Deep space thrillers tend to sidestep logic in favor of nightmarish dread. Last year's summer hit "Prometheus" featured an impossible near future in which travel to extrasolar planets was an easily obtainable goal and envisioned a complex world of predatory aliens and zombie viruses. By contrast, Sebastián Cordero's "Europa Report" is practically a documentary, presenting a chilling space mission gone wrong in fairly believable terms. Using the familiar approach of found footage to chronicle an ill-fated mission to Jupiter's icy moon Europa, Cordero's movie has many of the same ingredients found in "Prometheus" and precedents like "Alien," but roots them in a realistic science basis. The result is both subdued by the standards of the genre and more intriguing because of its window into an event possibly closer than it looks.
As with "Prometheus," Cordero's story involves a wealthy company's decision to finance a deep space search for life, in this case the privately funded Europa Ventures. But this mission takes place exclusively within our star system and, aside from a few digressions, adheres to legitimate scientific research to establish its premise. The mission, captured on various onboard cameras and helmet cams, involves an attempt to determine if single cell organisms exist in the oceans beneath Europa's frosty exterior. That's far from an outlandish possibility: Scholarly research updated as recently as this month examining heat signatures detected on Europa point to the possibilities of microbial life. "Europa Report" not only acknowledges those studies; in its early mash-up of fake media reports surrounding the mission, it includes a footage of celebrity scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson expressing a desire "to go ice fishing" on Europa. In that regard, the movie is a form of fan fiction for space obsessives that sustains an enthusiasm for the prospects of interplanetary travel even as the scenario grows increasingly bleak.
It's also a welcome alternative to over-produced versions of the same doom-laden set-up. Though structurally uneven, Cordero's use of the found footage approach is effectively subdued, almost never devolving into hackneyed shaky cam antics that usually hint at ominous entities lurking in the shadows. Though "Europa Report" inevitably gets to the point where a spooky bio-luminescent entity stalks the crew after they arrive on the moon's surface, a majority of the story takes place within the confines of the ship, as crew members analyze data and strategize about their next moves.
The international cast, including Anamaria Marinca and Daniel Wu as the mission's skillful pilots and Michael Nyqvist as its grave-faced engineer, spend plenty of time gasping and looking wide-eyed as their prospects for survival grow dim -- but within that dynamic they give off a reasonably calculated air. As they ponder the best means of addressing various turning points in the mission, including exterior damage to their ship and whether it's worth venturing onto the surface of Europa to explore lights in the distance, "Europa Report" allows its dramas to accumulate at a steady pace.
The frantic discussions onboard the ship work so well that it's disconcerting when the movie departs from them. Cordero frequently cuts to the testimony of the mission's chief financier (Embeth Davis) as she looks back on the proceedings. The flashback approach is the movie's biggest misstep, routinely disrupting an otherwise claustrophobic sense of intrigue. "Europa Report" further suffers from its methodical approach to the increasing body count: Once it's clear that lives are at risk, it's not a huge surprise when one character after another suffers a grim fate.
Yet the assemblage of visuals, primarily static shots of the characters as they deal with practical issues complicating the stakes of their mission, maintain a persistently naturalistic hook. With the exception of a final reveal that borders on outright silliness, "Europa Report" retains the feel of a genuine document. Given the saturation of the found footage horror genre, Cordero's approach delivers a much shrewder alternative that goes beyond the power of suggestion by rooting its otherworldly fears in authenticity. As privately funded space travel has become a headline-dominating reality with an increasingly large support base, rather than playing make-believe with the idea of a future mission, "Europa Report" provides a creepy peek at its imminent arrival.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Magnolia's genre label Magnet released "Europa Report" on VOD July 27th ahead of its small theatrical release this Friday. The alluring premise and genre hook should help it perform well in digital markets; its theatrical prospects are significantly more limited.