You know those space-adventure movies where a crew of buff, quirky stereotypes encounters pseudo-supernatural space weirdness while on a mission of space rescue or space exploration? In space? Yeah, you know the movies I mean. Well, jettison those expectations and, provided you’re comfortable on the edge of your seat, go see Sebastián Cordero’s gritty, realistic semi-documentary-style thriller. In an era of overblown blockbuster adventures, it’s a dressed-down revelation. And the tension mounts so high I almost got leg cramps.
This near-future story, written by Philip Gelatt with production design by Eugenio Caballero (Pan’s Labyrinth) and a tense, throbbing score by Bear McCreary, doubles down on the suspense courtesy of a level of realism most unusual in a science fiction picture. The journey begins with a plausible, simple premise: a private company sends a co-ed six-person crew on a three-year mission to explore a moon of Jupiter where scientists have detected liquid oceans under a crust of ice. That the first manned mission to go further than the Moon will be a commercial and not a governmental one feels right. And observations of Europa, a good-sized moon with a water ice surface, have in fact elicited speculation about subsurface water oceans and extraterrestrial life.
Hence the crew includes a marine biologist as well as the usual engineers and pilots, a group who display a believable mix of altruistic idealism and human weakness. Awful things happen, but they tend to be kind that such a mission might actually expect to encounter, which makes makes them a lot scarier than space warps, time shifts, and terrifying beasties.
The cast includes Embeth Davidtz, Michael Nyqvist, District Nine‘s Sharlto Copley, and the distractingly stunning Karolina Wydra (House), but it’s thoroughly an ensemble piece, and while that’s standard for this kind of screen tale, little else here is. The technique of telling the story mostly through the ship’s own not-always reliable video feeds gives the film an effective, non-dizzying jerky feel, unlike the quivering kind that comes from trendy handheld camera work. This style provides the documentary flavor that gives the movie its consistent realistic character.
The payoff, when it arrives, is no less satisfying for remaining somewhat mysterious. As in real life, exploration is all about delving into the mysterious – whether or not you come back out. I recommend Europa Report to lovers of sci-fi, suspense, and truly original filmmaking.