It’s hard to know where to begin with Europa Report. Not because it’s bad; it’s really not. More that the measure of what it might have been is heavy enough to weigh the final product down. For all the talk of it being a return to real, “hard” science fiction, the film turns out to be just another adequate space thriller.
Set as a fictional documentary piecing together the flood of recordings from a manned mission to the Jovian moon of Europa, Europa Report is fast to establish a doomed finale as the timeline ping-pongs forward and back through the astronauts’ fate. Their twenty-plus months of travel time is shown from the collected footage of the ship’s many cameras, passive eyes coldly watching the unfolding events. The screw is tightened when a solar flare knocks out their communications, separating them from the rest of humanity (an event only really used to explain why their recorded footage is not being transmitted back to Earth). Their eventual arrival on Europa leads to a series of discoveries – and deaths – that makes the survivors determined to leave in order to bring their evidence of what Europa holds back home. It’s safe to say that almost every plan goes awry, with a suddenly finale intending to shock in its final revelation.
The astronauts are a mix of nationalities and genders with District 9 star Sharlto Copley the only recognisable face. He’s fine; his character shows some interesting cracks of pressure and stress in the twenty-plus months of travel time, but this is never really explored or used as a plot device. The rest of the cast fulfil their jobs as required – the grumpy engineer; the stoic Asian Commander; the strong female pilot. None is elevated above their intended purpose by a script that is as predictable as a line of dominos. The acting is functional without becoming memorable with no opportunities for any of the actors to stand out. This could be a nod to its intended realism, to have a peek into a hub of scientists and scholars, but it comes across instead as weak storytelling.
Maybe that’s the problem here. There’s nothing bad about Europa Report, it’s a solidly made journey that actually takes the effort to portray the ridiculous time requirements for any kind of travel across immediate space. The space ship is cramped and functional rather than the regular open-plan orbital apartment blocks of modern sci-fi movies. Europa itself is well realised and its secrets are revealed in a slow, steady manner, building to a pained crescendo designed for maximum final impact. Direction is adequate and shows none of the amateur leanings present in so many other low budget films.
However, the many irks derive from the multitude of golden opportunities for greater narrative bite that are never used to push the film in a more interesting direction. Sharlto Copley’s aforementioned stress caused by the prolonged separation from his family starts to cleave open some fantastic cracks in his psyche, opening the door for a cramped slow psychosis to emerge as in The Shining. However, this doesn’t show its head again. The ship itself, while initially appearing to be quite roomy, is soon referred to as the inversion of outside free space, but the tension of uncontrollable claustrophobia is not touched on. The film even begins with hints that a certain crew member may not be communicating at all with another, but this turns out to be just a brief side issue. In fact, Europa Report is interesting in that the suggested terror waiting for the crew actually becomes less shocking as the film progresses, inverting the usual build of screws slowly being tightened.
The least used antagonist, though, is that of Jupiter itself. This is a real missed trick. As the crew touches down on Europa, we see Jupiter looming heavily above us and it looks like a molten hell. Really, the planet’s design – complete with accusing, staring eye – could not be any better suited to triggering psychotic breaks in the minds of scientists who have already been cramped into a spinning box for twenty-two months. Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Event Horizon used the gas giant’s colour and stature to alter human behaviour, and it would have been an interesting theme for Europa Report to continue. However, the movie’s chosen horror lies under the ice, and when it’s finally revealed, you can’t help but wonder if it was a strong enough focal point for the story.
That said, Europa Report is exactly the kind of movie that we should be paying to see, if only to encourage more realistic takes in a genre that is usually dominated by green screens and shallow CGI renders. There is a ton of potential here, but it’s eventual disuse just leaves a film that is just fine when it could have been something far more exciting.