Not all sci-fi opuses need be big-budget blockbusters, as exemplified by "Europa Report," a slow-simmering thriller combining purported documentary interviews with the found footage of a spacecraft's mission feed. The film's set-up is nimbly laid out for viewers: set in the near future, a six-person crew lift off for the "Europa One Mission," a privately-funded deep-space exploration of Jupiter's fourth largest moon. There is the belief that underneath the icy surface might hold the potential for alien life, but their nearly two-year trip takes a number of turns for the worse when a technical failure cuts off their communication with Earth and one of their crew members perishes. As they edge ever closer to a groundbreaking discovery about the universe, they also quickly start running out of options.
Set largely within the claustrophobic confines of a space vessel as it barrels through the infinite darkness of the galaxy, the distant sight of Jupiter moving ever closer into view, "Europa Report" accomplishes a fair amount with very little (visual effects are minimalist for a reason). Director Sebastián Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt bring accuracy to their intriguing premise, explaining how gravity (or the lack thereof) works and the physical toll brought about by it for astronauts living in close quarters for months, then years. Because the film is less about a payoff and more about mood and desolation, the tension comes from the actors' faces as their characters are left awestruck, then frightened, ultimately willing to sacrifice themselves for a glimpse at the unknown. Among them, Sharlto Copley (2009's "District 9
") will be best recognized as excitable chief science officer Daniel Luxembourg, while Anamaria Marinca (2012's "Perfect Sense
") anchors the picture as pilot/archivist Rosa Dasque. Down on Earth, Embeth Davidtz (2011's "3 Backyards
") is effective as Dr. Samantha Unger, CEO of Europa Ventures, who remembers all too well when her crew's mission feed went dark.
Viewers expecting the grandeur and spectacle of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," Ridley Scott's "Prometheus
," or even Danny Boyle's "Sunshine
" will walk out of "Europa Report" less than satisfied. Even a similar found-footage picture like 2011's "Apollo 18
" offers more commercial thrills in the long run. Indeed, the restraint which director Sebastián Cordero uses eventually moves away from the intentionally austere as technical and budgetary limitations become clearer, holding the filmmaker back from exploring his subject matter in greater depth. There is an anticlimactic feel to the end of "Europa Report," not because it leaves anything up in the air (it's pretty apparent what is to become of these brave men and women), but because it hasn't fully taken flight. All the same, this is a well-made film, one that is admirable for what was achieved even as it slightly disappoints for what it could have been under less-restrictive production circumstances.