About halfway through Europa Report, you may find yourself holding your breath. Partly that's because you'll be feeling the tension in this psychologically intense story of the first humans to visit Jupiter's moon Europa. And partly that's because this small indie manages to show you visions of space that are heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
Set in the near future, Europa Report imagines what would happen if one of those private space ventures you hear about so much these days actually succeeded. Instead of a one-way trip to Mars, though, this mission is supposed to be a round-trip to Jupiter's moon Europa, whose ice-covered oceans might harbor life. A team of scientists and engineers undertake the multi-year trip to see if there really are living creatures in one of the solar system's only ocean environments (other than the ones on Earth). But of course, nothing goes as planned and the ship loses contact with Earth during a solar storm.
Nobody on Earth knows what's happened to the mission, until the company that funded it releases hours of unseen footage that the crew made after contact was lost. The movie Europa Report is comprised almost entirely of that footage. So yes, it's a found footage movie, but structured more like a psychological thriller — we are shown bits and pieces of footage from after contact is lost, but then we see earlier footage from when the ship launched. It's almost as if we're sorting through video files ourselves, trying to make sense of what's happened.
Though this narrative structure is confusing at first, eventually we settle into a straightforward story of discovery and loss. Ultimately, it's about what happens to this group of people who know that no matter what they discover on Europa, they'll never be able to share their findings with anyone but each other. They hope that somebody will find the data they gather (and indeed this movie is proof they have), but they'll never know for sure. We watch as some characters crack under the strain, and others make tragic sacrifices. The cast is superb, with Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist and Anamaria Marinca delivering standout performances.
One of the amazing aspects of this film is how it's staged. Most of the action is shot in the ship, which is basically the size of the International Space Station — so there are storage-lined walls, minimal cots, and a room with a table where most of the action takes place. But outside the windows, we see the incredible, dazzling span of the Milky Way and the slowly-growing presence of Jupiter. Director Sebastián Cordero perfectly illuminates this contrast between the characters' claustrophobic world and the genuinely awe-inspiring cosmos beyond that keeps them going.
The representations of Jupiter and Europa in this film come directly from real satellite imagery gathered by NASA, and the journey to Europa itself is both realistic and gorgeous. There's a lesson here about how dramatic tension and brilliant concept design, even on an indie budget, can create a sense of wonder rivaling that of a VFX blockbuster. And the payoff at the end is electrifying.
There are a few problems with the film that may eat at you along the way. As I mentioned earlier, the "jumping around in time" storytelling style is occasionally confusing, and may drive viewers away at first. And you'll just have to suspend your disbelief when our characters say there is absolutely no way to signal to Earth that they're still alive.
The simple fact is that Europa Report, with its realism and operatic expanses, is a rarity among movies about the experience of going to space. It captures both the dirty, awful realities of living in a can for years and the sheer wonder of discovery that can motivate humans to do almost anything. It's a heady psychological mix, and when you finally behold the icy crags that crown the Europan seas, you'll be as fueled by adrenaline as the characters are.
Europa Report comes out in select theaters today, and is already available via video on demand.