Europa Report marks two significant “firsts” for Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero: it’s his first English language film and his first foray into science fiction. Based on how well the movie turned out, I don’t imagine it will be his last in either category. The film is a strong piece of science fiction with a found footage twist, crafted with a terrific sense of tension and featuring some potent performances from a lesser-known cast of actors. If you’re looking for realistic, grounded sci-fi without laser blasts or warp drives, you’ll find a lot to like with this one.
The film tells the story of a small space crew on a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons (Europa) in an attempt to find life outside Earth. Communications between the ship and the private company that’s funding the mission break down six months after launch, leaving the world wondering what happened to the crew. Months later, the company receives a transmission that contains footage from the entire trip (taken from cameras placed all around the ship and on the astronauts’ helmets), and it’s through this “found footage” that we unravel the film’s mystery.
The contained settings and economic filmmaking style is reminiscent of Duncan Jones’ Moon, and Cordero makes the most of his small budget by showing us barely enough of what we need to see and letting the rest linger just out of frame. The found footage style and multiple locked down cameras helps build tension as we become familiar with the layout and can sense when something is no longer normal. (Think Paranormal Activity 2, but with not as much down time.) Though I’ve seen a few complaints about it, the found footage choice doesn’t hamper the film as much as the often-jarring editing style, which jumps around between interview sessions with the company’s founder and footage at various points throughout the ship’s journey. Sharlto Copley (District 9) essentially has the role of comic relief, and while he gets a couple laughs here and there, the character work doesn’t hit home as much as it could because the story is being jumbled around so much.
As with most science fiction films, the movie isn’t afraid to ask big questions. Prometheus did a similar thing last year, and when that film tried to hint at answers on a large scale, audiences rejected and lambasted it. Europa Report asks a different question: “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?” It’s a tougher question because it’s more personal than the standard “are we alone?”; it asks that question too, but questioning the value of human life in relation to the knowledge gained from exploration gets to the heart of the sacrifices humanity has made again and again throughout history to advance itself. The documentary style and realistic technology on display here make the answers to these questions easier to swallow; instead of swinging for the fences as hard as it can with the possibility of whiffing, this film knows the value of fundamentals and calmly gets a base hit.
While firmly entrenched in the science fiction genre, there’s a dash of horror thrown into the mix as well. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the mission doesn’t quite go according to plan, and there might be something stalking our crew out there in the quiet emptiness of space. The film conflates the astronauts’ fears with the audience’s real-life fear of the unknown, and effectively delivers some chilling moments among the drama. (One character’s death is especially horrifying in the quietest way possible, making me quasi-dread seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity later this year.) Europa Report asks some of sci-fi’s best questions, and the authenticity with which Cordero depicts the voyage calls to mind a more relevant question: how far are we from a real mission like this, and what might we find when we reach our destination? Until next time…
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