I don’t know whether Sebastián Cordero saw Prometheus before he made Europa Report, but his stripped-down sci-fi thriller made me think of a famous quote from Jean-Luc Godard: “The best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie.” Broadly speaking, both films have the same premise: a group of scientists travel to a planet on the hunch there might be some life there. Whereas Prometheus devolves with inane plot logic, Cordero and screenwriter Philip Gelatt stay true to their characters. Up until the bitter end, the scientists act like intellectually curious professionals, and while they care for each other, there are no heroics.
We know from the get-go that the six crewmembers of the Europa, who left Earth for Jupiter’s fourth-biggest moon, do not make it back. The CEO of the company sponsoring the voyage (Embeth Davidtz) explains how there was consistent communication between Earth and the vessel, and then one day it stopped working. The movie Europa Report is the account of what happened after we lost contact with the ship.
In other words, this is a found footage film: we see feeds from Europa’s many surveillance cameras, which are attached to walls and spacesuits. Sometimes the crew members film themselves. One of the engineers (Sharlto Copley) is eager to create video diaries for his young son (this is a handy way to handle early exposition). Cordero splices footage of the voyage with footage of Earthbound scientists who eagerly explain their purpose. Everyone is quick to note that things can go wrong, no matter how thoughtful the planning, and we watch as the scientists sacrifice their lives for the mission.
There is a feeling of plausibility through Europa Report, and that’s because the voyage is based on actual science. Europa’s surface may be frozen, but underneath it may be warm enough to sustain life (at one point, Cordero includes speculations from famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson). The ship looks futuristic yet familiar, and there’s the sense that Cordero’s production team did not have to invent too much of what’s on screen. The movie is at its best, however, when it applies its sense of verisimilitude to conflict and death. The lead-up to the first death is sudden, almost perfunctory, and yet its aftermath is chilling and relentless. Cordero understand that space can be fucking terrifying, and he doesn’t need aliens to quicken the pulse of his audience.
The differences between Europa Report and Prometheus are most apparent when the crew land on Jupiter’s moon. There is no immediate rush to explore the surface – if everything went to plan, none of them would even leave their vessel – and instead they merely want to collect data. They act like scientists, not characters in a movie. The other engineer (Michael Nyqvist) loses his cool, but that’s to be expected when they spend so much time confined to one pace. There are arguments about what to do when they run out of options, but the actors never resort to histrionics. They’re smart and collected; they are only seen as thoughtful colleagues. Gelatt keeps the character development to a minimum, so when they do reveal their basic humanity, it’s in the name of science. The final scene is not a struggle to save themselves, but their work.
Europa Report is easily the most thoughtful, gripping found footage ever made. Cordero and Gelatt use their limited resources as an asset, and their implacable logic puts the characters into situations that are truly horrific. But for all its cerebral suspense, the biggest surprise is how it finds a happy ending. There is nothing forced about the ending – it’s just a bit of voiceover – but it puts the voyage into a context that somehow celebrates our best qualities. In nearly every movie involving space travel, the story serves the science (or lack thereof). This is the rare case where it’s the other way around.