Boldly taking the found footage genre where no one has taken it before, Europa Report launches us into deep space with a crew doomed to make a discovery that will change human history. Previously, the genre’s uncanny ability to convince us the unbelievable has actually happened has been exploited mostly by horror filmmakers. Ecuadorean helmer Sebastian Cordero however proves through his stylish, gripping, and masterfully arranged storytelling that found footage has exciting applications far beyond horror. His love of humanistic detail distinguishes and elevates the film above other space and found footage movies and places it more snugly in the tradition of European verite filmmaking set in extreme environments, for space is nothing if not extreme.
Europa is a moon around Jupiter harboring large reserves of water, suggesting signs of alien life-forms. When the first privately-funded space mission to explore Europa loses communication with its sponsors, nobody on Earth knows what happened to the ship or crew. Until now. As if from the ghostly black box recordings of a crashed airplane, the mission’s sponsor, Europa Ventures, has unexpectedly received transmissions of all the mission’s data and camera footage. Europa Report then, represents on one level an ominous black box and on another a PR video carefully assembled by Europa Ventures. These two levels work surprisingly well together in a film whose utter devotion to the realities of space exploration also awakens our emotions to its romance and horror.
After something of a slow start that includes heavy foreboding delivered by the non-linear presentation of the recovered footage and a mesmerizing score by Bear McCreary, finally we are stuck inside the spacecraft with the crew members as they travel far deeper into space than any human has ever gone before–and as, inevitably, one by one, they sacrifice themselves for the sake of one another or for science. And while the film’s meticulous command of detail and context are impressive, the story only really “takes-off” when the crew is aloft and things start going wrong. It’s probably the result of the found footage genre’s privileging of “the real” and mundane detail over operatic effects, but about midway through the film we begin to feel not anticipation over the prospect of the astronauts actually encountering an alien life-form on Europa so much as genuine anxiety and concern over their well-being. In other words, damn the mission and damn science: we just want them–or even just one of them–to make out of space alive.
The film’s devotion to small moments and verisimilitude is nowhere more in evidence than in the astonishing production design by Eugenio Caballero and the cool and clever cinematography by Enrique Chediak. Filling out what seems to one of the most accurate depictions of space travel ever made is stirring footage collected from NASA and JPL. In the end, however, it’s not outer space but the human dramas played out in its vast emptiness by the crew that grip us. The use of extreme close-ups shot from inside the astronauts’ helmets is used liberally and to harrowing effect when a mechanical accident sends James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley) spinning off into space; as well as when Dr. Katya Petrovna’s (Karolina Wydra)) scientific curiosity plunges her deep into an extraterrestrial ocean.
Ultimately, and to Europa Report‘s great credit, the result of getting to know these brave scientists on the very ordinary level that found footage can provide as they unlock one of the enduring mysteries of the universe is that we end up questioning the mission even as the crew members nobly give their lives to it. Watching the astronauts humbly hunt for a lost toothbrush or video chat with family members makes us wonder, as unlucky Dr. Daniel Luxembourg (Christian Camargo) does just before he steps out of the spacecraft into oblivion, if the grand romance of space isn’t just “pointless” after all.