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— Colm Meaney, Con Air

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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey wowed audiences in 1968, moviegoers have been wondering what it might be like to make a long-distance journey into the deepest recesses of space. We’re not talking about Star Wars, Star Trek or any other of the popular sci-fi franchises that zip around space as if it were an extension of some earthbound freeway. We’re talking about movies give audiences a feel for the rigors, loneliness and dangers of space travel.

The crew are humans, not action-movie stereotypes
The crew are humans, not action-movie stereotypes

The latest — and one of the best of these — is Europa Report, a carefully designed movie about a manned mission to Europa, the moon of Jupiter where scientists (real ones) recently discovered water under an icy surface. Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero has made a movie in which a committed crew sets out to learn whether the presence of water also means the presence of life.

If Europa Report had been a typical helping of sci-fi, hideous aliens would await the movie’s crew. But Cordero, his actors and production team are more interested in creating a sense of authenticity than in providing cheap thrills — or even expensive thrills. Europa Report is not a no-budget movie, but it’s not a lavish out-pouring of special effects, either. Cordero builds his movie around the realistically designed and very cramped quarters of a spacecraft that’s on a long journey away from Earth, the farthest any humans have ever traveled from their home planet.

None of this is to say that Europa Report is uneventful. Nine months into the mission, the crew loses its ability to contact Earth, and we brace for the worst.

When I read that Europa Report was going to try to convince us that we’re watching a story assembled from footage recovered from the voyage, I shuddered. I’m sick of the kind of found-footage conceits that have pushed too many horror movies toward woozy incoherence. Europa Report feels different, probably because it tempers deep-space adventure with intelligence and because the actors aren’t forced into cliched bickering and faux displays of bravado.

Some of the story is told by a representative (Embeth Davidtz) of the company that sponsored the mission. The movie’s crew — which dominates the proceedings — may not played by marquee names, but a diverse cast convinces us of its devotion to science and to its responsibilities. Crew members don’t have amped-up battles with one another over trivial matters. The men don’t flirt with the women. And the women don’t try to convince us that they’re more macho than the men. Everyone focuses on the mission, and, as the story develops, the crew deals with a variety of tense situations, some of them reaching crisis proportions.

Cordero had the good sense to employ Enrique Chediak (127 Hours) as his cinematographer and Eugenio Caballero as his production designer. This duo deserves as much credit as the actors for creating a bit of science fiction that encourages us to feel the enthusiasm of a crew on a historic mission, the awe of traveling the vast distances of empty space and the loneliness that derives from moving farther and farther from the planet we all call home.