starring Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvyst, Sharlto Copley
screenplay by Philip Gelatt
directed by Sebastián Cordero
by Walter Chaw Sebastián Cordero's found-footage sci-fi flick Europa Report tells the tale of the first manned trip to the titular moon of Jupiter in search of some kind of lifeform lurking there beneath a thick layer of ice. Never mind that this is a premise Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two already explored to similar consequence, nor that Europa Report is essentially an intergalactic The Blair Witch Project: best to focus on an unfortunate framing story that dumbs down the proceedings, emotionally and intellectually, at the exact moment the picture appears to be gaining momentum. It's all the more puzzling, given the existence of something so pandering and condescending, that the group apparently most enamoured with this movie is the scientific community, who I would have guessed would have taken more offense at being talked down to. Maybe they're so beaten into submission by the idiotic things Damon Lindelof passes off as "science" that they're willing to forgive Europa Report its more minor trespasses.
Ostensibly a think-piece or "hard" science-fiction, Europa Report sends its group of pilgrims on a holy errand into deep space in search of invertebrate life in the universe. Though its humans are largely indistinct, they do inhabit an environment that at least appears accurate, given my limited exposure to current space technology. In other words, for what it's worth, it looks very much like the backgrounds in video transmissions from the International Space Station. Also for the sake of vérité, one of the astronauts at one point sacrifices himself because he gets smeared with something that could contaminate the rest of the crew, which is kind of cool; and the bulk of the time is given over to surveillance video of nothing really happening except the time signature changing, which is probably an accurate representation of the early days of interplanetary travel. But I might have preferred a bit more subtext, maybe something like the conceit of Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow of having the Catholics be the private entity able to fund a first mission (Mission?) to find extraterrestrial life. Ultimately, it's the absolute straightness of Europa Report that dooms it: this earnest attempt to threaten no belief, to leave no audience member behind, in telling its story. If it had a torso, it'd be wearing a pocket protector.
The best part of the film is the means through which its astronaut heroes contort themselves to ensure a chronicle of their discovery is preserved. It's a bit that comes at the very end and speaks to the best, noblest intentions of science and exploration; by itself, it may explain why the picture is being celebrated for its scientific veracity. Without it, Europa Report is nigh indistinguishable in story structure and escalation from The Blair Witch Project. It begins with a group of people excited for a trip, proceeds through a loss of connection to the outside world, then takes a look at how fear of the unknown, once stripped of technology's defense against it, inevitably metastasizes into mythology, maybe hallucination, maybe madness. Yet where the film truly falters, aside from that tearful mission controller (Embeth Davidtz) and a series of news reports carefully revealing the process and rationale of the privately-funded sojourn, is basically where it deviates from The Blair Witch Project. It doesn't trust the purity of its narrative mode (found footage) or the intelligence of its viewers, and ultimately, it doesn't trust that a monster movie about the hubris of truth-seeking can exist without ever seeing the monster.