Europa Report (Sebastián Cordero, 2013)
I watched the underwhelming Apollo 18 a few weeks before Europa Report showed up on Netflix. Magnet Releasing had been talking up Europa Report for a few months via its Facebook page, which is all I knew about it going in. Now that I’ve finished it, my initial impression that it seemed like it was going to be an Apollo 18 mockbuster was entirely justified. However, Europa Report is that rarest of birds: a mockbuster that is orders of magnitude better than the theatrical release upon which it is (presumably) based.
Plot: in 2011, NASA discovers heat signatures under the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. (Those of you who remember the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey may already have red flags waving in your minds.) A private company sends a manned spaceship with the cream of the international crop to Europa to find out more about the readings they’ve been receiving back on Earth. Captained by William Xu (Shinjuku Incident‘s Daniel Wu) and piloted by crack jet ace Rosa Dasque (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days‘ Anamaria Marinca), the team of scientists heads out into space—and then transmission suddenly disappears. The film is told in flashback after the whole incident is declassified by NASA. The frame is given documentary-style as an interview with the project lead back on Earth, Samantha Unger (Army of Darkness‘ Embeth Davidtz), with footage from the mission intercut. It seems that the recorders on the ship were still working—and when communication was eventually restored, there was a lot of archive footage that got sent back…
I’m going to try not to be too spoily here, but it’s kind of hard to avoid being spoily for both Apollo 18 and Europa Report whilst comparing the two; consider this a spoiler alert for both movies and proceed with caution.
The main difference between the two—and the main reason that Europa Report succeeds where Apollo 18 fails—is that it seems to me Apollo 18 was conceived as a monster movie, and everything was built around that concept. “We’ve got this cool monster idea, now what do we want to build around it?” Screenwriter Philip Gelatt, turning in his second screenplay here (his debut was 2011’s The Bleeding House, which he also directed), it seemed to me was working from the opposite direction. “Here’s an interesting cast of characters who are in a small place with one another for an extended period of time going somewhere no one has ever been before. What do they find?” It may not sound like much, especially since both movies, with some variations on the theme, end up in basically the same place—but believe me, the different theory vector adds up to a huge difference in practice. Apollo 18‘s characters are about as original as off-the-rack clothes from the costume department. They’re affable, they’re capable, and above all they’re interchangeable. Gelatt took what often looks like a shortcut in distinguishing one’s characters—coming up with an international cast to showcase the characters’ diversity—and instead used it as the tip of the iceberg, creating distinct, memorable, believable characters with whom it is all too easy to empathize. And thus it is that when the characters in Europa Report run into difficulties, the viewer is much more likely to care about the outcomes of those difficulties here than in Apollo 18. Being able to empathize with a movie’s characters is one of the fundamental differences between a good movie and a mediocre one, and Europa Report is without question of the former stripe.
After a few decades’ worth of lull, the “let’s send characters to other planets to find things!” genre has burst out of the gate again in the past five years or so, and most of what we’ve seen in that regard has been mediocre at best. It almost stands to reason that Europa Report, which according to IMDB maxed out in August of 2013 on a grand total of twelve screens, was all but ignored while Apollo 18 opened on a jaw-dropping 3,328 screens two years previous. Hollywood, which these days thrives on a steady diet of massive-budget blockbusters and ridiculous sequels/remakes/”reboots” of franchises who wore out their welcomes years ago, wouldn’t know what to do with a quiet, intelligent piece of science fiction. (Moon. Sunshine. Pitch Black. Titan AE. Gattaca. The Iron Giant. I can keep going…) Fortunately, Magnet Releasing does, and depending on when you read this, Netflix Instant does, too. Unless you live near one of twelve screens in “selected cities”, you didn’t get a chance to catch this on the big screen. It is absolutely worth a rental. *** ½