Europa Report, directed by Sebastian Cordero, is a riveting, found-footage style film about a team of astronauts who set out to drill the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa, in search of extraterrestrial life. The story begins with teaser footage from the 3-year-trip on the ship Europa 1, interspersed with interviews with Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz) of Europa Ventures, the private company which funds the expedition, and the press conference before launch.
The mock website for Europa Ventures is just one example of the incredible realistic nature of the movie. It was filmed in just 19 days in a full-scale spaceship, designed by Eugenio Caballero (Pan’s Labyrinth), who consulted heavily with NASA and SpaceX. The production team focused on keeping the movie based in scientific reality, drawing from NASA footage, JPL, astrobiologists, etc. The mock news footage in the first half of the film includes an actual clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the probability of life on Europa.
With all of this realism, we know that the possibility of an alien monster picking off the crew is entirely unlikely. Yet from the start, we are told that the mission goes wrong. It’s an effective way to keep the viewers on their toes, continuously guessing at what will happen.
The slow start delivers information out of chronological order – sometimes confusingly – flashing back to interviews with the crew as well as Dr. Under’s account of losing contact with the ship. Then the film moves into the full Europa 1 footage, received later, and the story really begins. The footage is compiled from different cameras stationed around the ship, which provides different viewpoints and adds to the tension later.
There is the euphoric launch, and then the astronauts go about their business, with engineer James (Sharlto Copley) filming the action to send to his son at home. He shows him (and us) how portions of the ship rotate continuously to provide gravity for the crew, but that there are sections that are still weightless. The first genuinely thrilling moment is when Dr. Unger narrates that as soon as the ship passed the moon, the crew had already gone farther than any human being. It takes a minute for that to really settle in. The shots of space through the ship windows are very well done, epic and graceful like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Later on, the scene when the ship makes its difficult descent to Europa is honestly breathtaking.
Two major accidents occur long before that point, however, one of which is truly heartbreaking, during an attempt by James and Andrew (Michael Nyqvist) to repair the communication equipment outside the ship. Afterwards, the depressed crew makes the uncertain decision that the mission is the highest priority, and this sets the tone for the rest of what follows, including the way in which the footage is finally received on Earth.
Once landed on Europa, the crew’s excitement is totally contagious. I was on the edge of my seat, watching the footage of the water under the ice from their equipment, waiting for something to swim by! To give away any more would be to ruin the intensity of the rest of the movie, but suffice it to say, what does happen is both frightening and totally plausible. In the end, we are left with an answer that feels more like a beginning. Now we know…so where do we go from here?
The movie is not in theaters in L.A. at the moment, so watch for it on DVD or Netflix. But do not miss it.
“One of my favorite moments in pre-production came out of a conversation with Steve Vance at JPL,” says writer Phil Gelatt, “I asked him if a manned mission to Europa was possible today, and he said ‘Yeah, just give me a couple billion dollars.’ It was a reminder that many of our limitations are simply about a lack of will.” (Europa Report production notes)
Image via Magnolia Pictures