Intense, unnerving, claustrophobic. These are three adjectives that describe some of the best trips into space that man has taken in the realm of science fiction. Films that come to mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, perhaps even the less fictiony Apollo 13. Every time men and women venture into the depths of space, things get a little intimate and uncomfortable. And that’s before things start to go wrong. So to say that a movie like Europa Report — a found footage movie about humanity traveling to one of Jupiter’s moons — accomplishes this could also be construed as par for the course.
It’s five people in a confined space, traveling into the unknown. Of course it’s going to get a little tense. Add some of the film’s more ambitious, haunting fictions and you’ve got yourself a movie that, once it settles into its story, will have you occasionally gripping the armrests of your seat.
The major flaw in the film directed by Sebastian Cordero, whose previous work includes the festival award-winning Mexican thriller Rage, is in the chaotic and often expository nature of the setup. It’s all found footage, a loathsome trend that in this case actually has some merit. The story is being retold to us following the traumatized mission of Europa One, a privately funded, SpaceX-esque mission to put humans on the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons believed to have water and possible life. We are introduced to several scientists from the company putting on the mission, all giving their own dour account of what went wrong, combined with footage from the actual mission.
At first the entire structure of the film is jarring. Following the chronology of the events in front of us is difficult as the camera jitters and throws us backward and forward in time. If it weren’t for a running mission clock at the bottom of most of the scenes (which is easy to miss for much of the first act and looks like an Enterprise console from Star Trek: The Original Series) it would be nearly impossible to place events in any sort of order. What Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt are trying to do is quite obvious — they want to foreshadow a bit of the fright that awaits Europa One to keep us interested — it’s just poorly executed in a way that would give a tender soul seizures.
Once it settles into its narrative, however, Europa Report begins to engage its audience in the lives of the space travelers and the dynamic of a year-long journey across the cosmos. Chief among the performers is Sharlto Copley, who plays one of the engineers. His character is the only one who gets much development beyond the confines of the ship, sending messages back home to his wife and young son. For a time, he’s the emotional core of the movie. As he’s done in prior films like District 9, Copley shows us his incredible dramatic range, both with expressiveness (in scenes where he’s in a space suit and all we see in his face) and in the panicked tones of his voice as things start to go wrong. Between Copley and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo vet Michael Nyqvist, who plays the other engineer, the movie does not lack for engaging performances. Each actor who plays one of the astronauts — the two aforementioned gentlemen, as well as Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Wu and Karolina Wydra — all have moments of strong, resonant emotion. This mostly happens when inexplicable things are happening around them.
Europa Report gets the tense character moments right, even after we have to fight through an overly expository and unnecessarily frantic first act. Yet, there are other moments that take us completely out of the movie. At least, if you’re looking for a little science in your “science fiction.” It’s tough to come down hard on an independently-made and mostly ambitious film for its effects, but one thing really bothered me. When the Europa craft gets into orbit around Jupiter, it’s clear that the scale of Jupiter is way off. You see, Jupiter’s circumference is 11 times larger than that of Earth. It’s huge. In the film, it looks nice, but it looks about the same size that Earth does with a spaceship in the foreground. It’s a strange nitpick, but we’re also talking about a movie that uses archival footage of scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He would be somewhat disappointed in the depiction of Jupiter in this movie that has a lot to do with Jupiter.
That aside, the effects have moments where they impress. The fact that the footage is being shown from onboard “security cameras” helps, as the footage can be given a bit of grain to cover up less expensive effects, but it all gels for the most part into a relatively seamless experience. Taken at face value as an indie sci-fi film, Europa Report makes a trip to Jupiter believable. Mostly in the way that its characters erode over the 12+ month journey, but also with some clever visual trickery.
On the whole, it’s a film that takes far too long to find its footing, stumbling over a need to jump around on its own timeline. But once it slows down, it becomes an often serene, eerie experience that calls to the very heart of what awaits us out there in the vastness of space: the terror of the unknown and the knowledge that sometimes the pursuit of scientific discovery leads us to some dangerous places.
The Upside: The intimate setting combined with a solid, mostly terrified performance from the cast create enough tension to engage its audience down the stretch.
The Downside: Waiting for the movie to settle down and get into its narrative rhythm is a chore.
On the Side: Seriously, Jupiter is huge. On behalf of Jupiter, I’m a little miffed at this movie’s depiction. Look at this scaled picture of Jupiter v. Earth: