Film genres have their boom and bust years. Six years ago, 2013 fashioned itself as a very promising cinematic year for science fiction, led by the seven Academy Awards won by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The year also included the likes of sequels Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Riddick, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and high-profile follow-ups from prolific filmmakers like Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim), Neill Blomkamp (Elysium), M. Night Shyamalan (After Earth), and Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion). For every Gravity there was an After Earth where implausible fiction outweighed the plausible science quite a bit. If you look at the genre as a whole, that’s about par for the course.
We’re not talking Robert Frost, but “the road less traveled” is a film that skews more to the science than to the fiction. Let’s face it, the more traveled road of wild adventure and scientific implausibility sells more tickets because it’s easier to make. Just ask Will Smith about the successes (and failures) on his resume. That’s why it is refreshing every now and then to see a movie entry that emphasizes the value of the science half of the genre. Entering way under the 2013 radar was Europa Report.
Boasting a rich and meticulous detail in building a steadily encapsulating thriller, the small independent film directed by Sebastian Cordero of Chronicas might just blow your mind in the opposite way from the fireworks of those aforementioned bigger titles. If old-school, methodical, and intelligent science fiction like Alien and Moon are up your alley more than blockbusters, Europa Report is a movie sharper than those heavy hitters you need to seek out. You probably haven’t even heard of it, but it’s sitting right there on Hulu waiting for your stream.
Europa Report is presented as a compilation of “found footage,” an overused gimmick of horror movies used to a much greater and stable success in this intelligent setting. Please note now; this is not a horror film, but pure science fiction. The footage covers the journey of Europa One, a privately funded extended space mission to investigate the possibility of water and microbial extraterrestrial life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s ice-covered moons. Based on actual scientific theory away from the movies, the team hopes to examine both the surface ice as well as probe under the ice shelf to the untouched ocean environment heated by volcanic activity in hopes of making a history-making discovery of life.
The film combines the on-board cameras from the space vessel, helmet cams, and testimonials of the mission control scientists back on Earth. The space team is led by of Captain William Xu (Daniel Wu from Tomb Raider and The Man with the Iron Fists), co-pilot Rosa Dasque (Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca later seen in Fury). They are joined and supported by chief science officer Daniel Luxembourg (The Hurt Locker‘s Christian Camargo), marine biologist Dr. Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra of TV’s House and True Blood), chief engineer and experienced cosmonaut Andrei Blok (the late Michael Nyqvist of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol), and co-engineer James Corrigan (Blomkamp muse Sharlto Copley, the biggest name at the time). Watching over them back on Earth, are the scientific expert team lead by Dr. Unger, (Bicentennial Man and Schindler’s List star Embeth Davidtz) and accompanied by Dr. Sokolov and Dr. Pamuk (Dan Fogler of Balls of Fury and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of Cedar Rapids, two comedians playing it straight).
The trip to Europa is a serious mission and serious commitment. Home is a nearly two-year-long U-turn ride back to Earth. You can’t stop because of a few bumps in the road or solar system. Focused on their goals, the crew of Europa One makes it a point to continue their larger objective even in the face of loss, malfunction, and life-threatening risks—just as a good dedicated crew should.
Taking on this kind of mission, something that will take years to complete in isolation, the scientists and crew of Europa One have to come to gauge what constitutes a success or a failure for their mission as they get close to its endgame. Does sinking this huge level of finances, resources, and lost years of a person’s life going all the way to a moon of Jupiter and not finding anything of biological merit still count as a success? From a scientific standpoint, even a theory proven negative is still a proven theory.
In surpassing all prior space explorations in distance after over a year of travel, Europa One arrives near orbit with Jupiter when solar radiation knocks out the team’s video, data, and communications feed with Earth. They are still recording locally, but nothing is making it back home. All Dr. Unger and her team can do is speculate what is going on, not knowing if they are alive or dead. The Europa One crew knows that and makes the decision to carry on with the mission instead of returning home. After that point of severed communications, the found footage takes over, taking us inside the mission as it continues on its own. That sets up the suspense and discovery that follows for the film.
A discovery is not a discovery if no one knows about it. Imagine if Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World and didn’t tell anyone about it or had no corroborating witnesses. His discovery would only be his and not a shared one to celebrate and learn from. Once the communications feed to Earth goes dark, the crew of Europa One comes to grips that, no matter if they succeed or fail, no one will know about it without shared communication or relayed data and documentation. That’s made even worse if it ends up that they can’t get home. Imagine further if Columbus shipwrecked on the way back and no one knew his discovery.
Europa One sharply uses the found footage style to give us, the audience, an intimate, but not gratuitous look inside this daring space mission. The scenes are framed often by the instrumental bars and margins of recorded surveillance that put the audience within the display. The movie is an efficient 90 or so minutes that doesn’t waste our time with dumb space movie subplots like the obligatory inter-crew romance, mutiny, rebel agenda, or villainy cliches we see in far more implausible movies like Sunshine, Prometheus, Red Planet, or dozens of others.
Every crew member—and every performer for that matter—acts like the expert they are. Every plot point is razor-sharp and focused on the mission at hand. The closest sidebar you get is Sharlto Copley’s occasional POV as a young father who is most lighthearted and humanly reflective of the bunch, but even that element isn’t overdone or cheesy. It’s refreshing to see a science fiction movie in Europa Report keep its plausible focus to the main point it’s trying to make and not the fluff that’s supposed to be around it.
Directed by Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastian Cordero (Sin Muertes No Hay Carnaval) and written by Philip Gelatt, in just his second feature screenplay after The Bleeding House, Europa Report still doesn’t skimp on pot-boiling suspense and spares us the cheap horror gags to stay a realistic thriller the whole way. Everything is very streamlined and thoughtfully constructed, which goes to their credit to keep things heady, tepid, and not manic. While other science fiction movies demand bigger and headier topics worthy of psychoanalysis or societal reflection, “tepid,” in this case, is a good thing. In different hands, this film turns into the rip-off that Apollo 18 was a few years before it.
Europa Report is a true steady-builder, thanks to Bear McCreary’s musical score that keeps the pace without bad horror cues of any kind, which, once again, discards cliche. Plenty of little things go wrong for our crew, it’s just a matter of what, where, and how, with the how being the big idea to follow. Consider this a hidden gem to enjoy.