested, and that’s the case here.
Anyone jonesing for a sci-fi fix this month will probably be better served by skipping this derivative bore and instead seeing two classics of the genre, 2001 and Solaris, on a great double bill at the Castro Theater this Sunday:
You’ll be able to hear the full 2001 soundtrack in all its glory, instead of just a snippet used for comedic effect. Now that’s a cinematic adventure.
Europa Report opens in Bay Area theaters today.