Europa Report is a found-footage film. I watched it. In doing so, I violated my sacred pledge, made after watching The Visit, never to view another such film again. In my defence, I was duped; a (now ex-)friend recommended it to me without telling me this necessary piece of information.
Okay, look: I admit that about thirty seconds in, I realised that this was found-footage and had an uncontrollable moment of resistance—like the first time you eat a raw oyster. But then I remembered: we should always go into a film with an open mind. My brain settled down. Swallow that slimy shellfish! Maybe Europa Report will be the Citizen Kane of found-footage films!
Well… it isn’t. (Taxi Tehran holds that distinction and probably will for a long time to come.) Europa Report commits many sins of the found-footage aesthetic that I find unforgivable, and which are the focus of this essay. I’ll lay all the cards out on the table now: I know I’m in the minority. The things that annoy me about the FF technique are ignored or accepted by the vast majority of people who watch these films. I realise this. All too well. I know I ‘overthink’ and ‘overanalyse’—though I would argue I’m simply thinking and analysing, and that other people don’t do enough of those things—so there’s no need to tell me that. And honestly, even if you share my view of FF, you’ll probably like Europa Report anyway. I did too! Kinda sorta.
NO SPOILERS FOLLOW, I PROMISE
The film tells the story of the first manned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The conceit of Europa Report is that the ‘found footage’ consists of material from the ship’s internal and external cameras, the six-man crew’s body cams, and news footage about the Europa One mission. The mission commander and a scientist speak directly to the camera at certain points, as does one of the astronauts on the mission. (I won’t spoil it, but when we find out why the astronaut is directly addressing the camera, I found it a cheat and was violently enraged for a very brief few seconds.)
The first thing I always ask about found footage films: is the fact that the ‘footage’ is ‘found’ necessary to tell the story, or just an affectation? In Europa Report, it is not necessary. The technique is almost justified by the ending, but doesn’t quite succeed because of the second thing I always wonder about found footage films: who found the footage and why did they put it together this way? Europa Report almost works as a documentary about the Europa One mission, but no actual documentarian would arrange the footage this way. Well, no documentarian with journalistic and emotional integrity would ever structure his film as Europa Report is structured, withholding crucial pieces of information from the audience in such a way.
(Okay, that may not strictly be true. Dear Zachary did something similar, so clearly some documentarian would do it. I’m sure I’m in the minority in thinking that that part of Dear Zachary was a cheap emotional cheat. It seemed done as a way to drain tears out of the viewer, even though the subject matter itself was so strong, no cheats were needed. I have a good many issues with that film, actually—it’s like a visualised episode of Radiolab played at normal speed x3—but this is not the essay to explore them in any depth, not least of all to avoid spoilers. My point is, though some documentarians do structure their films for dramatic effect, doing it in the manner presented in Europa Report would be grossly dissatisfying.)
To its credit, Europa Report sidesteps the third thing I always ask about found footage films: is the director just employing this technique to mask a deficiency in filmmaking talent? After all, a director usually won’t have to worry about framing, composition, staging, and all the other things that make a well-directed movie well-directed. Obviously, bad directors don’t want to have to worry about those things, because they’re bad at them. In this case, Sebastián Cordero has obviously taken care with his images—probably a necessity given the VFX work—and isn’t using the technique to cover deficiencies in his ability. The flip side to this is, it’s a bit difficult to judge the extent of his talent, given the limitations he has placed on himself here.
I must imagine that one of the reasons directors like Sebastián Cordero use the FF technique is to make their films feel more realistic. Horror films seem scarier, action films more impactful—at least in the filmmakers’ minds. I don’t buy it. But if it’s the tack you’re going to take, at least commit to it. Europa Report uses non-diegetic music (by Bear McCreary!), which pulled me right out of the movie. Not only that, but there are crucial scenes when the sound cuts out, leaving us with just the music and characters’ faces—think of the Japanese bivouac sequence from The Thin Red Line. This would obviously never happen if the footage was really just discovered, and placed into a documentary.
In this vein, several of the cameras on the deck of the Europa One are labeled; that is, when we see the footage from that camera’s POV, it will say ‘Command Deck A’ or some such, in the corner of the frame. This is not presented as a caption—it’s presented as a burned-in image supplied by the security camera. But these logos come and go seemingly at random. Every time they would disappear, it felt like a little slap in the face: ‘THIS IS FAKE IT’S JUST A MOVIE THEY’RE NOT BEING CONSISTENT.’
I’m bringing up all these issues to illustrate my bottom line: it’s easier for me to get pulled out of the spell of a film using the found footage aesthetic. If you’re trying so hard to be realistic, then anything unrealistic, however minute, will stick out more glaringly than in a non-found footage film. For films in the classical style, it’s easier to suspend my disbelief; consequently, they usually end up feeling more, er, real, in the aggregate.
In spite of all of this, Europa Report does have an intriguing enough story, is very well acted, and has distinctive, if not quite realistic, VFX. At 89 minutes, I do recommend it for a lazy day when you’re in the mood for something lightly thought-provoking. And, it’s nice to see Sharlto Copley play a real human being for once!
Listen to Justin and me thoroughly debate found footage here.