Europa Report (2013) / Sci Fi-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action and peril
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Karolina Wydra, Christian Camargo
Small role: Dan Fogler, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Director: Sebastian Cordero

Screenplay: Philip Gelatt
Review published September 18, 2013

Europa Report is a pure science fiction tale that should definitely be of interest to viewers who enjoy sci-fi narratives that keeps their scope within the realm of plausibility.  Set in the near future, the film follows "Europa One", a privately funded space exploration to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, to investigate whether there is life underneath the ice-encrusted outer layer, as it seems to have an internal heat source in its subterranean oceans that is conducive to producing simple, living organisms.  Six of Earth's best astronauts comprise the crew that will, literally, go where no one has ever gone before, to do what has never been done before -- find out if there is indeed life outside of our home planet. 

Due to a technical mishap, all communication with Earth is cut off en route, and the crew doesn't know if and when they will make it back.  They continue to record their mission on the hope that they will, continuing their nearly two-year expedition to reach the remote moon while battling boredom, fatigue, and a series of mishaps. Each step forces the astronauts into the situation on whether the discovery of alien life is worth jeopardizing their own lives in the process.

Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero (Chronicles, Rage) conceives of this Philip Gelatt (The Bleeding House) scripted tale in which everything we see is captured from the various cameras that cover nearly all of the claustrophobic interior of the spaceship, as well as much of the exterior.  I'm hesitant to call this a 'found footage' premise, as so many other sites do, because the implication of that term is that no one survives.  Scenes of the mission are interspersed with scenes from pre-mission press conferences and post-mission, documentary-style interviews, the latter includes at least one of the astronauts on board, which makes the matter, at the very least, ambiguous.

The actors are all quite appealing in their roles, and one can tell just by the wear and fatigue on their faces the where in this nonlinear timeline we're in on the mission.  Scenes of the crew cheerfully bantering and having a good time are near the beginning of the mission, while the more dour and borderline defeated expressions can be seen once they begin to realize the enormity of the difficulty of space travel and isolation, particularly when one minor mistake can make or break the entire venture, if not end their very lives.  Sci fi fans of District 9 and Elysium will also enjoy another brilliant, playful characterization by Sharlto Copley, adopting a fine American accent that covers his thick South African inflections quite well.  And it's nice to see scientists remain scientists under pressure, even when they do something courageous; a Hollywood production would have made one of these men or women an action hero long before the end credits.

If there is one thing I wish I could change about the film, it's the score.  Not that the score isn't good, as "Battlestar Galactica" and "Walking Dead" composer Bear McReary does a marvelous job in setting the ominous tone for the mission, and punctuating all of the best moments.  It's that it takes what is set up to be a realistic depiction of actual space flight footage and coats it with a conventional thriller vibe.  Special effects are minimal, as this is not a creature feature or a horror excursion, though it does occasionally pulsate as one (a la Sunshine), particularly in the way some of the darker moments to come later are, almost subliminally, interspersed amid the earlier footage of the mission, which is presented to us at varying points of continuity.  Despite what is a small budget for a film with a large scope, the zero-gravity elements are handled very well and the environs of the space vessel are quite lavishly detailed.

If you can keep in mind that this is a science fiction adventure that strives for a documentarian facsimile of accuracy over crowd-pleasing, commercial considerations, and is doing so with a meager budget, you'll be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it for what it is. The ending may split some viewers, as it will strike some looking for an upbeat ending as a bit grim, and, conversely, some who think a grim ending is most appropriate will think it ends too upbeat.  Nevertheless, it will spark a discussion for those who have the patience for its deliberate storytelling elements.  While it may be too slow and methodical for some viewers who are tepid to science fiction, if you're a genre fanatic who eats them up regularly, don't let this unostentatious sleeper pass you by.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo