By Mark Zhuravsky | The Playlist August 2, 2013 at 3:00PM
With the pressure to deliver on big time thrills and eye-popping CGI set pieces, multiplex sci-fi offerings frequently appear nearly brainless. While Sebastián Cordero’s “Europa Report” is far from flawless, this contained sci-fi thriller is shot through with a devotion to realism and a sense of wonder largely missing in films that overshadow it in terms of scale. Smartly utilizing found footage, here broadcast by a team of astronauts who have landed on Europa, one of the moons orbiting Jupiter, the film includes talking heads that hint ominously at the mission having gone wrong. Stemming from a discovery of water below the icy surface of the moon, the privately funded enterprise sees the team blast off to where no man has gone in hopes of uncovering basic forms of extraterrestrial life. However, when communications go out and strand the crew on a frozen rock with no earthly guidance, the initial search for life grows far more complex as environmental conditions and evidence of alien life present a mystery and a threat.
“Europa Report” gets off to a strong start, inhabiting the glory and growing unease of exploring the unseen and unknown. It then dissolves into a simplistic thriller, jettisoning a great deal of the goodwill racked up in the opening hour. We meet our crew—Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, and Karolina Wydra—their demeanor understandably professional even as occasional quirks slip through. Cordero, working from a script by Philip Gelatt, stresses the crew’s behavior as a unit rather than a group of individuals. Sharlto Copley is the biggest name on the bill and he does have a few moments that delve into his family life, but the rest of the team remain a mix of tightly wound efficiency or wide-eyed wonder. Daniel Wu leaves a considerable impression as a nearly unflappable team leader, steadfast and dedicated.
Given the somewhat more bombastic third act, the lack of character development works against the film, but in striving for a greater realism, the ensemble does possess a unique tone in presenting men and women fully aware of the dangers inherent in striking out beyond human bounds. As the mission faces growing difficulties and threats abound, the crew shun histrionics and instead weigh their lives against discoveries that may rewrite humanity’s understanding of life beyond the terra firma we call home.
The sacrifices they are eventually forced to make do not feel like a shot at immortality but rather an effort on behalf on all mankind. The crew doesn’t harbor any illusions of grandeur and the film doesn’t either, taking an academic route that feels refreshingly honest and helps preserve the mission’s deceptive fidelity. We’ve been careful with spoilers as what little emotional heft “Europa Report” offers is reasonably predicated on not knowing how the crew members will be challenged by unforeseen difficulties. These six men and women cannot call on anyone else for help, a fact that Eugenio Caballero’s production design and Enrique Chediak’s cinematography bring to life with minimal embellishment. When a mistaken gesture or error can terminate the mission, the subdued, understated camerawork feels like an organic extension of the crew’s attitude.
Embeth Davidtz, Dan Fogler and the inimitable Isiah Whitlock Jr. provide commentary back on Earth, with Davidtz all but hammering the point home in the final moments of the film. Those final moments may deflate the suspense for some viewers while they engage a wonderment in others, but there’s no doubt that Cordero’s film occupies the shelf space shared by “Moon” and “Gattaca,” slow, thoughtful films that ponder intellectual and emotional stakes resounding far beyond their cast. [B]