Issues

Questioning Causality, Climax, and Closure

by Caetlin Benson-Allott

from Film Quarterly Fall 2013, Vol. 67, No. 1

When I began writing “Platforming” three years ago, my goal was to create an ongoing reflection on the ways that new production and exhibition technologies were changing narrative film and the spectatorial experience. In pushing the definition of platform to include the material substrates and ideological codes that shape motion pictures, I wanted to consider how the feature film as a narrative system responds to technological change and to articulate the ways that platforms express social value. It would be antithetical to such inquiry to end the platform that has been this column with a gesture towards consummation or closure. So instead I want to interrogate the stakes of closure and similar narrative conventions with a film that does likewise.

Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report participates in the “faux footage” documentary aesthetic prevalent among low-budget horror, science fiction, and teen films. It does so to tell the story of an ill-fated privately funded mission to seek life within the ice-capped oceans of Jupiter’s third moon. Often faux footage films exploit their conceit as a platform for ad hominem political arguments; as I have argued elsewhere, many faux footage horror movies sensationalize the hallmarks of underground distribution to instill a fear of piracy in the viewer.1 Cordero’s movie is less concerned with how footage reaches its audience than with how films are assembled, both physically and rhetorically. Europa Report is allegedly compiled from hours and hours of video recorded aboard the Europa One spaceship. That unwieldy databank has been fashioned into a narrative arc by personnel at the mission’s parent company, Europa Ventures. The editing strategies they employ, coupled with the astronauts’ actual discoveries, confront the spectator with the limits of causal narrative as a system for understanding the universe. Indeed the film’s final image encourages the spectator to question the value system implicit in a classical narrative climax, to ask how our desire for structure shapes our interpretation of reality.

The Europa One ostensibly documented its crew’s 22-month voyage with eight video cameras embedded in two revolving living quarters, a central hallway, and a command center. These cameras purportedly generated more than 130,000 hours of footage before the mission’s untimely end. How Europa Report’s fictional editors transform that vast archive into a narrative becomes the implicit subject of the film and the metaphor behind its representation of space. The film begins in media res on the day, six months into the trip, when a solar storm severs Europa One’s communications link with Earth. No one is watching the astronauts’ feed anymore, yet in as much as they decide to continue their mission, they also decide to continue recording, to compile an exhaustive account of the routine tasks and small frustrations that constitute life in space.

Pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca) in Europa Report

Cordero’s movie presents such quotidian moments to the spectator as opportunities to identify with its characters and intertextual allusions. Citing the tedium of space travel and the leitmotif of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” Europa Report pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), but it also explicitly cites the taglines and genre conventions of reality television. Between these two systems of reference, the film implies that tackling unmanageable duration is a daunting task for both the astronauts and their editors. Both teams must commit to hours of mundane labor without any guarantee of discovery or climax. Regarding the astronauts’ search for life on Europa, Captain William Xu (Daniel Wu) remarks, “Well, even if we found nothing, it’s an effective discovery,” an observation that applies equally well to reality television production. Even when there’s nothing there, even when nothing happens, the producers’ attempt to impose a narrative arc on nothing—and the audience’s willingness to accept such editorial manipulation—reveals something about how humans pursue meaning.

Xu’s observation also hints at the peculiar construction of nonlinear narrative, suspense, and disappointment in Europa Report. After we watch the Europa One lose its communications link with Earth, the CEO of Europa Ventures, Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), comes on screen to reveal that Europa Ventures produced this film to answer the question, “What happened?” Her explanation instills that question in the spectator as the film cuts to a somber subsequent moment aboard the Europa One. Five astronauts sit discussing the accidental death of a sixth, James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), the boisterous engineer who earlier jokingly requested not to be voted off the island (à la Survivor). The movie then returns to the moment of take-off (and accompanying press briefings) to explain the astronauts’ quest: the search for extraterrestrial life in Europa’s oceans.

This nonlinear approach to storytelling might create narrative suspense were it not for Dr. Unger’s introduction, which strongly implies that the Europa mission ends with all of the crew dead. The thrill of this thriller is not finding out what happens, then, but how it happened—a common enough narrative device, but one that Europa Report goes on to systematically undermine through its emphasis on chance. The Europa One loses contact with Earth because of an unanticipated solar storm, and its first astronaut dies as the result of a small mechanical failure during a routine technical repair; in fact, every setback the mission experiences is the result of chance or calculated risk, not human foible or malice.

