Film Review: Europa Report

An efficient found-footage sci-fi adventure that sets itself apart from the genre pack through its dedication to convincing storytelling and serious thematic inquiry.

A science-fiction saga that strives for realism in not just its science but also its scripting and characters, Europa Report proves a well-executed, thematically intriguing tale of outer space exploration and the responsibilities and risks such an enterprise entails. Working from Philip Gelatt’s assured screenplay, Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero’s film is, for the most part, a found-footage effort, comprised of after-the-fact assembled broadcasts from the Europa One, a ship bound for the Jupiter moon of Europa, where evidence suggests life may exist beneath the icy surface.

The promise of such a groundbreaking discovery is the impetus for the mission, which is undertaken by a crew that includes commanders William (Daniel Wu) and Katya (Karolina Wydra), science officer Daniel (Christian Camargo), pilot Rosa (Anamaria Marinca), and engineers Andrei (Michael Nyqvist) and James (Sharlto Copley). In one of the many ways the story bucks traditional genre conventions, it’s a group mercifully defined by its lack of wild “types”; rather, as befitting men and women forced to cohabitate in tight quarters for a 20-month journey, these astronauts are all rational, calm and genial, even once crises emerge.

Emerge they do, though not for the first third of Europa Report, which—aside from intimating tragedies to come—is initially content to lay out its scenario through mundane crew videos and convincing news clips and interviews with Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), Dr. Sokolov (Dan Fogler) and Dr. Pamuk (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), the Earthbound experts responsible for monitoring the Europa One’s trajectory. That duty is interrupted once communication is lost between the ship and ground control seven months into its voyage, thereby casting the remainder of the intergalactic material as recovered footage, and leading to the first real obstacle in the explorers’ path, as repair of the communications systems requires manual work on the ship’s outer hull. Cordero stages that repair operation with a methodical precision characteristic of his expertly controlled aesthetics. The scene’s suspense, however, primarily comes from the omnipresent and tense interplay between interiors and exteriors—contrasts set up by the director’s regular juxtapositions of cramped quarters and infinite space, of the tininess of the ship and the enormity of the planets it passes, and of the way in which the characters’ cool façades slowly come to mask roiling anxiousness and fear.

In both the astronauts’ departure from Earth for the mysteries of Jupiter, and their eventual trips outside their vessel (whose rotating towers recall 2001, as does a brief snippet of “The Blue Danube”), Europa Report plays off the ways in which exiting comfort zones to explore unknown spaces can be alternately thrilling and terrifying. Just as impressively, it presents characters who think before they act, and base their behavior on the pros and cons of the circumstances at hand. When paired with a desire to present convincing technology and scientific objectives—space monsters aren’t sought, just signs of dormant life—that sense of believability lends weight to the tale’s central question of what sacrifices might be reasonable in service of attaining revolutionary knowledge. The story eventually presents its own answer to that question. However, what’s so impressive about Cordero’s film is that it manages to justify its stance not through preachy or manipulative drama but, rather, through lucid and compelling plotting, up to and including its final, haunting otherworldly images.