No human has left near-Earth orbit since 1972, we’re reminded in Europa Report, a smartly marketed space-horror quickie that purports to be the one-giant-leap for found-footage scares—and also maybe Serious Space-Travel Movies themselves, which have failed to soar past our atmosphere almost as long as NASA has.
To that end, when the astronauts of Europa Report are first rocketed free of Earth’s surly bonds, we briefly hear “The Blue Danube,” just like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But as the boosters drop and their capsule surges, the waltz—and the courtly magnificence it suggests—is just one more layer of noisome clutter, a staticky joke played (I guess) by someone down at mission control.
While they send up our pompous, movie-made wish for what space travel might be like, the creators of Europa Report never hide their indebtedness to Kubrick. With their attention to speculative detail, the way they present the lives of zero-g astronauts as workaday marvels, and, most urgently, the mystery mission they’ve crafted into the realm of Jupiter itself, they’re dancing around 2001 like man-apes around that great black slab.
But they also have the prickly convictions of their found-footage genre, plus almost a half-century’s worth of mounting cynicism about the likelihood of humanity ever coming together to do something so grand as voyage across the stars, so the movie also seems conceived as a buzzkilling corrective, one generation saying to its more idealistic forebears, “No, it would be like this. And let’s be smart enough not to date our science fiction by naming it for a near-future year that will fall within the movie’s home-video saleability.”
So we get Europa Report, in which the majesty of space travel is reduced to what the cameras on the spacecraft can pick up. Over the two-year journey to Jupiter, we watch the astronauts, in their cramped and flimsy capsules, doing astronaut things: working out, cutting each other’s hair, drinking their distilled urine from crinkly aluminum Capri Sun-like pouches. We see this on the catch-as-catch-can cameras set up inside their quarters—the aesthetic is less the music of the spheres than life inside the Big Brother house.
On occasion, a crewmember looks outside, or drops a hint about the mission, and there are lots of convincing cutaways to footage purportedly captured by the craft itself: a slowly pinwheeling capsule; the distant sun the size of a dime. The movie has the drab quality of actual NASA video, which might be more effective if the scenario itself felt more realistic. But as the craft nears its destination—Europa, that iced-over Jovian moon—no amount of ascetic realism could disguise the script’s hokiness. The mission turns out to be the stuff of a 1950s creature feature, padded out with the usual survival-scenario dramatics: Someone has to take a risky trip outside the ship for [insert plot reason here]! Someone else has to make a noble sacrifice! And isn’t that one Russian crewmember acting a little squirrelly?
The conceit here is that about halfway through the mission—to drill through Europa’s surface ice into the living sea below—the spacecraft loses all communication with Earth. The footage is presented as an ersatz documentary about what happened next, with a couple actors playing mission control’s talking heads, and a couple mysteries to keep us engaged: If the craft stopped transmitting, how do we now have this footage? Why is there one fewer astronaut than we were introduced to? Why does only one astronaut in a reality-TV-style “confessional” room narrate what has been happening? And, most pressingly, if this film about a dangerous mission into the unknown was truly assembled for us by the scientists who conceived of that mission, why does it hew to the dramatic beats of entry-level screenwriting, right down to that one squirrelly crewmember gazing out at Europa’s surface and exclaiming, “I saw something!” exactly one-third of the way through the running time?
Simply put, the care and thoughtfulness that goes into footage-faking has not been applied to the film’s script or structure. Director Sebastián Cordero is scrupulous about alerting us to which camera is alleged to have shot any individual moment, but he doesn’t seem to get that audiences, at this point, are smart enough also to wonder who edited it, who scored it, and why any scientists assembling this footage would delay the question of whether we’ve discovered alien life to the last 10 minutes. Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast tricked people because it sounded like actual radio journalism, not because its sound effects were wonderfully lifelike. That was a triumph of form—this is a failure of it.
There are some fine moments, though, that glance against grand mysteries. The Europan climax, while hard to believe, achieves a bit of this changes everything! power, but the movie bottoms out not long before that with a listless, unimaginative stroll across the frozen moon. An astronaut, hopelessly vulnerable, trudges out into the unknown—and all we get are indistinct first-person views of what looks like a rocky corridor. 2001 took us to space and gave us a hotel room beyond the infinite; Europa Report settles for a video game hallway.