Audiences have come to expect a certain degree of invention in Hollywood sci-fi, whether it’s hearing explosions in space or freezing as soon as you enter it without protection. Europa Report, an ultra low-budgeted found-footage thriller about a crew of astronauts sent into deep space to explore one of Jupiter’s moons, deserves respect for meticulously researching the real science behind its fictional story in order to produce the most unidealized movie about space travel since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film follows six astronauts sent by privately funded space exploration company Europa Ventures to explore the titular moon of Jupiter. Recently discovered underground lakes have piqued scientific curiosity, and the astronauts en route clearly believe finding life on Europa is not just possible, but probable. After an unexpected catastrophe results in the loss of communication with Earth and the death of a crew member, the remaining crew of Europa One touch down on the icy moon, only to find themselves endangered by a shocking, unexpected discovery.
Director Sebastian Cordero is aided in his efforts to make a super-realistic sci-fi film by screenwriter Philip Gelatt, whose obvious respect for hard science elevates the film above typical genre fare. Refreshingly, all of the crew members are smart, dedicated individuals who act logically and gracefully under pressure. There are no loose cannons, bad boys, loners or reluctant heroes; instead they are all admirably keen, quietly intelligent explorers. The science at work in Europa Report is also refreshing. The toxicity of hydrazine is cleverly used for one of the film’s most affecting scenes, while the crew’s complex observations of Europa’s surface must be like catnip for scientists.
A riveting cast add to the grounded, lifelike feel of Europa Report. Sharlto Copley breaks hearts as earnest, cheery junior engineer James Corrigan, while Anamaria Marinca is both believable and compelling as the ship’s determined pilot, Rosa Dasque. Other standouts include Michael Nyqvist as tormented, traumatized chief engineer Andrei Blok and Christian Camargo as coldly logical chief scientific officer Daniel Luxembourg, but there’s not a weak link in sight.
Cordero bravely chooses to tell this story almost entirely from video cameras located around Europa One, both static surveillance cameras and ones mounted on the helmets of crew members. While this style of filming almost certainly came about as a result of the low budget, it succeeds in creating an almost-suffocating sense of claustrophobia that only heightens as the crew encounter various unexpected obstacles throughout their mission (think: The Europa Witch Project). The faux-docu style in which this footage is presented however, with a teary ground controller (Embeth Davidtz) and lead scientist (Dan Fogler) eagerly cutting in to analyze what went wrong, saps the film of some of the tension it otherwise builds so well.
That flat note aside, Europa Report is startlingly effective, using its cramped found-footage format to ramp up the suspense to almost unbearable levels. Cordero infuses many scenes with a nail-bitingly eerie undercurrent of dread, particularly in the film’s terrifying final act, when it skirts the line between science-fiction and psychological horror. When radiation from Jupiter interferes with cameras, causing ghostly white noise to intrude on otherwise silent scenes, the effect is so unnerving that you jump in your seat.
Some moments of breathtaking beauty also appear throughout Europa Report, as scientists gaze in wonder at the alien landscape of the far-away moon. For a film as small-scale as this, it’s truly remarkable how much Cordero is able to accomplish. Even when shot through a character’s camcorder, the majesty of Europa is simply staggering.
Unfortunately, Europa Report‘s format is ultimately its greatest weakness. As things go from bad to worse on Europa’s icy surface, the limitations placed on what the audience can see are more infuriating than frightening. The film’s final ten minutes devolve into horror and, though disconcertingly plausible, the shift doesn’t make its final images any less disappointing. For a film that prides itself on scientific accuracy, what the audience is ultimately left with feels a little less than genuine.
Europa Report‘s 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is more than sufficient, though the found-footage format of the film is sometimes intentionally less than crystal clear, with static blurring shots of the astronauts moving around the ship. That stylistic choice aside, the transfer is sharp and pristine, allowing audiences to become fully absorbed in the story. The quality of the Blu-Ray is most visible in the shots of Europa, which look truly phenomenal. A film of this type would be unbearable if the Blu-Ray rendering had been botched, so the fact that one can easily follow what’s going on is by itself a testament to the transfer’s success.
The Blu-Ray’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also satisfactory. Though the moments of interference are intentionally jarring, Bear McCreary’s score is mostly an involving and effective part of the film. His ominous, looming movements add an air of mystery and fear to many scenes, especially those set within the vacuum of space or the lonely ice canyons of Europa. Dialogue is typically clear, though two of the characters have Russian accents that occasionally cause some confusion as to what’s being said.
The Europa Report Blu-ray comes with four bonus features:
- Exploring the Visual Effects of Europa Report
- The Musical Journey of Europa Report
- Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
Any viewers intrigued by the making of Europa Report will definitely want to check out those first two special features. “Exploring the Visual Effects of Europa Report” discusses and shows how weightlessness and other aspects of the crew’s journey through space were rendered, courtesy of visual effects supervisor John Bair. The green-screen aspects of the film are given particularly attention, but the featurette, which runs around six minutes, also explores early design concepts.
“The Musical Journey of Europa Report” is the most interesting special feature, by far. As a long-time science-fiction fan, composer Bear McCreary has a great deal of insight into the story and overall purpose of the film. He also discusses his musical ideas for the film at length, focusing on his two-part score. The first part is an orchestral score designed to enhance the alternately suspenseful and wondrous mood of the film, while the second is a more subtle blend of synthesizers and random sounds, which adds a dramatic layer to Europa Report‘s mostly-silent, deep-space setting.
If you’re interested in checking out Europa Report, shell out the extra few bucks for the Blu-Ray. The film takes great pains to fully render the immersive, gorgeous atmosphere of Europa, and it deserves to be seen in as high definition as possible. Though it has its problems, I’d recommend giving Europa Report a watch for its admirable adherence to scientific fact and superb performances.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
Gripping, dizzying, terrifying and supremely frustrating, Europa Report is an uncompromising science-fiction thriller that first flourishes then falters in its devotion to gritty realism.