The dilemma of every “found footage” movie is how the filmmakers justify the presence of diegetic cameras in the narrative. The Blair Witch Project used the meta-cinema device of a documentary team, in which the story itself became an unintended version of a planned film. More recent iterations of this trend like Cloverfield and Chronicle have tried to turn to the reflexivity of the ‘Internet age’ and culture of the smartphone, because it’s sort of about, you know, how we’re always filming and sharing our lives now #relevance. The Paranormal Activity series falls somewhere in between: the victims of the haunting take it upon themselves to be D.I.Y. investigative documentarians, aided by the ubiquity of camera technology. However, the self-imposed limitations of the micro-genre usually prove to be, well, limitations. A sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle of fiction kicks in: can humans act like human beings if they know they are being observed? Perhaps that’s why the micro-genre tends toward genres like horror and science fiction, because people are not compelled to act naturally in unnatural situations.
The least convincing moment in Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report actually occurs when a character holds up a video camcorder, telling the crew of a space shuttle that he is making a videography for his kids (for one thing, space travel innovation has done way better than video cameras). The film presents the account of an ill-fated mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter where irl scientists discovered water and thus the possibility of life in 2011. To be fair, the film is only mostly found footage, employing a false documentary framing device around the “recovered” mission tapes. As such, it manages to overcome the first hurdle, as the space shuttle cameras and sensors have caught most of the footage. Yet despite this, Europa Report incorporates a handheld camcorder for reasons that are never entirely clear, as though to remind the viewer of the artificial gimmick being employed.
This is even more puzzling when one considers the decision to utilize the found footage model as a clear attempt to infuse the film with realism. Using actual science as a loose jumping point, the film desperately vies to present itself as plausible. The found footage goes so far as to show the ship’s status bars in the frame while the characters interact throughout the ship, yet this cartoonish effect gives the appearance of playing a video game more than actually observing life on the ship. Indeed, the contrived realism imposes itself as the narrative vacillates between the speculation towards extraterrestrial intelligence and unrelated perils of deep space travel scenarios.
The documentary framing device of news conferences and talking heads also mean to add to this integrity, but they prove a wasted opportunity, mainly blowing hot air into what is at best speculative pop science. A more interesting approach may have questioned the fact that governments seem eager to hand over space travel to the private sector, or played off the fact that the benefactors of this botched mission could be enacting a sort of cover-up. The framework necessitates an unseen intentional author behind the images that the film presents, yet completely misses this point, instead jumping back and forth in time to create an air of mystery about “what went wrong.” Ultimately, the film would be interesting if it were a Nova special from later in this century, but the inherent artificiality as a work of fiction prevents this. Yes, it would be really fascinating if a space shuttle returned with possible images of an extraterrestrial being. The best any film in our present day has done is a CGI concoction worthy of a Discovery channel hoax. A little awareness can go a long way.