Europa Report does manage to present a pretty good indie movie experience - one that pulls off some grand designs pretty effectively, using practical (read: budgeted) techniques.
Europa Report takes a look at the phenomenon of deep-space exploration, as a team of astronauts embarks on a multi-year mission to investigate a moon of Jupiter called Europa, which is suspected of being able to sustain life. Dr. Dan Luxembourg (Christian Camargo), Dr. Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra), engineers Andrei Blok (Michael Nyqvist) and James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), along with pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca) and team leader William Xu (Daniel Wu), are all initially motivated by a curiosity about questions that could change the course of mankind's development - that is, of course, until the mission starts to go horribly wrong.
Far away from home with dwindling prospects for a happy return, the crew must make some bold and dangerous decisions about what to do. Do they focus their efforts on trying to get back to Earth? Or do they press forward unafraid of the consequences, in order to ensure that humanity benefits from the discoveries and revelations waiting out there in the universe (no matter how terrible)?
One would think that the sub-genre of found-footage would've thoroughly burned itself out by now; however, Europa Report manages to make a late-in-the-game argument for how the format can be used smartly and effectively to create a unique and enjoyable (enough) cinematic experience. Director Sebastián Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt deserve a lot of credit for course-correcting (no pun) a lot of the mistakes made by other found-footage films: Instead of, say, Paranormal Activity's slow crescendo progression, Europa Report manages to keep the viewer's attention through alternating narrative threads, while simultaneously staying true to the rules of the found-footage format.
Since Gelatt's story is framed as sort of a "black box record" that has been discovered and analyzed, the core story of the crew members can effectively be spliced with documentary footage from earth, detailing how certain powers and minds involved with the Europa event - characters played by Dan Fogler (Hannibal), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire) and Embeth Davidtz (Mad Man) - are affected by the ultimate result and implications of the mission. It's a nice succinct way of breaking the story into neatly organized sections (scenes from the ship sectioned off and framed by testimony from the Earth crew), and even allows Gelatt to play with narrative structure to offer some nice twists and dramatic developments not otherwise possible.
While Cordero isn't working with much in the way of budget or sets, his style in creating the outer space experience is a nice throwback to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, using practical techniques (and some CGI) to convey the silent, still and dark void of space. The interior of the ship (where most of the "action" takes place) is cramped and tight and conveys a pretty realistic sense of what actual space travel is all about. For space enthusiasts, the film will be a refreshing departure from so much high-fantasy; by the same token, however, the stripped-down, "realistic" aesthetic of Cordero's film and its single-setting won't be enough to excite a large number of viewers. There's a reason that real-life astronaut missions aren't watched 24/7 by millions of viewers: it's an overly technical, jargon-filled and only marginally-appealing world. Therefore, to certain degree, so is a film that attempts accurately recreate the intimate and authentic astronaut experience.
The ensemble cast within the spaceship - Camargo, Marinca, Nyqvist, Wu, Wydra and Copley - certainly sell the hell out of their respective roles, no matter how large or small; together, they make all the faux space play believable and relatable. Copley (District 9) and Nyqvist (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) are particular standouts, playing dynamic characters - which is not surprising, given their level of fame and acclaim. With the exception of maybe Camargo (who is forgettable), the cast members each standout and feel like authentic, well-rounded characters... in a movie that is never going to explore much of the depth they've developed.
By its third act, Europa Report has transitioned from the science drama of Apollo 13 to the psychological thrills of Sunshinse downward into the full-on horror/sci-fi absurdity (and ultimate disappoint) of Apollo 18. It's not a very informative science drama, it's only a fairly good psychological thriller (for the middle stretch), and it's not very scary when it tries to go horror on you. And yet, despite all that, Europa Report does manage to present a pretty good indie movie experience - one that pulls off some grand designs pretty effectively, using practical (read: budgeted) techniques with fairly good results. It's an odd duck, to be sure, but for the price of a home rental, it's not a bad look.
Europa Report is now in limited theatrical release. The film is also currently available on Video On Demand (check your local TV provider), Digital Download and on iTunes. It is 90 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and peril.