Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Report on Europa Report

(Spoiler Alert: there are relatively minor spoilers throughout this review. Toward the end, I'll identify a major spoiler section that gives away almost the entire movie, so don't read past that point if you don't want the ending ruined.)

I wish that I could say I was disappointed in "Europa Report" because I thought it was going to be a biopic about some former German Finance Minister who was the father of the Euro, only to find myself rudely surprised to be watching a near-future science fiction "found footage" movie. Unfortunately, my interest in European finance isn't that keen, and I knew ahead of time that the film had been made as an independent, relatively low-budget movie with the ambition of bringing "hard" science fiction to the movie screen.

I first read about "Europa Report" on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. Long ago, Plait blogged primarily about astronomy in popular culture, doing copious movie reviews and takedowns of pseudoscience on his now-more-or-less-unattended site. His film and television reviews were my favorites -- good, solid movie analysis that also meticulously described the good and bad elements of science and especially astronomy in cinematic storytelling. More recently, he's gotten higher-profile gigs on and now, and has turned more to informational blogging about current astronomical events, which I find interesting but not nearly as entertaining as his old reviewing style. So when he touted Europa Report last year, I put it on my list of things to check out ... even though he didn't really do his traditional good-and-bad dissection of it.

Having already said that the movie disappointed me, let me pause here to note that it's a very effectively made film on many levels, both more cerebral and more realistic than 99% of science fiction films tend to be. The effects are impeccable, the acting is strong, the characters are interesting and distinct, and the storyline and mystery are compelling. If you like real science fiction, then you probably think there have only been a tiny handful of truly science fictional films in the history of cinema, at least as far as outer-space s.f. goes. This movie is definitely one of them, and it's worth watching for that reason alone if you're an aficionado of hard science fiction.

The premise is that a manned mission to Europa (one of Jupiter's moons) encounters a near-catastrophic technical failure and must proceed through the bulk of its four-year mission without any way of contacting Earth. The crew is tasked with exploring Europa for signs of life, because the moon is considered one of the prime candidates for extraterrestrial life in our solar system. It's a "found footage" movie, meaning that almost all of the scenes are shot from the viewpoint of fixed cameras within the spacecraft, or hand-held/spacesuit cameras used by the astronauts. Additional scenes consist of interview footage with scientists and administrators back on Earth, as well as footage from news stories about the mission.

It's in those extra scenes that the movie makes one of its major missteps. While they provide a lot of exposition that helps the viewer understand the parameters of the mission, and do so in a very natural, believable, interesting way, it becomes clear at some point in the film that some of the interviews take place after the disaster that cuts communications between Earth and Europa One. Once that happened, my mind automatically started looking for tonal clues in the interviews about whether the mission would make it back home or end with all hands being lost. For me, this turned into a constant tease on the part of the filmmakers. Does the administrator's tendency to get emotional and choked up imply that all of our astronaut characters are already dead? Or is she just a sensitive person relating her emotional reaction upon learning that the ship might have been destroyed? Does the Earthbound scientist's enthusiastic discussion of key events in the mission reveal that some of the characters make it back to Earth? Or is he just so in love with the scientific wonder that he isn't thinking about the loss of life? Even worse, at some point, footage of the pilot begins showing up as well. Is it interview footage from after her return to Earth? Or is she giving a sort of "last testament" description after it has become clear that everyone is doomed?

If the entire film had been spacecraft and crew footage, I would not have been trying to solve the mystery of do-they-live-or-do-they-die. I could only have watched the events unfolding and been pulled forward by the progress of the plot. I would have been concerned about the fates of the characters rather than about figuring out what the interview footage might be saying about the fates of the characters. So the Earth-side footage served to pull me out of the narrative even as it helped explain some of the action taking place. That created an emotional distance and weakened the film for me. Even worse (for reasons I'll discuss in a moment), by the end of the film, all the teasing and toying about the fate of the crew made me feel very manipulated.

My other main issue with the film was the choice to begin with the catastrophe and then flash back to show the launch and early portions of the mission. While this gave the early part of the movie a dramatic intensity that it would otherwise have lacked, we learn in those first few moments that one of the crew dies in the accident, and then we spend half an hour or more waiting to learn exactly how and why he dies. During that half hour, we find out that the guy who died is one of the most likable members of the crew. But since he's already dead, the actual death scene ends up delivering more of an intellectual resolution than any kind of emotional surprise. This is not to say that it's sterile or cut-and-dried; the film does a good job of making you feel the impact on his fellow crew-members, and humanizes all of them in a very effective way. But in showing that the astronaut died before giving us reason to care about him, the film initiated its habit of distancing the viewer from the moment-to-moment suspense of the story.

Because those two issues put me at arm's length from the emotional grip of the story, I had time and inclination to see and think about a variety of other things that bothered me. The final outcome: I ended up unhappy with the film -- not that I had watched it, but that it had missed its opportunity to be a truly shining light in the constellation of s.f. filmmaking.

Overall, I give the film three stars out of five, with the note that it's a very frustrating three stars because a few small changes would have leapt the movie up to four-and-a-half or even five.

The remainder of this review is SUPER-HEAVY-DUTY SPOILER TERRITORY!!! Stop reading now if you don't want the resolution of the movie ruined for you.

