A Sci-Fi thriller with a modicum of thrills and a whole lot of accurate science, the new indie "Europa Report" is a must-see for science fiction fans, though for general audiences it will be a minor curiosity.
Don't be put off by the recent travesty "Apollo 18," which was a found-footage film proving that we are not alone (at least on the moon). "Europa Report" uses the same found-footage conceit, but operates on a grander scale: A mission to Europa - one of Jupiter's moons. With help from NASA, the writer (Philip Gelatt) and director (Sebastian Cordero) were able to make a fairly accurate rendering of what an interstellar trip to Europa would look and feel like, and how the mission itself would play out. This is where the film succeeds. It feels realistic and that makes the general dangers of space travel feel genuine.
Embeth Davidtz ("A.I.") plays Dr. Samantha Unger, one of the originators of the Europa Project and who is seen here being interviewed after the trip goes terribly wrong. We get a sense of that when, six months into the mission, all of the cameras aboard the ship go out and communication is lost -- forever, the anxious watchers back on Earth fear. We don't get the full sense of subsequent events until later, but we do find out that Chief Science Officer James (Sharlto Copley) has died.
We then cut back to the beginning of the trip where we meet the entire crew and learn about the mission. Told swiftly through TV interviews, we meet mission chief William Xu ()Daniel Wu), pilot/archivist Rosa (Anamaria Marinca), marine biologist Dr. Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra), tech specialist Andrei (Michael Nyquist), and medical doctor Dr. Daniel Luxembourg (Christian Camargo). The crew is to spend over two years to get to Jupiter's fourth largest moon, where they will break through the ice to the subsurface ocean, hoping to find life. (Incidentally, the film was inspired by the 2011 revelation that there were lakes under Europa's ice layer.) Needless to say, things will go horribly wrong and the necessity for the $3.5 billion mission will be put into question.
The less you know about the twists of the plot the better. I'm not giving it too much of a build-up, because quite frankly, the science and suspense of the mission itself is far more interesting than what is discovered or not discovered. This isn't a horror film where monsters are waiting for the first visitors from another planet to invade their home; this is about how man's thirst for knowledge requires great sacrifice for what might seem very little result. Or is it?
These are the questions raised in "Europa Report" that are posited by a talented cast of relative unknowns who do a great job and play it real. Davidtz doesn't have the flashiest of roles here, but she is the voice of the team and she smartly attempts to explain why any type of potential sacrifice would be necessary to advance science. Yet, she is also aware of the pain and loss involved and Davidtz is able to project that dichotomy beautifully.
Wydra makes for a lovely marine biologist, and she commands some of the film's most intense sequences. While impossibly good-looking for a simple scientist, she gives her role a depth and wonder that makes it work. Similarly, Marinca as Rosa barely has to say a word and we are empathically drawn to her. Thankfully, there aren't the typical character tropes usually found in the space-travel yarns of directors like James Cameron or Ridley Scott. We don't have the asshole or the doubter or the "guy with his own agenda." These are professional men and woman who have signed on to take part in a momentous mission that could change the face of the world as we know it.
The found-footage concept might seem overplayed, but here it works logically and allows for an added dose of realism. And speaking of realism, the production design by Eugenio Caballero ("Pans Labyrinth") is ridiculously impressive, with so much minute detail it's mind boggling to think of where he started with his research.
Director Cordero ("Rage") keeps his story moving with an almost unbearable tension as things aboard the ship start to go badly. This is the strength of the film, because for thrill-seekers, some will be disappointed. There isn't a huge, stunning end reveal. There isn't a "holy crap" moment that the film leads up to. It is more a poetic and plausible end that is spectacular, but also unpretentious.
This is a film where the small parts are the ones that make up the whole,
where the realism of the film is where the suspense is drawn from, not some Sci-Fi third-act craziness. For some viewers, that might not be enough. But for discerning audiences, it will be sufficient a thrill to warrant what is certainly a white-knuckle ride.