Director Sebastián Cordero’s refreshingly textured sci-fi flick Europa Report isn’t a gloried action blowout with a superficial intergalactic backdrop, but an honest-to-God exploration story that follows a group of professionals as they man the first ship to venture into deep space. Their destination is one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, and the film cannily drops a few choice real-life details regarding the habitat’s potentiality for microscopic life given the heat under the oceans beneath the icy crust. Instead of a swelling score and swashbuckling laser combat, the audience is given long scenes of the crew adjusting knobs, speaking to their families back home via video messenger, and repairing their ship’s exterior damage as well as braving a footed exploration of Europa’s potentially unstable surface.
This is yet another found-footage film, but for once that gimmick partially works; this is a far more beautiful and accomplished feat of craftsmanship than the dreadful, similarly themed Apollo 18. Cordero wrings the found-footage conceit’s potential to ground an alternate reality in the everyday minutiae of real life for nearly all it’s probably worth. At times, one may feel as if they’re watching a passable documentary about humankind’s retrospective discovery of alien life: We generally grasp the enormity of this crew’s quest, and there are two death scenes—both involving forms of drowning, one admittedly untraditional—that are chillingly immediate. Considering the technology involved that would render such an exploration viable, Cordero even has a logical license to make a film that’s more aesthetically rewarding than the usual fashionably awful jumble of indecipherable visuals that passes for a found-footage movie. Because, duh, the cameras available to this advanced futuristic crew are nicer, and the filmmaker successfully fashions images that reveal geography and character relationships while loosely honoring the idea that the footage has been shot by amateurs in the midst of other, more strenuous, activity.
But the film is still bone-dry. After a while, it’s hard to escape the fact that the audience is watching a potential monster movie in which most of the fun stuff—i.e. the monster—has been pared away, leaving us strictly with the dull, anonymous crew members. (Michael Nyqvist is the only actor who manages, however faintly, to make an impression.) And there’s a narrative device that’s nearly disastrous: Rather than simply presenting an assemblage of fictional found footage, the filmmakers occasionally cut to another, even more futuristic group of astronauts, overseen by Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler, who contextualize the events we’re watching with hokey solemnity. Not only do these scenes completely stop the film in its tracks, and compromise the immediacy that’s been painstakingly established, but they serve to imply that other, more interesting stories are playing themselves out right outside the periphery of the tale being told. The filmmakers display talent and quite a bit of confidence, and they get far more out of their gimmickry than most anyone before them, but the audience is ultimately left feeling as if just watched an extended trailer for a film that doesn’t exist.