Why did I end up feeling so manipulated by the movie? The answer to that lies in those interview-or-testament scenes in which the pilot is talking to the camera. She's sitting in front of a background that looks like a generic studio backwall that might be used in an interview setup. But it's generic enough that it might also be some corner of the ship that we haven't clearly seen in other camera angles, so that alone doesn't ruin anything. What does cause me major aggravation is that the progression of these scenes makes it clearer and clearer that they must be interview footage, and that the pilot must therefore survive (although she might be the only survivor). Key to this conclusion is the fact that we see the pilot discussing a major decision the crew makes after landing on Europa. A fluke event during landing has forced them to set down outside their planned landing zone. As a result, they can't get surface data that would have been available in the intended LZ. They do still have a drilling rig and remote-controlled submersible, but after some tantalizing footage from the submersible, they lose contact with it. So the decision is made for one of the astronauts to do an EVA, walk to the original landing zone, and collect the surface data. This goes bad and the astronaut dies, although not before discovering unicellular life forms in the LZ. The pilot had been the tie-breaking vote that determined this person's fate. But there's no emotional hint during the "interviews" that the pilot is discussing these events mere hours after sending her crew-mate out to die. She's entirely philosophical about it, in a way that someone could be after having two years to deal with the grief and guilt.

The story then progresses with the remaining crew's attempt to lift off for rendezvous with the main spacecraft, during which disaster yet again strikes, causing the lander to crash back to the surface, killing the mission commander, and leaving the pilot and two other astronauts trying desperately to make repairs that might allow them to take off, save their lives, and return their data to Earth. The lander is a literal wreck at this point, as well as being on literally thin ice. No one has much hope that they'll get the repairs done before the ice breaks, or that the repairs will be sufficient to get them back to orbit.

Now comes the reveal that the pilot has been recording those "interview" clips while her two remaining crew-mates were making their preparations for the repair EVA. In other words, every second of her interview footage has been filmed during a lull after a period of several hours in which she sent her crew-mate out to die, experienced a near-fatal crash-landing, saw the mission commander die horribly in the crash, and then learned that she and her last teammates are almost certainly going to die as well. But while watching it, the footage was quite plausibly believable as an interview with someone who had lived through these events years ago and was discussing them in the comfort of a studio. She didn't come across as a woman shell-shocked, stranded, and probably about to die.

If the character had been presented as an icily efficient monomaniac throughout the film, and if she'd persisted in that behavior for the rest of the movie (in which the repair attempts fail, the other two crewmen die, and the lander sinks, killing her), then perhaps the interview-ish footage might have simply reflected her absolute iron will and professional detachment. But after the crash landing, she grows progressively more emotional and distraught, in a way that's completely at odds with her demeanor while she's talking to the camera.

So not only did the interview footage make me think it was likely she would survive, but when viewed in the context of her actual situation while filming it, it lacked any emotional believability. Its main purpose was to keep the viewer hopeful even though the character really knew there was no hope. It gave every appearance of being an interview that helped us know what was going on in the character's mind through these events, but then it turned out to be deliberately hiding the most important thing that was going on in her mind. Not merely omitting. Not carefully skirting the issue. Deliberately, manipulatively concealing the character's frame of mind. In other words, it was the filmmakers saying, "Here, would you mind standing on this rug?" and then pulling it out from under me.

The kicker then came at the very end. Since everyone dies and the capsule sinks, how is any of this footage ever returned to Earth? We know from the administrator's interviews that they do, in fact get hold of all the video we've been watching for the last two hours. (And since the video represented a small sampling out of a year and a half of the mission, they got some vast amount more footage than what we've been watching.) Well, it turns out that once the astronauts know the repairs aren't going to work, they re-route power from the life-support system to the communications system and transmit everything to Earth.

This solution is so down-to-the-wire that te pilot hits the transmission button just as the lander is starting to sink, and something like 16 months worth of video footage from dozens of onboard cameras and suit cameras gets beamed out to Earth in the remaining moments that the lander is sinking. This includes the final striking image from the lander's interior camera: the pilot opens the airlock (never mind that there should be a failsafe preventing both doors from ever opening at once), the interior floods, and an alien life form swims into the lander and is revealed in the last second before the transmission cuts off.

The administrator then comes on in a final interview to praise the pilot's quick, staring-death-in-the-face thinking, thanks to which Earth received this confirming footage of complex life in the oceans of Europa.

But by this point, we had already gotten tons of indirect evidence that something complex and reactive was swimming around under the ice, along with direct evidence of that unicellular life form from the surface samples. So a smile-for-the-camera picture represents something amazing for the people on Earth in the story, but it's not really a big deal for viewers of the movie.

Much worse, though, is the fact that the crew has been out of contact with Earth for 16 to 18 months, but we now discover that a simple re-routing of power undertaken in the space of just a few minutes could solve the whole problem and allow transmission to Earth directly from the lander on the surface (and then under the surface) of Europa. So why didn't they figure something out in all those months? They did attempt a repair on the main ship at the time of the accident. (That's how the first crewman died.) But after that there was no discussion that any possibility remained of reestablishing communications. There was certainly no mention of the lander having a communications array that could reach Earth, which would have to have been redundant to the array on the main ship.

In other words, everything about the way the movie was constructed suggested that the footage either made it back to Earth because the mission made it back to Earth, or because another subsequent mission went out and found it. But apparently the filmmakers preferred to have everyone die so that a final shocking image of an alien would get beamed back to Earth rather than have someone live and return with proof of unicellular life and indirect evidence of something large and mysterious under the ice. So everybody we care about dies, but at least we get to see a picture of a CGI tentacle-creature.

Ultimately, that ending threw away all that the rest of the movie had accomplished for me, because it felt as cheaply manipulative as anything in a big-budget Hollywood spectacle film.

Really, I would rather have known from the very start that everyone was going to die, so that then I could at least feel their deaths had had some meaning when they captured this amazing evidence of extraterrestrial life.

If you've read all this and still have any interest in watching Europa Report, I strongly suggest that you do so. As I said earlier, many aspects of the film are really quite good. And if knowing all the crap that upset me doesn't put you off, you'll probably enjoy watching it for yourself.

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