Thursday, November 21, 2013

'Europa Report': Smart sci-fi on a budget

The special effects of “Gravity” may have drawn in moviegoers, but “Europa Report” shows you don’t need a big special effects budget to tell a story about space travel that will hold an audience spellbound.

This 2013 movie directed by Sebastián Cordero tells its story with a style and intelligence unseen in most movies about astronauts encountering danger as they explore space. “Europa Report” is a lesson in small-budget science fiction that uses its head and its heart.

The movie follows an international crew on their mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. A private space exploration company has sent the six-member team to determine if there’s life in the oceans beneath the moon’s icy surface. As they approach their destination, they lose contact with Earth, finding they only have their fellow astronauts to count on to successfully complete the mission.

Yes, the plot sounds familiar, but “Europa Report” shows how execution can set a movie apart from a galaxy of competitors. For once, viewers see a team of astronauts dedicated to science. When things start going wrong, the scientific mission is not thrown out the window and forgotten for the rest of the movie.

It’s clear that the lives of these astronauts have been building to this moment. They are keenly aware that their mission can forever alter the course of human history. They are not going to jettison it at the first sign of trouble. “Europa Report” is unique because there’s a sense each astronaut is willing to put the survival of the mission over his or her own survival.

This dedication to science also allows Cordero to tell a story that’s free of the histrionics so common in such movies. There’s a somber tone throughout the film. The first sign of trouble doesn’t set off confrontations that make the movie look like a bad reality show set in space.

This isn’t to say the “Europa Report” lacks emotion or that the crew members don’t care about each other. Throughout the movie there are touching scenes of courage, sacrifice and duty. Its final sequence with the surviving crew members will stick with viewers for a long time. It’s a tribute to the talents of this cast.

These achievements are even more remarkable given that Cordero has chosen to tell “Europa Report” in a documentary style using footage from the crew’s spacecraft. The “found footage” technique often elicits groans from moviegoers for good reason. Just as there’s no shortage of films about space travel gone wrong, there’s no shortage of “found footage” films that make viewers nauseous with shaky camera work.

But this movie is how you do a “found footage” film right. Yes, it helps “Europa Report” overcome the limitations of a small budget, but it’s not a crutch. Cordero turns it into one of the film’s strengths. By placing cameras inside spacesuit helmets and turning the camera on the crew member, a scene’s action and tension hinges on the actor’s ability to convey it through facial expressions. Viewers will also appreciate that much of the found footage comes from cameras mounted inside and outside the ship, providing rather stable footage and eliminating the need for motion sickness remedies.

Some of the found footage is shown out of order at the beginning of the film to pique interest. It’s a choice that may momentarily confuse some viewers. But it is a minor complaint. “Europa Report” ultimately tells a memorable science fiction tale with maturity and emotion that is too often lacking in this genre. It offers a journey that is well worth taking.