‘Europa Report’ Review
It used to be that if you had a half-assed idea for a movie you'd throw out a premise then tack on “in space” at the end. ("It's just like 'The Magnificent Ambersons' but in space!”) Today, when you've got a flimsy scenario, you can always just tack on “shot found-footage style.” That means low-budget, and it also means a proven track record with the insatiable teen horror audience always looking for something that doesn't require full attention whilst on make-out dates at theaters or on couches.
'Europa Report' tries to do both. It follows a science team who's in too deep (...in space), and it's found footage of the feed beamed back to Mission Control. Nothing in 'Europa Report' is fresh but it does go down easy.
Unlike 'Apollo 18,' the other “found-footage in space” movie, 'Europa Report' doesn't look backwards with a “what if?” but looks forward to a possible “how will?” Deep space missions are a laundry list of difficulties, and 'Europa Report' touches upon the psychological aspects ('District 9' star Sharlto Copley gets a line about drinking recycled urine) and split-second cost-benefit decisions (mission leader Daniel Wu has no time to weigh life-or-death options).
When the team lands on Europa (Jupiter's moon and the spot many scientists feel is most conducive to harboring life other than Earth) and is quick to damage their equipment, they must decide whether to make calculated risks to accrue data if their two-year journey is to have any value. Well, I don't have to tell you that they make an amazing discovery - the question is, what do they do next?
Though a full-length film, surprisingly little actually happens in 'Europa Report.' Dancing around its concluding revelations (as well as its somewhat formalist switcheroo) is a challenge. The movie's first reel feels like a collage – fly on the wall moments snatched from the stashed cameras at various stations on the ship. We meet the crew and learn their functions, leading up to a “big moment” when transmission was lost. We then cut to standard mock-doc format (hey, State Senator Clay Davis from 'The Wire' is some sort of NASA head! As is the guy from 'Balls of Fury'!) talking up the importance of this mission.
The characters (six on the ship, a few commenting back on Earth) are all swiftly drawn thumbnails and the hiccups along the way are tried and true beats that have worked in the past. There's the video letter home, the moments of self-sacrifice and the ensuing guilt of a screwup, all done more effectively in '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 'Mission to Mars,' or 'Sunshine.' Still, what 'Europa Report' does well is play to its lo-fi strengths. The ship feels “lived-in” and the half-heard dialogue sounds enough like real science.
Annoyingly, 'Europa Report' lacks the confidence or creativity to let the awesome nature of the astronauts' journey speak for itself. We're reminded in voice over that “this is amazing!” and that our travelers are truly going where no one has gone before. Considering that 'Europa Report' is a low budget film, evoking this sense of wonder is one of the few things they could have gotten across with some clever writing/staging. Easier, I suppose, to just say it.
Still, some of the “whaddawegonnado!” moments are gripping and a tense EVA (extra-vehicular activity) is the film's highlight. For those of us who want more sci in our sci-fi, 'Europa Report' is a welcome addition to the collection, but hardly anything that will send you over the moon.
'Europa Report' opens in select theaters on August 2.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.