Review: 'Europa Report'

When it comes to indie sci-fi pictures, many shoot for sure-to-sell schlock rather than engage in big ideas on a relatively small budget. The fact that “Europa Report” starts on the “Moon” end of the spectrum with its cerebral approach is already commendable; incorporating a found-footage element along the way without succumbing to handheld incoherence feels damn near miraculous. Alas, its high-minded emphasis on exploration and impeccable special effects are pitted against a familiar one-by-one slasher-like plot and structural cheats that would suit the tension of a traditional narrative, but not necessarily that of a supposedly commissioned record of events.

The eponymous report is being presented on behalf of Europa Ventures, whose privately funded mission to investigate the possibility of life beneath the ice caps of Jupiter’s moon would send six astronauts (Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra) farther into space than any human has ever travelled before. However, communications abruptly go dark at one point, and much of the film consists of the since-recovered footage. It becomes apparent early on that one of the astronauts doesn’t even make it to Europa, but director Sebastián Cordero (“Crónicas”) and writer Philip Gelatt refuse to show what happened until a more convenient time.

In terms of faking news footage, zero-gravity sets, talking head interviews with the ground crew (Embeth Davidtz, Dan Fogler, Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and helmet-/wall-mounted cameras, “Report” is remarkably well-fashioned to resemble a corporation-commissioned document; even a certain degree of procedural dryness is welcome. However, it’s such a convincing facade that the aforementioned postponed reveal becomes problematic. An effective sense of deep-space wariness is communicated early on, and the decision of whether or not to continue on their mission bears no greater weight when it’s already been made clear that, yes, they will in fact press on. The plot point does set up a fair thematic dilemma on the cost of life vs. the reward of potential discovery, but even that pay-off comes at a steeper toll for narrative credibility that would otherwise be acceptable in a more conventional film.

It’s no spoiler to say that the remaining crew reaches Europa, and that their mission only continues to go awry from there. The visual effects from the surface are remarkably accomplished, and the choice to not necessarily assign each character a token characteristic is something of a rarity for the genre, accentuating that these explorers are mission-minded first and foremost, but that bland uniformity backfires when these mostly blank slates begin to see things before promptly vanishing, episodes which are handily marked by the requisite amount of visual interference. “Europa Report” doesn’t entirely sell out to convention by the end, but the steps it takes to reach its noble conclusion reflect a lack of imagination and invention, especially for a film that initially seems to champion such qualities.

SCORE: 5.9 / 10

“Europa Report” is now available on VOD and iTunes, and will open in select theaters beginning on August 2nd.