Is ‘Europa Report’ The Year’s Best Sci-Fi Film?

By on November 29, 2013
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When mainstream critics see a popular science fiction film with broad appeal, their first reaction is to make comparisons; 2001: A Space Odyssey, in their eyes, is the pantheon, and if that isn’t the case, it’s simply the ‘best sci-fi film in years’. Avatar, District-9, Moon, Looper, and Gravity have all earned this distinction, but in spite of what you may hear, Europa Report is at the top of the list for 2013.

There’s a certain charm that comes with factually based inner-space movies; Apollo 13, Moon, Sunshine, Gravity, and 2001 all take place in the solar system we call home, and since humanity has yet to fully explore the depths of its own planet, there’s an inherent verisimilitude in technically feasible space travel.

Europa Report

Moments like this in Europa Report increase the film’s feasibility without detracting from the plot.

Like 2001, Europa Report sends a group of astronauts to Jupiter, but instead of the mysterious mission parameters of its cinematic predecessor, the scientists of Europa Report are attempting to land on the Galilean moon Europa, a satellite with an ice surface predicted to have a vast ocean beneath that is theoretically capable of supporting life. Indeed, Neil Degrasse Tyson has expressed a childlike fascination in exploring the celestial body. Naturally, complications occur during the mission.

The striking element of Europa Report is that the characters behave like astronauts. Since so few people are involved in this line of work, this is a hard concept to grasp; in the midst of executing a mission worth billions of dollars, the amount of discipline required to suppress emotion with logic and training is suffocating, so even if they take a moment to marvel at the gorgeous views of the solar system, they always remember that they have a job to do, and that job is to land on Europa and test for signs of life, even if it means sacrificing their fellow crewmates. When launching the mission, the people in charge of the project acknowledge that it would be ‘safer’ to send an unmanned probe, but that opportunities like this succeed based on the triumph of the human spirit. And Europa Report reinforces this idea in nearly every scene.

Europa Report

In Europa Report, a sense of stellar wonder is always apparent.

Made on an extremely small budget, Europa Report squeezes every bit of funds into the stellar special effects. In the last decade, films taking place in and around space have become more and more elaborate in their depictions of the great beyond, and director Sebastián Cordero knows exactly which moments to milk to engage the audience’s sense of wonder. By comparison, experienced cinematographer Enrique Chediak captures the sterility of the spacecraft and the spectacle of the solar system with equal aplomb. Their budget denies them an A-list cast, but they do snag Sharlto Copley of District 9 and Elysium, who is both memorable and wonderful, Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films, and Christian Camargo of Dexter.

Europa Report 3

Is landing on Europa feasible? Shots like this sure make it feel like an approaching reality.

The script, by Philip Gelatt, is revelatory. It would have been easy to have the astronauts fighting in every other scene to generate tension, but instead the only real argument is a disagreement based on the fundamental sacrifices required by the mission, and no one harbors any grudges about the final decision. In a particularly inspired moment, an accident occurs with hydrazine. Without revealing details of the plot, hydrazine is used for propellant and in auxiliary power units on spacecraft, but in anything close to a normal earth environment, hydrazine is as toxic as Sarin, more flammable than gasoline, and almost as explosive as nitroglycerine. Under duress, a snap decision must be made, but viewed in the context of the mission, it’s both a grim and easy one.

My only qualm would be the editing; Europa Report plays as a found-footage documentary taking place after the conclusion of the mission, and thus some elements are placed out of sequence. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference, but I felt the film could have been more dramatic if it was more linear. Indeed, a major character’s death is tipped early on, and though the suspense leading to the cause is great, the shock value of seeing it unfold naturally would have been greater. On the other hand, though the film has its share of shocks and tension, it is not cheaply mounted in the slightest; the filmmakers never succumb to the temptation of flashy visual scares or striking sound cues. Instead, they let your imagination do the work for you.

Europa Report

Sharlto Copley’s moments in the sun help make Europa Report a completely satisfying film.

What a concept. Great science-fiction films should stimulate the imagination as well as the intellect, and once the crew lands on Europa, it becomes clearer and clearer that they value their own lives far less than they do the advancement of mankind’s knowledge. They revel in their opportunity to explore the most alien world our species has ever known, and they take risks because of it. They want answers, no matter what the cost and no matter how insignificant, and as a result, the final moments of Europa Report are guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve seen it.

Is Europa Report the best science fiction film ever? Not by a long shot. But if you compare it to the simple, insubstantial thrills of something like Gravity, it easily takes the crown as being the best science fiction film of the year. And if you love great sci-fi, you’ll do yourself a favor by picking this up or watching it on blu-ray.


Star Ratings

Four-and-a-half Stars

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Bryan Way
Bryan Way is the author of zombie novel Life After: The Arising, a graduate of Temple University, and an aspiring Ghostbuster and starship captain. You can find his writing over at Homepage of the Dead and on Amazon.