EUROPA REPORT and GRAVITY: It’s Time to Go Home

Europa Report PosterEuropa Report (2013) – Directed by Sebastián Cordero – Starring Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Dan Fogler, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.

Gravity (2013) – Directed by Alfonso Cuarón – Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Orto Ignatiussen, and Ed Harris.

I hate the artificial pitting of one movie against another, though I sometimes do it. I’m going to do it right now, in fact.

EUROPA REPORT is a better movie than GRAVITY.

I do not say this to demean GRAVITY, which is a fine film. In fact, one of the reasons I’m comfortable playing the artificial contest is that it’s most typically done to to say just what I said – that one movie is better than the other – but not with the intent, as it’s usually done to say this film is good and that film is bad. That’s not the case here. Both GRAVITY and EUROPA REPORT are excellent science fiction films, but my preference is for the latter.

I saw GRAVITY in the theater but it was during a time when I was taking a break from writing reviews, and so have not written on it until now. GRAVITY is a highly successful attempt at turning a sci-fi action movie into Literature, while EUROPA is a highly successful attempt to turn a sci-fi horror movie into Literature. That GRAVITY has been the much more successful film from both critical and box office viewpoints (GRAVITY has a 97% rating at Rotten Tomatoes while EUROPA has only a 79% score) says a lot about our culture’s love of spectacle and unrelenting desire to star-fuck. There is no Clooney or Bullock in EUROPA, and where GRAVITY is a sumptuous visual feast, EUROPA is saturated with dull grays, blues, and whites. GRAVITY is all about the vastness of space while EUROPA is centered on the close quarters of a spacecraft.

GRAVITY tells the story of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the one surviving member of an orbital destruction of a space shuttle. (Kids, ask your parents what a space shuttle was.) What writer/director Alfonso Cuarón does is to take a slice of a typical action movie and extend it for 90 minutes. He gets into the cracks and crevices of what a person experiences in a situation like that: the uncontrollable spinning, the fear of isolation, the incredible struggle to go a short distance, the near impossibility of getting back to Earth.

But it’s still just an action movie; it’s just that the CGI movie spent on creating a painting rather than a comic strip. Cuarón creates an amazing spectacle on which to highlight the intimacy of Stone’s experience. A call for help that reaches an Inuit in Greenland becomes a momentous occasion. Putting out a fire unsuccessfully means the end of the movie.

I really like GRAVITY but I can’t help but think our massive cultural desire to star fuck has something to do with the film’s success. George Clooney is in the film just long enough to make us all wet with his easy charm, transferable confidence, and comforting smile. And then debris hits the space shuttle, everything goes to hell, and he stays right there, being all heroic, right up until and including when he sacrifices himself to save Stone.

Gravity PosterBut then he’s gone and we have to watch poor, single-mommed Ryan Stone and celebrity magazine seller Sandra Bullock work to overcome odds we couldn’t even comprehend if we were in her position and find her way back to Earth. We commodify every aspect of a celebrity’s life, and Bullock’s personal life has been turned inside and out, plastered over magazine covers. It’s not hard to see what attracted her to this role – she gets Clooney to warm up the audience and then we watch her and almost only her fight and overcome and think her way back to Earth in the capable directing hands of Alfonso Cuarón.

It’s a riveting performance and absolutely deserving of her Oscar nomination.

In contrast to GRAVITY’s star show, EUROPA REPORT has quality actors who are not appearing on the cover of US Weekly. Michael Nyqvist (from the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Sharlto Copley (from District 9), and Embeth Davidtz (from a whole bunch of things, ranging from Army of Darkness to Schindler’s List to Amazing Spider-Man) are the most well known, but there are strong performances all across the cast.

For a movie that’s not nearly the spectacle GRAVITY is, EUROPA manages to also create a beautiful film at 10% the cost. (GRAVITY’s reported budget is $100 million, while EUROPA was made for under $10 million.)

EUROPA is a found footage movie, but it’s unlike any found footage movie you’ve seen. There’s very little shaky cam, as the cameras are mostly mounted around their spacecraft. What’s really impressive is that EUROPA will put multiple shots up at the same time, cutting the screen down into two segments or four or more. It begs the question – there’s are found footage movies, not “don’t have a digital editing machine” movies, so why aren’t other found footage films taking advantage of the canvas of the screen to give us a more unique experience? It’s a welcome change from the norm. Other found footage movies have done a bit of this, but I’ve never seen another movie do it to this extent, or with this much success.

EUROPA focuses on a group of astronauts headed to the Jupiter moon of (you guessed it) Europa to dig down through the ice and, in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s words, see what swims up and “licks the lens.”

This is a throwback film, offering a modern, more literary Alien. Which is to say, we have to wait even longer to finally see the monster, and we get much less of it.

EUROPA is Alien on a small budget (EUROPA cost less in 2013 dollars than Alien did in 1979 dollars), and it pulls from a wide range of horror movie tricks to save on the budget: camera angles, turning off the lights, seeing the reaction instead of the thing being reacted to. Well before the crew reaches Europa, all of their communications with Earth are severed. They’re on their own, unable to call for help, and they decide to keep pushing forward despite not even being able to get a message back to Earth that they’re okay.

Like GRAVITY and Alien, EUROPA tries to give us a more realistic experience. These are incredibly cramped quarters; unlike the Nostromo, there’s not anywhere for an alien to hide. People are knocked off one at a time, though there isn’t any real sense of malice in the attacks. The alien creature doesn’t seek them out as much as it reacts to their presence.

EUROPA sits at the uneasy nexus of discovery and discovered. Back in Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is in a heated discussion with John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), and declares, “Oh, what’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it observes. What you call discovery … I call the rape of the natural world.” Hyperbole aside, that’s what we see at play in EUROPA. The crew lands on the moon and bad things start happening – to a camera, to the crew, to their ship. In their quest to observe and catalog parts of the moon, the crew draws the attention of an underwater creature that isn’t too thrilled with someone showing up and flashing bright lights in its face.

Director Sebastián Cordero cleverly assembles his story, jumping around in time to provide the best possibly narrative flow. Dr. Unger (Davidtz) is the CEO of the venture, and Cordero interjects a postscript interview with Unger into the film. The whole movie feels like an active documentary rather than a passive assemblage of found footage, and I love the intelligence behind it.

Both EUROPA REPORT and GRAVITY are excellent movies, but it’s EUROPA’s story and visual style that strikes the strongest chord with me. Maybe that’s because I’ve been watching so many low-budget movies lately (says the guy who just reviewed The Desolation of Smaug …) that I’m as partial to Cordero’s precision as others have been to Cuarón’s star-driven spectacle.

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