It’s a tricky business choosing stories to cover in Cinefex magazine.
Studios prefer our editorial to coincide with the releases of their movies, some of which are very far from finished when we start hounding the filmmakers. And it can be a high-wire act to predict what films are worth covering. Sometimes we strike out, covering real stinkers. Occasionally, we’ll delay coverage if we figure it will be worth the wait. Once in a while, we have to let some gems pass us by.
What follows is a little taste of a movie that didn’t make it into the magazine, a peek behind the scenes into our review process, featuring a rather cool little film as I presented it to Don Shay and the team. As our readers will know, we don’t review movies, we write about how they are made; but this is my report, so to speak, on Europa Report.
(I’ll spare you my intro, where I described my unsuccessful attempts to hook up my TV to a streaming video link; I only mention that here to set the scene…)
In spite of iTunes, Europa Report was a fine movie. It was intelligent and gripping, beautifully shot, claustrophobic, but clever and effective in its use of documentary-style cameras and editorial structure. The filmmakers never placed random cameras in improbable places to conveniently capture the action. They set up the rules and stuck to them, so you get the hang of the technique without it being distracting or annoying. The whole gag of ‘found footage’ – if it works – is to use the first person camera perspective to make the audience imagine more than they’re seeing. That worked pretty well, and it was a good fit to the story.
The story was quite simple. Six astronauts on an international, independently financed mission fly to Europa, the ice-caked moon of Jupiter, seeking life believed to exist under the frozen surface. Bad things happen to them. This is the story of what happens, as pieced together by mission control.
The filmmakers allow us time to get to know their characters – Embeth Davitz, from Schindler’s List, is impressive as the tough spaceship pilot; Sharlto Copley from District 9 and Elysium plays a biological scientist, and provides a welcome touch of humor; Michael Nyqvist from the original Dragon Tattoo is an effectively sinister senior scientist on the edge of a nervous breakdown – so by the time the chips start falling, you feel for them. It gets quite heartbreaking at one point.
Visual effects are very naturalistic. The film plays with real science, and the credits include a long list of real space science imagery resources. Jupiter and Europa look like the real thing, and the shots of the spacecraft are flawless. For instance, there are no God’s eye views of the ship in space; it is always seen from cameras mounted on the ship, or from astronaut’s on-board cameras, with the extreme depth of field and stark contrasts of real in-flight space photography. Space is mostly black (at least, on my laptop). And they use sounds in a Kubrickian way, from the astronauts’ perspectives, which is very dramatic.
On board the ship, the living quarters spin, thus creating an area where the space travelers (and audience) can orient themselves. But the cockpit and work areas are zero-g, where people bounce around very convincingly. It’s not as showy as Apollo 13, but I guess they could not afford the Vomit Comet, and it’s intelligently done.
Once we get to Europa, the ‘less is more’ approach applies again. We rarely see the surface except through portholes, exterior probes and astronaut cameras. As the threat builds to a slow reveal of what they find down there, it’s convincing, and quite scary, but I felt the interest is maintained by focusing on how the characters react and interact, and their psychological breakdown. This is not a monster movie, although there is a monster in it. And (spoiler) we do get to see it.
The tension and the drama, and the technical execution, were all well done; although I have to say was hoping that it might amount to just a little more. It was not as satisfying as Moon, which I am sure this film will be compared to – like Duncan Jones’ film, this is a refreshing dose of adult science fiction, done apparently on a shoestring. But it is a good and solid bit of filmmaking, and it most certainly overcame the shortcomings of its online presentation.
My recommendation: An intriguing genre piece, and well worth a look. The visual effects, while well executed, are by design limited in scope. The real interest here, and what most impressed me, is the way the filmmakers knew how to use those effects.
Director: Sebastián Cordero. Writer: Philip Gelatt. Producer: Ben Browning. Production design: Eugenio Caballero. VFX supervisor: John Bair. Vendors: Phosphene – VFX supe John Bair; Method Studios – VFX supe Jim Rider; Look Effects – VFX supe Jeff Wozniak; Perception – VFX supe John LePore; Quadratic Optical – VFX supe Brendan Taylor; additional effects – Nat Jencks. Studio: Wayfare Entertainment. Distribution: iTunes / Magnet Releasing. Release date: (VOD) June 27 / (theatrical) August 2. Running time: 89 minutes.