After watching film after film about space exploration, I’ve come to one conclusion: We really shouldn’t be exploring space. Now sure, there are numerous benefits to our attempts to understand the universe and answer fundamental questions about the origins of life on Earth. However, there just don’t seem to be very many films about discovering the secrets of our solar system/galaxy/beyond that don’t end in a body count and screaming. Case in point: Europa Report.
The title refers to one of Jupiter’s moons, which in real life has been a source of interest for scientists for some time and the 2011 discovery of liquid water underneath the vast sheet of ice that covers the surface of Europa has only heightened scientific curiosity. The film has clearly done its research on the moon and on space travel; filmmakers consulted heavily with both NASA and Space X to understand both the science and the aesthetics that go into a mission like the script proposes.
Although manned missions into deep space have largely been shelved, especially here in the U.S., the notion that a privately funded operation might take place is completely plausible and director Sebastián Cordero and his team sought to capture that on screen. To that end, the notion was to create a documentary style approach to the film. The footage is all captured either by fixed cameras onboard the ship, a couple of handheld cameras the crew had either inside the vessel, or via the cameras embedded in their space suits. It’s presented to the audience as a report of what happened on the mission and it’s clear early on that things did not go according to plan.
This brings me back to my original beef: Exploring space tends to end in tragedy and disaster. What that means for the international cast (Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Michael Nyqvist, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley) is that what begins as a friendly and exciting opportunity to discover secrets about our solar system devolves into the sort of claustrophobic nightmare we tend to see from just about every space movie. I don’t want to say much more as it would be riddled with spoilers but I think you get the gist.
I found the depiction and design of the mission to be fascinating, as I’m a moderate science nerd. I enjoy learning about the methodology and strategy of how people might really attempt to undertake such ambitious space exploration. There are a whole host of challenges one must consider and the film did a nice job of addressing many of them; from combating the effects of a zero-G environment on human physiology, to the mental stresses of being locked in a small space with only a few other people for months and months on end.
The main actors all deliver good performances and were well chosen. They embody the multinational composition a mission like this might embrace and are capable of playing the range expected of them in the script. A quick clip of well known scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson adds to the sense of authenticity but two of the supporting roles (most notably Dan Fogler but also Isiah Whitlock Jr.) seem out of place with the rest of the cast.
This brings us to the disappointing aspects of the movie – which begin with the screenplay. Europa Report obviously isn’t a real documentary and it’s not an education program on the sci-fi channel (which is different from SyFy, where there would be asteroids full of sharks … and yes, I’m calling the term Sharkteroid so if you see that one get made, someone owes me money). As such, in an effort to create drama, writer Philip Gelatt uses the backbone of the scientific realism to present what is in effect, your typical space horror film. We’re free of the gory bits but this is almost the worst-case scenario of what a mission to Europa might net the brave crew of space explorers who undertake it.
In the end, while I found the science intriguing, the fairly standard resolution of it all deflated my esteem for the project as a whole. Perhaps the best comparison I can make is Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. While Europa Report doesn’t fly off the rails as much, it presents itself as a much more serious approach to things so when events do spin out of control, it’s in some ways more problematic. By choosing to go with a documentary style approach, there’s a greater sense of hope that this won’t be just another film presenting space exploration as a recipe for death. Going the typical route simply places the project alongside most of its genre brethren. In some ways, that’s interesting but it also doesn’t provide much of a reason to make a big effort to see it – partially due to some very slow pacing that makes the 90-minute runtime feel much longer but especially due to the price of a movie theater ticket.
Europa Report is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and peril.