Christian Camargo as Daniel in “Europa Report,” a Magnet Release.
It turns out “Elysium” isn’t the only smart science fiction thriller making the rounds this summer – but chances are, it will be the only one playing local theaters.
“Europa Report” is a unique documentary-style film that follows a near-future mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The crew is tasked with determining whether or not alien life may exist in oceans beneath the icy surface of the moon. The majority of the film is presented in the ever-popular found-footage format along with a few invented interviews and clips of fictitious news conferences – tidy and innovative fabrications to lend credibility to the overall narrative.
Six astronauts are selected by Europa Ventures, a privately funded space exploration company, to make the journey to Jupiter’s moon. The film opens with a brief montage of footage captured by various stationary cameras on board the ship Europa One leading up to a failure in the communication system. Dr. Samantha Unger, portrayed by Embeth Davidtz, explains that the images presented were the final ones received from the spacecraft. Facing the camera as if filming an interview for a real documentary, Unger then says “For 16 long months, I’ve been asked the simple but loaded question: What happened?” She begins to answer, but becomes too emotional to continue.
Then the audience is informed, via an on-screen message, that “With thousands of hours of recently declassified footage, Europa Ventures can now complete their story.” So begins this brilliantly-crafted, speculative faux exposé of a future manned mission searching for life elsewhere in the solar system.
Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastián Cordero employs the found-footage format to tell this tale. This cinematic method that came into vogue – especially for genre films – following the release of “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999 has its roots in even earlier low budget movies such as “Cannibal Holocaust” and “84C MoPic.” A flood of found-footage films – such as the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, “REC,” “The Last Exorcism” and “Grave Encounters” – have diminished the effectiveness of the moviemaking approach due to proliferation and misapplication.
Cordero’s “Europa Report” commendably avoids the many pitfalls of the format by relying on shipboard cameras to reveal the major plot points. There’s no clichéd shaky camera work, no exaggerated close-ups (aside from a handful of helmet cam sequences) and no panicky victims not quite terrified enough to drop the camera and run. And while most found-footage films suffer from a shortage of compelling characters, the director manages to successfully deliver six psychologically and emotionally well-rounded astronauts – individuals the audience is able to empathize with on some level.
Chinese actor Daniel Wu, for instance, portrays the mission commander. A well-established actor, director and producer, Wu played a small role in “The Man with the Iron Fists” and appeared in Stephen Fung’s popular martial arts films “Tai Chi Zero” and “Tai Chi Hero.” Xu is fittingly solemn and assertive and seems to have a practical working relationship with his crew.
Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist portrays Andrei, the Russian astronaut. Internationally, Nyqvist is best known for playing Mikael Blomkvist, the lead character in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. In “Europa Report,” Nyqvist’s character is initially set up to be the weakest link – Andrei appears to be buckling under the pressure of the lengthy voyage. Nyqvist’s subtle man-on-the-edge performance is superbly low-key and adds to the tension as the story unfolds.
South African actor Sharlto Copley plays James. Copley happens to be in this summer’s most provocative science fiction action flick, “Elysium,” playing a heavy-handed thug named Kruger. Compare Copley’s sensitive portrayal of affable family-man James in “Europa Report” to the psychotic mercenary he plays in “Elysium,” and this actor’s wealth of talent is evident. James makes several recordings for his son, offering simplistic observations about the mission that would – if delivered any other way – seem artificial.
The distinguished cast also includes Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca as Rosa, Polish-American actress Karolina Wydra as Katya and Christian Camargo as Daniel.
The film suffers slightly from one technical miscalculation: Cordero chose to present some of the narrative in nonlinear progression. The director may have felt that revealing certain events out of chronological order might add to the suspense. Unfortunately, it jumbles the storyline marginally and it undermines the idea that this is supposed to simulate a documentary.
Some critics have compared “Europa Report” to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” While Cordero’s movie may not rival the cinematic achievement of Kubrick’s classic, the analogy is accurate: Both films explore the physical and psychological demands of protracted space missions and both films utilize hard science. According to production notes, the filmmakers consulted with NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, SpaceX and other leaders in the scientific community to show audiences what a mission to Europa would actually look like, from ship design and mission planning to the surface of Europa itself.
That attention to detail – and realism – pays off. Most recent science fiction epics have shunned science in favor of flashy effects, attention-grabbing CGI and disproportionately extended action sequences. Populating these films, qualified scientists have been replaced by everyman protagonists baffled by the events they face. “Europa Report” features delightfully brainy astronauts, coping with claustrophobia, isolation, monotony and, eventually, far more serious challenges to their survival.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that after a year of planning and preproduction, Cordero managed to shoot the film in less than 20 days on a relatively small budget. By sheer coincidence, on Nov. 16, 2011 – the first day of principal photography – NASA announced that it had uncovered tantalizing new evidence of liquid water lakes just beneath Europa’s icy surface.
The appeal of “Europa Report” depends a lot upon the audience. Those who view it expecting to find the sci-fi horror elements of “Alien” will be disappointed. Those looking for a Hollywood-style big-budget sci-fi epic will be similarly frustrated. Those seeking an intelligent, unsettlingly honest depiction of prospective 21st century interplanetary spaceflight will find the film compelling and entertaining.
“Europa Report” will undoubtedly be remembered as a small-budget masterpiece of intelligent science fiction.
“Europa Report” was released theatrically Aug. 2 to a select few markets, such as Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. To date, the closest it’s come to screening in the Tampa Bay area is a run at Midtown Art Cinemas in Atlanta, Ga.
Don’t despair: “Europa Report” is currently available for rental viewing on Bright House On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.