The problem with most space films is that they substitute drama for verisimilitude. Space exploration is characterized by long periods of nothingness followed by fractions of a second where things happen and, possibly, go awry. This doesn’t make for a great film, however, so directors have been adding drama by injecting aliens, mechanical failures, psycho crew and similar for decades.
That’s one reason why I really enjoyed Europa Report, an indie sci-fi film that you’ve probably never even heard of, which is too bad. Surprisingly gripping, it demonstrates that even with tired tropes like the overused “found footage” concept, a smart director like Sebastian Cordero can still surprise us.
The film is based on assembled footage from the Europa One, a report from the international crew of scientists who fly out and explore the frozen sixth moon of Jupiter, Europa. The flight takes 22 months, during which time the damage caused by a solar flare begins the slow sequence of problems that haunt the project for its entire mission.
The Europa One crew of seven is captained by William Xu (Daniel Wu), and features engineer Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), scientists Dr. Petrovna (Karolina Wydra), Dr. Luxembourg (Christian Camargo), Blok (Michael Nyqvist), and pilot Dasque (Anamaria Marinca). The team theorizes that underneath the icy surface of Europa is a liquid ocean that might just be home to single celled organisms, a profound discovery for all humankind.
I was reminded of the found footage film Apollo 18 while watching Europa Report but Cordero’s much more moderate use of this gimmick offers the verisimilitude needed for the story, while in the case of Apollo 18, like its predecessor Cloverfield, the shaky, unfocused, choppy footage is the vast majority of the film. And it’s darn tedious.
Astronauts are a brave, quiet bunch, famously known for their calm demeanor in the face of danger, and the crew of the Europa One are also understated in their performances, including notably Corrigan (Copley) , who faces a crisis early in the film when he gets Hydrazine all over his spacesuit while on an EVA.
Still, it’s a movie, so it’s no spoiler to learn that there is indeed life on Europa that the crew finds. Not monsters, not creepy bug-eyed aliens, but believable alien lifeforms and a planet that poses unforeseen dangers to the ship and crew. It’s the moon itself that’s the real monster, however, and in ways that make sense and remind the viewer of the risks inherent in space exploration.
Europa Report goes on the short list of space films that are both engaging and believable, films that include Contact, Moon, Apollo 13 and Silent Running. And the references to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the film are just the icing on the cake. Dig around, find a copy of Europa Report on DVD and enjoy.