So long as handheld digital cheapies like The Devil Inside can make a quick buck on opening weekend, the found-footage craze will live on. But for the form to evolve from a profitable gimmick into a lasting genre, filmmakers will have to get a little more creative with the tools of the trendy trade. Judged on technical ingenuity alone, Europa Report feels like progress. A star-trekking thriller shot to look like the lost-and-found video log of a doomed spacecraft, the film chronicles a manned mission to Europa, which science-fiction nuts will remember as one of the distant pit stops in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and plain-old-science nuts will remember as the moon of Jupiter on which water may really exist. (Serendipitously, scientists announced the discovery on the day the movie began principal photography.) Real NASA experts consulted on everything from the design of the ship—a claustrophobic tin can, featuring a low-gravity cockpit—to the volatile terrain of the moon’s surface. That element of realism extends to the film’s conceptual approach, too: Besides a few talking-head interviews with the ground-level company bigwigs (among them Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler), the movie unfolds almost entirely from the perspective of eight stationary cameras positioned on the ship. Europa Report commits to its phony verisimilitude, seeming as convincing as a fake documentary about traversing the galaxy can be.
The spirit of Kubrick looms large here—not just in the basic plot architecture, but also in the eerie stillness of the compositions, the balletic motion of model machinery, and the majestic swell of Bear McCreary’s score. (Non-diegetic music is admissible as a dramatic choice of the fictional “presenters.” Also, because the tunes kill.) Yet for all its formal sophistication, enough to make the 2001 helmsman proud, Europa Report is no cerebral space odyssey. It is, instead, a fairly straightforward, even generic, astronauts-in-peril thriller. The crew, which includes Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days) and Michael Nyqvist (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol), is almost comically free of personality. To some degree, that’s in keeping with the film’s realism: These are not the colorful occupants of the Nostromo, but “real” professionals, observed in their element and under duress. Yet even the team’s scientific curiosity feels feigned—a thin pretense for getting these expendable explorers into the outer reaches of the unknown, where their numbers continue to dwindle.
As directed by Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastián Cordero (Chronicles, Rage), Europa Report manages a few striking and intense sequences—most notably, a fatal drift into the endless vacuum of nothingness, filmed from the perspective of the disappearing spaceman. Yet the closer the crew gets to a discovery, probing beneath the iced-over surface of Europa’s lakes, the more the film begins to resemble a Dan O’Bannon monster movie too synthetically high-minded to deliver the goods. Neither heady nor exhilarating, the picture is caught in a bizarre interstellar limbo between hard sci-fi and B-movie bliss. Still, there’s something adventurous about dicing a deep-space opus into home-video fragments. Call it one small step for found-footage, and leave it at that.