ARGENTINE FILMMAKER SEBASTIÁN Cordero’s found-footage sci-fi film Europa Report went relatively unnoticed when it was released, in part because it was a year remarkable for the release of a number of very good sci-fi films. It was in 2013 that Gravity, Under the Skin and Star Trek: Into Darkness first graced our screens, and there were a few other sci-fi films worth mentioning. Elysium, for one, and World War Z. Despite its grand setting and subject (and budget––it cost more than Under the Skin, for instance) Europa Report lacks the gloss of the films mentioned above, but that is to its advantage: for fans of so-called “hard sci-fi”, it’s one of the better films of the past five years.
The story is narrated by Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), the CEO of Europa Ventures and the financier of a mission to the moon of Jupiter that gives the film its title. The specific objective of the crew of six astronauts on board the ship was to find potential sources of life on Europa, but from the very beginning of the film, it’s clear that the mission didn’t go smoothly. The footage of the astronauts that the audience sees is made up almost entirely of “recently declassified” footage recovered from the ship. (In fact, it’s one of the better films since The Blair Watch Project to employ the found-footage technique; Cloverfield and Chronicle also come to mind).
There’s no doubt that the filmmakers take some creative liberties with the physics involved in Europa Report, but by and large Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt are admirably dedicated to creating a narrative that functions within the laws of known science, and as a result the film has the sober and unromantic air of movies like Moon or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cordero references the latter film when the ship takes off to Strauss’s The Blue Danube, a piece of music so iconic that its use has probably sailed over the line separating tribute and cliché. (Ironically, Kubrick chose the piece because it “gets about as far away as you can from the cliché of space music.”)
The exaltation of science is a major theme of the film. There is next to no deep character development, for instance: it’s entirely plausible that you could watch the film all the way through and know the names of only half the astronauts at its centre. The crew’s very presence on the ship––let alone the risks they take during the mission––at least implies that scientific progress (admittedly, in the service of humanity) is more important than their own individuality. The pilot of the ship, Rosa (Anamaria Marinca) says as much: “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?”
This scientism, for want of a better (and better-sounding) word, can be received either way, but to this humble reviewer Europa Report loses something from it. If Prometheus, with its endless sophomoric philosophising, is at one end of the spectrum, Europa Report is at the other. The sci-fi short-story writer Ted Chiang responded to the charge of failing to write “real science-fiction” by criticising the “adventure stories dressed up with lasers” that people associate with the genre. To put it another way, a story set in the future does not necessarily constitute science-fiction, or at least not good science-fiction: sci-fi developed out of a felt need to philosophise and conduct thought-experiments for which the appropriate technology did not yet exist. Cordero and Gelatt opt not to take this road, so to speak, and instead characterise the astronauts as being hyper-rational. (The science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, who features briefly in the film, would approve: he famously suggested the creation of a virtual nation, “Rationalia”, in which “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”.)
All that said, the sense of isolation and the risk involved in the astronauts’ mission is strongly felt, and each tragedy is affecting. Many of the sins of Europa Report are redeemed in the cathartic final act, in which Cordero and Gelatt introduce elements of horror that quite dramatically alter the stripped-back and realistic mood of the film until that point. It isn’t particularly frightening, but these horror elements are forceful enough to bring about a satisfying climax.