At best, Europa Report will attain cult-classic status. At worst it is doomed to be forgotten by most film fans. Such is the peculiar fate of a terrific little indie thriller about space travel that happened to come out within a few months of Gravity, a terrific behemoth that looks like it will become the most famous film set in space since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That's too bad because it really is worth your time no matter how much you like Gravity (and I loved it). In some small ways, it even manages to eclipse its contemporary.
Europa Report uses a found-footage format to recount an exploratory voyage to one of Jupiter's moons -- Europa -- after faint signs of life are detected beneath its icy surface. Interspersed with the footage are interviews with the CEO who funded the voyage (Dr. Unger, played by Embeth Davidtz) and another scientist (Dr. Sokolov, played by Dan Fogler) who was not part of the crew. Their somber tone gives the mission an ominous feel from the start, one that builds as their communications with mission control are cut off and then the most likable member of the crew, Engineer James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), is killed while trying to repair the vessel.
Though Corrigan's death takes an emotional toll on the remaining crew members, most notably fellow Engineer Andrei Blok (Michael Nyqvist), their eventual landing on Europa injects another element into the story -- intrigue -- as they begin to realize that their is some life-form with them on the moon.
This balance -- the constant threat of death and the prospect of wondrous discovery -- is the very essence of what makes space travel so able to capture our collective imaginations, and it is why Europa Report is a hidden gem. This expedition feels real, or as close to real as it can be when you factor in the unimpressive special effects and the whole possible alien thing. It is claustrophobic. It yo-yos as the fortunes of the crew change. Dangerous excitement runs throughout it like an electrical current.
Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero gets a lot of mileage out a talented but unheralded cast that features Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra and Isiah Whitlock Jr. in addition to Copley and Nyqvist. This is not a story that is as elegant and simple as the ordeal Sandra Bullock faces in Gravity, as the most basic human challenges with which she is grappling.
Europa Report does something less universal, but no less ambitious and entertaining. It strives to encapsulate space exploration, and it does a pretty darn good job.