Such deus ex machina devices are almost standard operating procedure in space thrillers; as Alfonso Cuarón’s recent hit Gravity (2013) suggests, space provides a perfect venue for considering how human survival can hinge on entropy, coincidence, and bad luck. But in Gravity, random events provide an opportunity for human will to assert its agency; Europa Report offers no such reassurances. When things happen, it is rarely because the crew makes them happen. Nonetheless, the film’s suspenseful structure implies causality, which leads one to wonder whether it is possible to impose a narrative structure on events lacking in design—and why one might want to. When the editors hired by Europa Ventures repeat footage of Captain Xu’s trenchant observation two-thirds of the way through the film, they seem to be asking the viewer to question whether there will be any narrative payoff waiting at the end of this movie. Will it end with a climactic discovery? Should it? Maybe not, since anticlimax might offer more insight into the difference between life and narrative.

Ultimately, when the astronauts do locate evidence of life on Europa, Cordero uses their discovery to invite viewers to question their investment in narrative climax. After landing at the destination, the astronauts find unicellular organisms preserved in Europa’s ice and see bioluminescent lights flickering beneath its surface, but geological activity complicates their attempts to investigate and record these apparitions. So when the ice cracks beneath the Europa One and it begins to sink into the ocean, pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca) opens the airlock to draw these aquatic aliens inside the vessel and within range of its cameras. Freeze frames reveal the lights to be tentacles on some kind of giant space octopus—and if that revelation seems disappointing, it is meant to be. As with every big monster reveal in the history of cinema, the beast is nowhere near as wondrous or frightening as the viewer hopes, which makes such climactic moments profoundly anticlimactic.

Jupiter as imagined and viewed from Europa One in Europa Report

Europa Report strongly encourages such disappointment, even pausing on the image of the octopus, a technique that undermines the shot’s putative narrative payoff. While Dr. Unger claims that this final shot changes “the fundamental context in which all of humanity understands itself,” such grandiosity rings false when attached to a flagrantly computer-generated image. In fact, the very incommensurability of image and commentary reminds the audience that the film they are watching is a construction and that narrative is at essence a rhetorical form beholden to particular values and conventions, such as the climax. Europa Report is a narrative film willing to undermine its climax in order to think through the strictures on narrative film—a bold move rarely attempted even by other experimental adventure films. Gravity goes so far as to let its heroine point out that there are really only two options for her: Either she will die in space or she won’t. Cuarón’s film invites its spectators to question what kind of investment they can have in a climax based on binary chance, but then it saves its heroine and gives her an inspiring denouement as reward for her trials. Gravity‘s conclusion reinforces the logic of climax, which is not to say that Gravity is not a stupendous audiovisual achievement, only that it is not as willing to sacrifice its viewers’ pleasure for narrative insight as Europa Report is.

Through its set design, editing strategy, and computer-generated monsters, Europa Report exposes the ideological commitments and consequent shortcomings of narrative conventions. Storytelling is a fundamental platform for human communication, including filmmaking, but it also imposes strict structural requirements on its creators and often-rigid expectations on its audience. Cordero’s movie both exposes and frustrates these expectations, and in so doing it offers exciting insights into the nature of platforms and the potential of platform studies.

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As a way of thinking about the world, platform studies encourages us to pay attention to the interaction of hardware and software, material substrate and linguistic and cultural encoding. These imbrications condition all levels of the motion picture experience, from production design to sound design, from digital cinema to cinematic genres. A recent issue of Culture Machine on “The Politics of Platform” suggests that we regard contemporary media platforms as “digital objects” and notice the ways they encourage “a specific kind of platform politics that reflects their increasingly discrete and hidden workings.”2 As “film” is increasingly comprised of digital preproduction, production, postproduction, and exhibition, we need to reflect on the opportunities and alternatives made available by the digital objects it encounters in its life cycle. The ecosystem of film is changing, as it always does, and paying attention to the material bases of those changes helps reveal their long-term significance.

The characters of Europa Report appear to make a grand discovery about the nature of life in the universe, but their film uses that premise to make a grand claim about the construction of classical narrative. It suggests that our desire for causality and order impels us to impose preconceived forms on a chaotic universe, possibly to the detriment of our understanding of that chaos. Thus we must choose not to embrace closure but undermine it and continue our inquiries in new ways.

Caetlin Benson-Allott teaches film and new media studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (University of California Press, 2013).

Notes

1. See my book, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2013).

2. Joss Hands, “Introduction: Politics, Power, and ‘Platformativity,'” Culture Machine 14 (2013): http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/issue/current.