Beyond Earth's Gravity, A Space Opera Goes Flat

Aug 1, 2013

In space, not many people can hear you scream. In fact, traveling in a manned spacecraft is probably a bit like working on a soundproof movie set — which is plainly where Europa Report was shot.

Tricked up with split screens and digital-video glitchery, this low-budget sci-fi saga emphasizes the claustrophobia and monotony of a long journey beyond Earth's gravity. But it also borrows gambits from horror movies, withholding information and eliminating characters one by one.

Thus, while Europa Report recalls such small-ensemble stuck-in-space flicks as Moon and Sunshine, it's basically The Blair Witch Project relocated to the vicinity of Jupiter. Something terrible has happened, and the endeavor's backers (whose spokesperson is played by Embeth Davidtz) must reconstruct the unfortunate events.

A/V specialists assemble the available surveillance footage into a plausible narrative that reveals the fates of William (Daniel Wu), the mission's commander, and the five crew members. This is where, as usual, the logic of the found-footage genre breaks down.

Rather than making a documentary from the surviving video — most of it necessarily shot from a fixed-position perspective, rather than with the now-traditional shaky cam — the editors shape it into a thriller. The chronology is jumbled, the account offers more foreshadowing than explication, and the big scientific discovery is hidden as long as possible. But you can guess the breakthrough won't be good news for William and his multinational team.

Made in Brooklyn by Ecuador-born director Sebastian Cordero, the film was inspired by recent theories about the possible existence of liquid beneath the frozen surface of Europa, one of the Jovian moons. Sent to investigate are a diverse lot, including Daniel (Christian Camargo), James (District 9's Sharlto Copley) and Rosa (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' Anamaria Marinca). Everyone speaks English, although Katya (Karolina Wydra) and Andrei (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist) sometimes chat privately in Russian.

With a few brief exceptions, Philip Gelatt's script is intentionally short on excitement. Even the reclaimed video's supposed highlights are mostly everyday, while the dialogue is generally credible. The astronauts discuss homesickness, the lousiness of the food, and the fact that they're drinking each other's distilled urine. (No talk, however, of sex.)

Certain visual details are less convincing. Only Andrei, who grows a beard, becomes at all scruffy. Rosa, who maintains a chic pixie cut through more than a year of extraterrestrial flight, must have concealed a hairdresser somewhere on board.

Another obstacle to taking the movie seriously is that its look and feel are a little too fashionably distressed. The crackling noise, fractured images and data dropouts make Europa Report resemble a Daft Punk music video more than a testament to a deep-space disaster. (Curiously, Bear McCreary's rippling score features violins, not synthesizers.)

Viewers who prefer the more dignified varieties of science fiction may be inclined to accept the film nonetheless. The tone is earnest, the performances capable and the scientific lingo plausible. The production design is solid, as are the effects, especially the simulation of weightlessness.

Yet all the verisimilitude doesn't make the payoff any more believable. While the voyage is painstakingly staged, Europa Report's final destination is just silly.

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