Much of the imagery in the Danish documentary The Expedition to the End of the World derives its power from the way it seems to transcend time. One of the first things we see is a schooner wandering through a sea of fog, cutting its way into an expanse of water and ice as if touching down on another planet. Filmmakers Daniel Dencik, Janus Metz, and Michael Haslund-Christensen accompany an expedition of scientists and artists to the northeast of Greenland, where melting glaciers have given access to areas almost completely untouched by human hands. “What are we going to call this place?” asks the expedition’s geographer.
The film’s visuals are exquisite, with the cinematography capturing the beautiful desolation of the landscape and lending a grandiose cinematic charge to the whole enterprise; one man comments on Stendhal syndrome as he gazes upon the mountains and sweeping plains. Tracking shots of the schooner at full speed evoke the qualities of old naval epics, and we see gargantuan walls of ice collapse as if lifted from some other more fantastical story. The decision for the expedition to use a wooden sailing ship swaddles the whole thing in a thick layer of romanticism, driving home the point that even in the age of satellites, these men and women are following in the footsteps of centuries past.
The filmmakers are firmly attuned to how time and space dwarf the individual on this voyage; the people they follow aren’t so much characters as personae. We don’t even learn their names until the very end, knowing them only by their areas of expertise: the marine biologist, the archaeologist, the art photographer. As the film unpacks layers of human interest, refreshingly it’s not on the level of personal drama or squabbling conflict, but on the clash of ideas and the flows of collaboration. The scientists and artists think in totally different ways, and one of the joys of the film is watching as they speak to each other across disciplines, like working through a language barrier. The artists serve as a kind of comic relief, and there’s a measure of pathos to the archaeologist and his story of a polar bear attack, but the film remains confident that bringing together a group of people who are all very good at what they do and sending them out into terra incognita will produce something worth watching.
That confidence is well-justified. At its heart, the expedition and this film are wrestling with primal conflicts: with nature, with history, and with human will. Uncovering ancient campsites and cutting cores through the permafrost point towards a better understanding of the distant past. But these experts and thinkers also contemplate what the future holds: climate change, natural resources (a run-in in with an oil exploration team is played for some minor tension), and the microscopic transience of humanity. In the end, this film serves as a resonant record of that transient present, an artifact all its own. In a quiet moment, the expedition’s archaeologist narrates his process to us: “In your mind you imagine a dialogue.” But he looks over the empty space, at the rocks and stones and expanse of dirt, and adds, “But the dead remain silent.”
* * *
Perhaps serving as a space-bound counterpoint, the sci-fi film Europa Report concerns itself with the first manned voyage and survey expedition to the titular moon of Jupiter. With Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero at the helm and a multinational cast on display, the whole thing feels like a SyFy original movie except with a higher IQ. That is, rather than depict the fight against some hokey CGI monster, the film wrestles with potentially interesting questions about pushing into the unknown and the human costs of discovery. Yet that hokey CG still rears its head, serviceable but cobbled-together, and the film is shackled to a narrative structure that betrays a lack of confidence in its central conceit.
Everyone here is laboring under the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (self-consciously foregrounded when mission control needle-drops “The Blue Danube”), and the film is at its strongest when it ventures toward the heady existential issues within the reach of good science fiction. Here we see an expedition, years in the making and years in the journey, as it starts to come apart. There are technical glitches; communication fails. The annals of human knowledge are haunted by the specters of those who’ve lost their lives in the pursuit of the unknown. This small band of people, who’ve ventured father than any human before them, must consciously weigh the value of their lives against the prospects of new knowledge. In such a situation, what’s one person worth?
When Cordero and the cast let that question linger, we might forgive the low-rent plasticine-looking effects needed to sell spacewalks and the like, because they’re the means with which to raise that question. When we get the sense that we’re witnessing experts and explorers grappling with something larger than themselves, the film works. Unfortunately, those moments tend to be smothered by the faux-documentary found-footage narrative frame; talking heads belabor the explanation of every single detail as if in fear of losing the audience, and the film feels more like a dramatization in service of a scientific thought experiment rather than a compelling narrative backed by scientific fact.
The jumbled chronology of Europa Report aims to mold something resembling a suspense or mystery arc, but only further draws attention the artifice. Such a structure ties a lead weight to the material—and for a film primed to contemplate the processes of investigation and discovery, it leaves very little room for the audience to do any of that themselves. Following the lonely spacecraft into the void, we get the sense that they should have sent a poet, but the film seems content to throw together a few surveillance cameras and call it a day.
* * *
Lake Bell, described by R. Kurt Osenlund as “the knockout who’ll yell louder than you at the screen in a sports bar, not to mention drink you under the table,” makes her auteur turn in In a World… It’s a lovingly crafted character piece in the Hollywood-on-Hollywood mold, set in the apparently cutthroat trailer-voiceover world. Bell, who also writes and directs, plays Carol, a vocal coach who wants to break into the trailer game, now an open field after the death of real-life voiceover king Don LaFontaine. However, she finds that it’s a boys’ club where she has to contend with the eccentric golden man-child Gustav (Ken Marino) and the patriarchal pomp of her own father, Sam (Fred Melamed).
We spend roughly equal time with Carol’s career woes in an industry populated entirely by misfit toys and lost souls, and with her family and relationship troubles; some of those conflicts push the film toward a dramatic register before being yanked back by a goofy character beat. That juggling of moods and tonalities lends the film a lumpiness that wavers between rough-hewn charm and the production of an uncomfortable tension. Overall, the film’s flow displays a sketch-and-vignette sensibility working its way through the vastly different demands of a feature. In terms of plotting, the script also leans a bit too heavily on the standard beats of love triangles and struggling artists and family melodrama. There are gestures toward messing around with those conventions that never really come to fruition and are played rather straight instead.
However, as a showcase for Lake Bell and her performative chops, the film certainly succeeds. With able assistance from her Childrens Hospital cohorts and a strong supporting cast, Bell holds the thing together through sheer charisma, and in fact the foibles of the movie only start to show when she absents herself for extended stretches of time. When she’s on screen, all the pieces just seem to work; she handles subtle bits of business and the broader strokes of farce with equal aplomb. And in a film so concerned with vocal presence and the rhythm of language, she displays a knack for both snappy one-liners and the give-and-take of sustained banter; her sisterly rapport with Dani (Michaela Watkins) and the extent of their “sister code” are the soul of the film. In a World… is a clear example of talented performers more than making up for thin material; it bears all the marks of a scattershot first feature while revealing the depth of Bell’s cinematic talent and potential.
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 16 - 26.