The sci-fi found-footage procedural Europa Report, on VOD now and in theaters August 2nd from Magnolia Pictures, probes many tough existential questions, not unlike Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, but while we have a commendably cerebral and technically elegant achievement, it’s not a film with much lingering impact. The scope is contained, but director Sebastián Cordero spent his dollars wisely in creating a tangible space out of a soundstage and Philip Gelatt’s script manages to maintain scientific accuracy and convey the heroism and sacrifices of space exploration. Just because a sci-fi film has been made on a lo-fi scale does not mean it has to either be SyFy Channel-ready schlock or a “Big Event”. Unfortunately, this low-budget slow-burn ends up promising more than it delivers.
Europa Report is presented as a documentary, spliced together with on-ground interviews and the space vessel’s mission feed. It purports that Europa One Mission was the first attempt to send men and women into deep space. For sixteen months after the crew’s feed went dark, CEO Europa Ventures lead mission planner Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz) wonders what actually happened.
Once the recorded footage goes 19 months, 10 days, 14 hours earlier, when the Europa One spacecraft launched, we follow six astronauts—among them, homesick chief science officer James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), mission chief William Xu (Daniel Wu), navigator/archivist Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca), Andrei Blok (Michael Nyqvist), Dr. Daniel Luxembourg (Christian Camargo), and Dr. Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra)—as they hope to discover that life exists on Jupiter’s glacial moon, Europa. When something happens to one of the engineers, the rest of the crew has no other choice than to continue their mission.
Opting for naturalism by a mostly unknown international ensemble, save for District 9 actor Sharlto Copley, genre vet Embeth Davidtz and Swedish thespian Michael Nyqvist, the characters on board the ship feel like real, nondescript people, with Copley especially hitting a poignant note in a pivotal moment as his morale crumbles. By the same token, none of them are really individualized beyond “mission-minded,” so it’s hard to have any deep emotional investment in these people. On the positive, the visual effects (a zero-gravity maiden voyage, in particular) are accomplished and rising composer Bear McCreary’s subtly throbbing string-synth score mixed into the sound design helps when the film catches cabin fever.
Those expecting another found-footage item that relies on shaky-cam epilepsy will respectively be appreciative and then somewhat disappointed, as it’s only baby steps ahead of 2011’s Apollo 18 in terms of overall quality. Bearing in mind that its audience has enough patience, Europa Report builds with a deliberate, often mundane calm and plenty of convincing scientific shoptalk before things escalate 45 minutes in. Even then, it never really kicks into high gear but some tension stems from situations the characters face rather than showing us exactly what they see. Yes, there is a discovery, but not enough of a payoff for the viewer to feel he or she has seen a concept fully explored.
With its intoxicating Kubrickian feel and attention to mood, Europa Report cannot be written off as yet another found-footage item. It’s a technical masterpiece, but in terms of storytelling and character, it left yours truly pretty cold. The film is not a total wash, but a disappointment nonetheless, considering Cordero’s ambition and know-how.
– By Jeremy Kibler
Jeremy Kibler is a freelance writer who never stops watching movies and writing about them. An alumnus of Pennsylvania State University, he has been a fan of the horror genre since he was a kid, renting every Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street from the video store. For more of Jeremy’s reviews, go to https://kibsreviews.blogspot.com/ or follow him on Twitter @jeremykibler25.