Every time I think I’m done with the found-footage genre, a film comes along that uses it in a novel and exciting way. Last year it was Josh Trank's Chronicle; this year, it’s Sebastián Cordero's Europa Report, the best low-budget sci-fi film since Moon.
The conceit of Europa Reportis that a private company has funded an extended mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that scientists believe has the potential to harbor liquid water and extraterrestrial life. The company keeps tabs on the crew through a few dozen fixed cameras spread throughout the spacecraft. But as the craft approaches Europa, the astronauts lose communications with Earth and are forced to finish the mission on their own.
Cordero imbues the film with a refreshing sense of realism and scientific rigor. The early scenes of the film – in which the astronauts describe their daily routines, send messages home to their children, and conduct experiments in their free time – really feel and look like Chris Hadfield’s videos from the International Space Station.
The found-footage aspect actually works perfectly for this setup. You get a good sense of the physical dimensions of the spacecraft and the editing helps the pace from seeming stale, even when not much has happened yet. It helps that the performances are pretty strong across the board, especially from Sharlto Copley (District 9), Michael Nyqvist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and especially Anamaria Marinca, whose performance ends up the anchor of the film.
And when things start to go wrong, they at first go wrong in a terrifyingly plausible fashion. There’s a virtuosic scene about halfway through the film, as the ship nears Europa, that had me sitting bolt upright and staring at the screen with wide eyes. It’s a masterful and thrilling piece of filmmaking.
Sadly, the wheels come off the wagon a bit when the astronauts actually reach Europa and the film– for all its technical rigor – turns into an indictment of space exploration. In this it reminds me of Michael Crichton’s better works, whose sheen of scientific validity masked his deep suspicion of human nature and human curiosity – think Jurassic Park or Sphere.
I can understand why the filmmakers took the story where they did: there’s a lot of dramatic potential both in the terrors of deep space and in the hubris of man. But it left me feeling a bit depressed. The motto of Europa Report seems to be, “Don’t boldly go where no man has gone before, because most of you will die horribly.” Which is fine, as far as it goes. But the first two-thirds of the film suggested it could be something more.
Europa Report is out on video-on-demand right now; you can rent it on iTunes and Amazon for $9.99. It’ll come out for a limited release in theaters on August 2nd. Despite my reservations, I hope everyone does go to see it – both because it’s a good film in its own right and because I would love to see more experimental, independent sci-fi films like this in the future.