In the near future (as in the present), all long-range space travel will be privately funded. A benevolent and ambitious cadre of billionaires/corporations will gather to fund years-long expeditions of exploration, taking us in the most advanced manned spacecraft to distant planets looking for signs of life. These are their stories. Chung chung.
Sebastián Cordero's Europa Report an ultra-slick low-budget practical sci-fi procedural that is aimed less as the action-packed whiz-bang of Star Wars, and more at the giddily intellectual real-life sci-fi of NASA and enthused astrophysicists. That famed pop scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has a cameo in the film should speak volumes as to its tone.
This is a film that posits, very carefully and realistically, the actual mechanics involved in going to a planet as far away as Europa, the fourth largest moon of Jupiter (and the place where they went in 2010: The Year We Make Contact). Europa is an ice-covered body that many scientists posit may house water, and hence may be capable of supporting some form of life.
Told in a found-footage style (but using mounted professional-grade cameras, eliminated this cheap, shaky-frame aesthetic that usually marks the genre), we see highlights of a two-year voyage to Europa, and the group dynamics that form amongst the variously skilled astronauts played by Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and Karolina Wydra. Much of the film is set aboard the high-tech ship that takes them there, which is a wonder of low-budget special effects; many of the shots, especially of zero gravity, seem so natural, you may be asking whether or not the filmmakers actually went into space to achieve them. It's all gleaming panels, crumpled outfits, and practical tools. The action is commented on by a team of Earth-bound astrophysicists who give vital details in an interview-like setting.
One would think that being on board a cabin-sized craft for two years with the same six people would lead to violence, but these astronauts are all genial and well-behaved, and all excited about the prospect of reaching another planet where they'll be able to walk around and look for aliens. All of these people are questing for knowledge, and will do anything to get it. Indeed, by the film's end the “quest for knowledge” themes turn from something exciting and subtle into a heavy-handed polemic about the importance of acquiring scientific information, and the sacrifices we sometimes have to make in order to get it. I will not reveal what happens at the film's end, or what they find on the surface of Europa (and they do find something when they get there), but I will say that a streak of martyrdom sneaks in around the edges.
Europa Report is the first “hard” sci-fi film I have seen in a long time, tantalizing us with hypotheses and technologies that are mere years away from being posited and invented. I liked the practical ships and the actual science on display, and astronomy nerds (which I kind of am, on an occasional level) will thrill at the depictions of space travel. The weight (or perhaps weightlessness) is very real. The characters are not necessarily rich or complex, but they are sympathetic and believable, and the sense that these people have been locked together comes through in a few vital scenes. When creepy stuff stars occurring on the surface of Europa (and yes, it's plenty creepy) the film become a genuine thrill.
It doesn't feel like a huge event, Europa Report (the scientific accuracy leaves the film feeling a bit dry and procedural), and it does give way to a kind of educational preachiness as a way of trying up its drama (Embeth Davitz appears at the end to hammer home what happened in the movie and its huge significance in what amounts to a pretty useless epilogue), but the heft and thrills are just enough to recommend it. Space junkies oughtta flock to this one. If you're following Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter (and over a million people are), then you might love it.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.