Europa Report is a movie that stands among the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sunshine as a quintessential space exploration movie. It gets so much so right that, even though it was released on VOD, it deserves to be as well loved as those movies, both of which appear in my top 100 list. It comes out of nowhere and wallops you with scientific accuracy heightened by a captivating story and solid performances on a tiny budget. This is what movies can be now. We are living in a golden age.
But let’s not talk about all that yet. Let’s talk about another indie sci-fi movie. Primer is widely hailed as being a realistic and accurate portrayal of both the science involved in time travel and the people that might undertake such a quest. I think it’s insufferable, from the mumbly acting to the near complete lack of drama and emotional involvement. Europa Report is proof positive that scientific accuracy does not require stuffiness. The people in Europa Report joke and get lonely and cry and smile with each other as they rocket towards one of Jupiter’s moons. These, too, are scientists on a grand journey (22 months one way) and are professionals at their jobs. Nobody here feels like the crew of the Nostromo because we’re still in the early phase of space exploration while those Alien guys were basically long haul truckers and old hat at the whole space thing. Of course, things go wrong on this quest and the distance takes its toll. As the film goes on we see a crew struggling to keep themselves together in the face of astronomical obstacles. All of the actors feel very real to the kinds of people that might be sent on a mission like this one, the first mission beyond the moon. Sharlto Copley and Anamaria Marinca are the highlights here, imbuing their characters with such realness in a situation that throws humanity into sharp contrast with the void and the alien.
The story and script, too, do a wonderful job of probing the audience as they watch the astronauts probe into the unknown. Early on we know that things do not go off without a hitch. The film starts with the communications breaking, effectively marooning Europa One, the ship, from the rest of the earth. That happens about 8 months into the trip and is a turning point of sorts. We then cut back to the launch and see the optimism and wonder that a grand expedition such as this would. It’s a pretty great recruitment poster for space travel, at least early on. In fact, even later when everything is going wrong the scientists still marvel at the unfolding universe. Throughout the film the characters get into philosophical discussions about whether or not finding proof of extinction on Europa would count towards a bet on there being life in Europa’s seas, among other things. It’s an optimistic film with some inevitable tragic elements. The end of the film colors the loss incurred during the trip with the knowledge gained. That’s a hard thing to pull off and it takes a steady set of hands to guide that ship to a safe landing.
The final grand achievement of this film is the look and feel of the film. Its construction is a thing of beauty, gracefully cutting back and forth in the timeline of events to show us, for example, an early spacewalk to contrast with a later one, the events of the first weighing heavily on the second and heightening the already tense situation to great heights. And the movie even mostly takes place in two or three rooms, all aboard the spaceship with a few talking heads from one of the scientists on board and some of the team back on earth guiding them. The living areas of the ship are jam packed with cameras, the footage from which forms the majority of the film. Any other bits are shot via character-held cameras or helmet-cams. It’s a found footage movie better than any others in the genre as these recordings were compiled into a documentary detailing the events of the trip for public consumption. Don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s amateurish, though, as director Sebastián Cordero gets some beautiful shots out of these semi-static camera angles. This is not just a well researched movie, it’s a well made one, too. Perhaps the greatest idea Cordero has is to mount cameras inside the helmets of the space-walk suits and frame them closer than I’ve ever seen before. The eye acting here is spectacular, covering up any small-seeming sets with an imagined awe that sells the whole movie in a look. Europa, when they get there, feels so strange and so uncannily familiar at the same time. It’s just a big ball of ice. But that big ball of ice is so great, so grand in importance and the trip to reach it so fraught with uncertainty and peril, all of which is captured wonderfully by Cordero and company.