Ever since that horrendous excuse for a film Apollo 18, I’ve seriously soured on the whole “found footage” horror aspect being used in space. Seriously, alien rocks and sleeping astronauts? Thankfully I don’t have to launch into another rant about underutilized “found footage” astronomical horrors though, because Europa Report was an intelligently planned-out slow burn thriller which utilized every bit of claustrophobic atmosphere and focused on the unknown for an infinitely more enjoyable experience. Focusing on the unknown through man’s always increasing curiosity, the horrors came from the boundaries we’re willing to push in order to make that next great discovery – not some baddie in a rubber suit running around munching on crew members.** Please note that spoilers will follow!**
In the not so distant future, a team of astronauts embark on a mission to not only travel farther into deep space than anyone before them, but hopefully find the first real evidence that life on other planets exists. Their target destination is Jupiter’s fourth moon, Europa, which was discovered to not only have massive bodies of water hidden under a thick layer of ice, but hot spots of activity were also reported that suggests possible organism life. But even with all their preparation and training, our crew discovers it’s impossible to prepare for the unknown, as their mission becomes plagued by setback after setback. All in the name of scientific discovery, the outer space explorers press on, only being able to hope that their efforts won’t be for naught.
Eruopa Report isn’t just a linear story though, because as the title suggests, it’s a special report which details the events of the Europa mission. We’re not only reflecting back on the tape, but we’re hearing first-hand accounts from those researchers involved with the pre-mission schematics and planning, still excitedly explaining the astounding implications of extraterrestrial life like they were ten-year-olds about to win the science fair (Dan Fogler?!). I know that sounds cold, but such wonderment helped highlight how beautiful and spectacular the film’s finale actually is. Amidst all the death and sadness emerges this beacon of accomplishment which makes the whole mission an unmistakable victory, leaving viewers with a rousing tale of what the gung-ho human spirit can achieve.
Don’t think this is a happy-go-lucky movie though, because Philip Gelatt’s screenplay does take solace in the fact that innocent lives were lost on the mission, but there’s a wonderful statement to be made about the sacrificial nature of the Europa mission. The lives that were lost had meaning, were given for a greater purpose, and unlocked a key which can only forward mankind’s research. Curiosity didn’t just kill the cat this time, it killed a handful of courageous specialists willing to risk their lives on nothing but a hope and a dream. It’s a testament to human will, selflessness, and that ballsy gutsiness that inspires people to literally flying into the abyss on nothing but a wing and a prayer. They never gave up. They never stopped fighting.
As for the tension Sebastián Cordero creates, none of it has to do with cheap scares. All the atmospheric tension and palpable despair stem from the deeply complicated and science-based background of slow burn delivery and minimal reveals, curiously scaring you with that word again – the unknown. Nothing but some glowing lights under the ice. I mean, in all honestly, we don’t even know if we should be scared at all, but being kept completely in the dark forces us into fear, even though Europa Report is infinitely more uplifting than horrifying.
I say the true horror exists in each crew member’s death, each one consciously suffering while losing all control (sans Daniel Wu). Flying backwards into space, gliding backwards into nothingness with no possible way of stopping? Plunging downwards into a seemingly bottomless body of water, watching from inside your suit as you sink deeper and deeper to your demise? THAT’S horror. Not a knife to the heart, killing you instantly. No, being forced to embrace death is where true horror lies.
Europa Report also manages to feel entirely genuine thanks to understated yet perfect performances by Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Christian Camargo, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, and Karcina Wydra. While I believe their stoic nature in the face of death might appear a little detached for some viewers, myself included to a degree, think about what they’re doing. These people already agreed to go where literally no man has gone before, without knowing a damn thing about what to really expect. Do you really think they hadn’t contemplated the notion they might never return, or worse off, find themselves part of a historic crash which could have ended the Europa mission before it began? Each astronaut felt organic, focused, and wonderfully acted, only helping the entire film achieve a level of saddening hope.
To add on the praise, Europa Report delivers noticeable moments of awe-inspiring visual glory, which is exactly what viewers want from a space exploration film. Be it the tiny capsule scaled against the giant moon it’s about to land on or the gorgeous underwater explorations which display beautifully sculpted ice fixtures, there’s no skimping on production here. Cordero captures the mysterious loneliness of deep space in a way that mirrors our crew’s feelings, tying the two cinematic qualities together.
Sebastián Cordero and Philip Gelatt have created a sci-fi slow burner which outshines competition with intellect and meaning in Europa Report, addressing themes which create palpable tension. The slow-burn pace of Gelatt’s screenplay keeps you intrigued and on edge the whole time, creating tension through mystery, making the last minutes of the film one of the more rewarding conclusions I’ve seen this year so far. The cast also does a fantastic job remaining organic, and brilliant performances, especially from Sharlto Copley, makes one think about the sacrifices man puts forward for the benefit of more understanding. Sci-Fi films don’t have to all be vicious monsters, lazer beams, and alien invasions, and Europa Report proves that by utilizing our own human curiosities in a way that becomes thrilling, insightful, and utterly beautiful.